The Word became flesh, and pitched his tent among us… (John 1:14)
An early version of the schedule for the Advent Chapel had “(tent)” in a number of time slots. Before realizing that it marked the plans that were, at that point, still “tentative,” my imagination ran wild. I imagined a tent, pitched in the middle of the mall, a temporary structure, yet one that boldly claimed a space in the mall that doesn’t seem to belong to us, or to the church, or (when my imagining is discouraged), perhaps even to God. This fall, tents have been all over the news, as Occupy Wall Street has become Occupy Montreal and Toronto and London and all sorts of other cities. As Advent and winter draw close, those tents seem flimsy against the elements, yet make a bold claim: this is our space, the people’s space, in the middle of the city.
The incarnation, as John describes it, is like God pitching a tent. At Christmas, we celebrate God the Word taking flesh—flesh that is study enough to claim physical space, to literally “stand up” in the world. This becoming-flesh is at once God’s bold, once-for-all taking a stand in the world but, at the same time, a tentative entry, with God taking on all the particularity and frailty of flesh. The incarnate God, like us, must take tentative steps, born a fragile infant in a shelter that probably offered no more protection than canvas walls.
Advent is a time of camping out, watching and waiting—waiting for the yearly remembrance of the incarnation, which we know will surely come, again this year, on December 25. But also watching and waiting, with God, for Christ’s final coming, for that day on which the whole world will be redeemed and acknowledge that it is truly God’s own space. In this Advent time, the time between the first and the final coming of the Word, we see tentative signs of God’s dominion, ways that God’s reign is breaking out here and there. We may pray and act boldly, but always know that we are in-between, that we are waiting, and trying in our own shaky ways to participate in God’s reign.
For me, the Advent chapel is similarly tentative, temporary. We’re in the mall for only a month, outsiders to the retail world, trying to carve out a tiny space for hospitality and Advent prayer amid hundreds of thousands of square feet devoted to holiday shopping. We’re craning our necks to see where God’s reign might be breaking in, even now, even in the mall, even among us. And we’re feeling our way, trying to figure out what it might mean to take space as the Body of Christ in this city, in the mall, at this time. We have more questions than answers about the Advent Chapel so far—will anyone come? Will we be ready in time? What will shoppers expect from us? What might go right—and what could go wrong? But I also have more questions than answers about the final Advent of Christ, the one we are always waiting for. And in the meantime, maybe we’re called to find God in ways that are both bold and tentative, modeled on God the Word pitching a divine tent among us.