“O that you would tear up the heavens and come down.”
So begins one of the passages from Isaiah that we hear among the Bible readings set between now and Christmas.
I hear in it a plea for God to not be silent, but to come and intervene for the sake of God’s people.
It’s a plea for God to be known in mighty display, and yet for me the idea of God “tearing up the heavens” to come down sounds terrifying.
But I can also feel and understand the depths of the plea, when the world itself is torn with strife.
Writing this column a month before it will be published, with strife tearing at Israel and Gaza – with so many civilians being displaced, people being held hostage, access to effective humanitarian supplies being blocked, and so much death and destruction – it’s a plea that I deeply feel.
Our pleading prayers are filled with anguish, as our hearts are torn by the grief of it.
A year ago, when I was writing for the December Crosslight, I was anticipating the birth of a new baby in my family – my daughter, Nora.
That her birth came around the time of Christmas was a wonderful reminder of the beauty and risk, intimacy and vulnerability that are all part of birthing.
I’m very conscious this year of births that are occurring in very dangerous places.
How safe was the location of Jesus’ birth? The account in Luke’s gospel sounds quite good, with angels and shepherds and faithful prophets awaiting Jesus’ presentation in the temple.
Matthew’s account is not so pleasant, with political intrigue, an escape by night to Egypt, and Herod’s subsequent slaughter around Bethlehem. Too much is familiar.
This Advent and Christmas, though, we are entering the ‘year of Mark’, and Mark’s gospel doesn’t give us anything about Jesus’ birth.
Instead, Mark’s account of “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” starts with John the Baptist preparing the way, and Jesus being baptised by him.
As Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism, Mark describes him seeing the heavens torn apart.
Rather than God coming with mighty display, the Spirit descends like a dove on him. We hear the affirmation from heaven: You are my child, my beloved; I delight in you.
It is a moment of intimacy and love, and a reminder of how God enters the world, and of the connection that we have with the Divine who is so near to us.
Mark’s gospel may not say anything about Jesus’ birth – the place and the time of Jesus’ birth are left hidden for Mark.
But the birth, its place and its moment in time, are no less sacred for that. The particularities of danger or safety, shepherds or politics, are set aside – but God is there.
It’s perhaps not so much that we need God to tear up the heavens to come down – God is here. We need to stop tearing up the earth, and understand the meaning of the call: be still, and know that I am God.
Rev David Fotheringham