Reflection for Advent II
By Revd Geoffrey Clarke,
Moderator of the East Midlands Synod
of the United Reformed Church
Seeing through the eyes of the creator
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
John 1: 3a
(Thank you for the invitation to offer a reflection for Living Stones. I am delighted to do so alongside other Presidents; and I’m delighted, too, that the source of your series is a resource produced by the United Reformed Church. My designated theme, however, is that of the ultimate Source – the One through whom ‘all things came into being’.)
Advent is a season in which we are invited to discern and recognise the signs of God’s presence among us as we join our voices with those who in every age, in every Advent, have asked: where is God? Where and when can we expect to encounter the Promised One?
In today’s verse from St. John’s Prologue we are invited to consider, as an answer, the affirmation that God is Creator: all things came into being through him. I offer three points by way of reflection.
1 The creative potential for words …
The authors of Genesis offer the classic narrative of the six days of creation. As such, the opening scene of God’s relationship with the cosmos and its people, is one in which ‘formless void’ and the ‘darkness [that] covered the face of the deep’ is transformed by God as Creator to become Paradise. Each successive day’s creative act is effected by God’s utterance: And God said, ‘Let…’: ‘Let there be …’; ‘Let the waters … be gathered …’; ‘Let the waters bring forth …’; ‘Let the earth bring forth …’; ‘Let us make humankind in our image …’ (Genesis 1: 3, 6, 14, 20, 24, 26). God speaks creation into being. The creative power of God as Word.
Words have creative potential but, all too often, destructive power too. I can still recall a conversation when I was at Primary School, aged, probably about nine years old. The theme was Ancient Egypt and together we made a model that filled a large table at the front of class. At playtime one day someone said to me, ‘What did you make?’ I pointed to one of the sphynxes to show him what I’d made. ‘That’s rubbish!’ he replied. Nothing within me felt able to challenge his assessment of my creation, so I responded by smashing it to pieces, leaving the broken sphynx in its place on the table. Partway through the next lesson the teacher spotted the damaged sphynx and asked the class, ‘Can anyone tell me how this got broken?’ I put up my hand and said, ‘I broke it, sir!’ He retorted by asking the obvious question of why I had broken it. ‘Because Sam said it was rubbish, sir!’ Both of us were then reprimanded – one for the destruction of the model and the other for destructive words that prompted it.
Although I have never, to my knowledge, intentionally broken anything I’ve made, I have remained convinced of the destructive power of words. I would challenge the adage, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ Words can and do hurt. Words can intimidate and destroy. But they can also, of course, build up, affirm and encourage. And that is a worthy challenge for us: to what extent are those we encounter enabled to see and know God through our words? Do we use our words, as best as we can, to create – or destroy?
2 The presence of God evoked by creation’s beauty …
In his recently published book, Keeping Alive the Rumor of God, Martin Camroux cites Sir Alister Hardy, formerly Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Oxford, as someone exploring the nature and frequency of religious experience. As a schoolboy, Hardy had such an experience:
There is no doubt that as a boy I was becoming what might be described as a nature mystic. Somehow, I felt the presence of something which was beyond and yet in a way part of all the things that thrilled me … Just occasionally, when I was sure that no one could see me, I became overcome with the glory of the natural scene, that for a moment or two I fell on my knees in prayer – not prayer asking for anything, but thanking God, who felt very real to me, for the glories of his Kingdom and for allowing me to feel them.
David Hay, God’s Biologist, cited by Camroux, op. cit., p. 51
The eighteenth-century hymn-writer, Joseph Addison, contemplating the mercies of God, speaks in a similar vein:
transported with the view, I’m lost
in wonder, love and praise.
Rejoice and Sing, 109: 1
Most memorably, the Psalmist acclaims, in Psalm 8: 3–4:
When I look at your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars
that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them.
Little wonder that research, undertaken by the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford, in exploring the question, ‘Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, that is different from your everyday self?’ revealed that the third most common cause, for those saying they had such experience, was ‘natural beauty’. Some 122.7 cases per thousand experiences were attributed to natural beauty (with ‘depression or despair’ ranking highest and ‘prayer, meditation’ second above it). It is significant – but perhaps not surprising – that ‘natural beauty’ ranked higher than ‘religious worship’. After all, folk religion insists: ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’
US Franciscan and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation, Father Richard Rohr, has caused a bit of a stir by suggesting, ‘The first act of divine revelation is creation itself. The first Bible is the Bible of nature. It was written at least 13.8 billion years ago, at the moment that we call the Big Bang, long before the Bible of words.’ He quotes from Romans 1: 20, Ever since God created the world, God’s everlasting power and divinity – however invisible – are there for the mind to see in the things that God has made …. Rohr may be claiming more than some may want to, but he makes a valid point in reminding us that God’s presence is evoked by the beauty of creation. It begs the question, of course, as to how we can continue to sense God’s presence in those parts of creation we might describe as eyesores, ugly or broken? And such questioning ought to spur us on, wherever it is possible for us to do so, to work and witness to the beauty and light of God in the midst of ugliness and darkness. Precisely, dare I suggest, the Advent seasonal setting.
3 Creation is ‘a work in progress’ …
In his commentary on John, Barnabas Lindars notes that the activity of the creative Word has not stopped: there was an initial act of creation, but creativity continues. Through God all things came to be; and through God all things continue to be created. (Lindars: The New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of John) Creation is ‘a work in progress’. Genesis affirms, among other things, that humankind is tasked with the stewardship of creation – a task that never ends. A task that currently demands that we take seriously how fragile and wounded our planet home is.
God’s creative work in us is also ‘a work in progress’ – that we might become increasingly the people God would have us be. As St Paul prays for the readers of his epistle at Colossae:
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
Colossians 3: 15–17
One of the Collects from The Book of Common Prayer puts it this way:
Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us in your Son Jesus Christ:
grant that, as he came to share our divine nature,
so we may be partakers of his divine glory …
May we use Advent to reflect anew on the creative potential of our words; discern the glory of God in the beauty of creation; and open our hearts and lives to God’s ongoing creativity in and through us.
I conclude with a prayer by Thom M Shuman and three verses of an Advent carol:
Come, God-with-us: who braves our rejection and hurt, who holds us in acceptance and love.
Come, God-for-us: who whispers in our ears that we – each of us – are beloved children.
Come, God-under-us: who cradles us in arms that never grow weary;
whose lap has room enough for all.
Come, God-over-us: who watches in the long silence of the night, that we might rest in peace.
Come, God-beside-us: who steadies us when we falter, who lifts us up when we fall.
Come, God-behind-us: who picks up all the faded dreams we drop along the way
and patches them into hope.
O come, O come, Immanuel: and we will rejoice for ever!
© Thom M Shuman
Of the Father’s love begotten
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see:
evermore and evermore.
By his word was all created;
he commanded and ’twas done;
earth and sky and boundless ocean,
universe of Three in One,
all that sees the moon’s soft radiance,
all that breathes beneath the sun:
evermore and evermore.
Let the heights of heaven adore him;
angel-hosts, his praises sing;
powers, dominions, bow before him,
and extol our God and King;
let no tongue on earth be silent,
every voice in concert sing:
evermore and evermore.
Prudentius (348 – c. 413)
tr. J.M. Neale (1818–1866) and H.W. Baker (1821–1877)
Rejoice and Sing: 181: 1, 2 & 5