John appears near Jerusalem with bugs in his teeth from his locust meals, with the wild in his eyes, as he howls at the world. His voice cries out from the wilderness; he proclaims a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4).
To repent, metanoia in Greek, is to change your fundamentals, to experience an earthquake in your thinking. The ground shifts, the map of your mind has been redrawn and you’re left grasping for new landmarks, new coordinates.
What was familiar has become baffling, a world now made strange, mystifying. And not just the world. You become a mystery to yourself, an identity remade into something so new you can’t quite understand who you’re becoming.
In the wilderness John glimpses that heaven has come near in the incarnation, and he is pulled into another reality — a life in this world but not of this world.
He dresses like a camel, his beard matted with honey and locusts (Mark 1:6), because the foundations of the world he thought he knew have been shaken. All he can do is call others to this same repentance, to loosen their grip on the life they had in order to welcome heaven.
Advent is the story of God becoming human. There are mysteries here, a strangeness to it all, an uncanniness to what is being described. The world gets wobbly in these stories; the ground trembles.
And not just the world out there but also the world inside of us, inside our heads, in our hearts — which is what repentance means. It’s the way we have to rearrange our commitments, our solidarities, in order to deal with the surprise of the news of this newness.
Repentance is the shift that happens in us because of the shock of the gospel — the foundations of our world quaking, rocking in Mary’s womb.
There’s an ecstasy in the heart of God: ecstasy, a word that means to be outside of oneself, to stand outside ourselves. This ecstasy is who God is: God living beyond heaven.
That’s what we see in the incarnation of Jesus — the ecstatic love of God in the flesh, a love that refuses to be separated from us, divine love as a vulnerable life.
This is how the gospel bewilders us during Advent: God became a crying and hungry child. We’re left baffled, our transcendent images of God shattered, our thoughts in disarray as we try to comprehend what we mean when we use the word “God.”
If we think we know what we mean when we name God as God, we haven’t yet let the birth of Jesus mess with our concepts, with our categories. Because in that trough, that makeshift cradle in Bethlehem, our words lose their meaning. Our minds stumble over our thoughts.
I think of a line from a hymn about the death of Jesus: “What language shall I borrow?” That’s also what this moment of incarnation does to us. We’re left scrambling to borrow language from wherever we can, trying to speak the unspeakable, to imagine the unimaginable.
The word “God” is one of those words we borrow from the lexicon of religions, even though we’re not sure if we know what it means anymore, given this mystery in the flesh, that heaven has come near.
When we join the donkeys and cows gathered around Christ’s manger, when we peek over the shoulders of the shepherds to gaze at Jesus, we confess that we no longer know what we mean when we say the word “God.” What language can we borrow when we don’t know what we’re saying — when the old words are all we have, so we use them, even though we know they don’t quite work like they did before.
God — who we think of as distant, ungraspable, beyond us — this God is now held in human hands. In Mary’s arms, the strangeness of God becomes even stranger because it’s so familiar: God as an infant, like all the other newborns.
This child is our undoing — the undoing of our world, the undoing of our lives. We lose our grip. We lose our grasp of this world and this God we thought we knew. The incarnation beckons us into the wilderness, where we lose control of our God, where strangers offer revelations, a neighbor as God’s image renewed.
Isaac S. Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina.