This December, we are publishing series of essays that reflect on the Advent season and grapple with its apocalyptic lectionary scriptures. Check back each week this month for more in this series.
We tend to think that grown-ups have the corner on self-expression. After all, we have words. We can be as precise in our meanings as our vocabularies will allow. We can go on for paragraphs about how we feel on a particular subject. When we’re angry, we can say, “I’m angry.” When we’re hungry, we can say, “When’s lunch?”
Yet, the capacity for a young child to wail and communicate without words is an awesome thing. There is some interpretive guesswork involved, but I’ve never mistaken a hunger cry for a separation anxiety cry. The screaming panic of a baby who is experiencing the normal developmental distress after being handed off to a stranger is enough to send the mountains quaking. Point made.
As we grow up, we’re taught to speak politely. No interrupting, no public weeping, and certainly no breaking the solemn quiet of worship. If anybody but a baby made a ruckus during worship, we’d have pretty significant concern for that person.
Kirsten Linklater, a voice and acting teacher, explains the socialization process like this. One day your two year old runs into the room and hollers, in his biggest outdoor voice, “I want a cookie!” You tell him he can have a cookie when he asks for it nicely. So he runs in again, and says in a slightly unnatural sounding voice, “May I have a cookie please?” He receives praise and a cookie, having learned to say the right words and use the right tone.
Most parents consider such development a good thing. We gain a lot in the process — the capacity to have conversations and express ourselves with greater clarity. But there’s a trade-off, for sure. We clip the full range of our voices to whatever is considered socially acceptable. Our freedom to haul off and wail is history.
But what about when we need what we’ve lost? What about when we need to express joy, sorrow, or longing that is beyond our socially acceptable range of expression? I wonder if it’s even possible for adults to reclaim the outer reaches of the voice we were born with, to weep and rejoice as completely as children do.
Advent often begins with a wail. Isaiah, for instance, weeps. Even though he uses words to give voice to his longing, the sentiment he shares is certainly past what is socially acceptable for the holiday season. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” he howls. “As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!”
A few years ago it dawned on me that Isaiah and his people were wracked with separation anxiety. Like an infant panicking when her parent leaves the room, the Israelites keened in the absence of God. They knew the stories of God’s providential care, unrelenting mercy, and awesome deeds. But they knew the stories only by hearsay. They had not seen this God for themselves. They recognized that they had sinned against God. They had broken their covenant. And in turn, God had hidden God’s face from them.
Or maybe it was the other way around. Isaiah can’t seem to think straight here. Was it God’s absence that drove the people to sin, or their sin that chased God away? All he knows is sheer despair. All Isaiah wants is for God to come and save his people, to wrap them in a merciful embrace, to replace their filthy rags with robes of righteousness, to make it okay again.
It isn’t a polite speech. Our Advent prophet is fed up and freaked out. Eugene Peterson translates the climax of Isaiah’s diatribe like this: “In the face of all this, are you going to sit there unmoved, God? Aren’t you going to say something? Haven’t you made us miserable long enough?” It’s just not the kind of thing you can say in your indoor voice.
Advent is not for the faint-hearted. It means confessing with brutal honesty just how badly we need God. It means uncovering our shame and doubt and failures. It even means, sometimes, railing against a God who refuses to operate according to our fickle whims and wills. Our throats may go hoarse if we pray in the fever pitch of Isaiah’s prayers, yet I wonder if there is any other way to do it.
In Advent we need the fullness of our voices now to express the depth of our longing and lamentation. There will be a time, soon and very soon, when our cries will be silenced by the sound of a trumpet blaring. And then? Then we will shout praises and alleluias with a fervor of a toddler reunited with mom and dad after daycare. We will give voice to a purer joy than we’ve ever known. We will tell it on the mountaintops, and we will whisper it in babies’ ears, and we will sing, and sing, and sing.