Advent as Arrival
By Andy Byers
I just moved to Cambridge with my family. Somewhere in the new house is a cardboard tube that eludes discovery.
Within the tube is a spacious world map, its corners stained from the gobs of blue tack that held it to the walls of my study both in the United States and later in the North East of England.
Years ago, I taped to the map’s base a strip of paper once found in a fortune cookie from a local Chinese restaurant. The text reads, “You are a traveler at heart. There will be many journeys.”
Though I place no serious stock in such oracles, this one has proven true. Even during the pandemic I made multiple international flights due to a range of unplanned circumstances with family back in the U.S.
Travel is rarely easy. But under the pall of Covid’s global spread, travel has been unusually fussy and at times seemingly impossible. Every angle of planning is tedious, whether keeping up with ever-changing arrival policies on government websites, ordering multiple test kits, isolating both going and coming, navigating the increased anxiety over the coughing fellow passenger, or remembering to complete the passenger locator form and book the Day 2 test (wait, will rapid antigen suffice or must we go for the PCR?)—these are just some of the factors dogging every journey.
Arrivals these days are never straightforward. As an American, one of my favorite British words is “faff.” Arrivals today are marked by loads of faff.
The season of Advent celebrates another type of arrival, the arrival of God-in-the-flesh, the global entry of Jesus into our midst.
And there was a lot of faff.
My most recent journey was from London to San Antonio, Texas. My U.S. citizenship reduced the complications my British colleagues faced in attending the Society of Biblical Literature conference in late November. As hoped for, San Antonio’s airport was well organized for receiving passengers. I am pleased to report that, on the return flight, I found the same to be true at Heathrow. “Arrivals” signage was clear in both airports. But there was still the usual faff: waiting for the passport check, hoping the luggage had arrived (with U.S. sweets for the family), locating Caffé Nero (for a decent coffee), plus Boots (for an affordable meal deal), then the coach station (since Storm Arwen had disrupted the train routes)—but all of these points in the journey were manageable.
As major airports, “LHR” and “SAT” serve as points of departure and ports of entry. They are designed to accommodate arrival.
Not so much first-century Bethlehem.
The nativity stories in Matthew and Luke recount much the faff of history’s greatest arrival. John’s brushstrokes are wider: the world itself did not accommodate well the arrival of the Word. And there was more than faff: this arrival was not just inconvenient but deadly. The regional monarch even dispatched soldiers with hopes of erasing that arrival from the travel log.
Advent is an arrival, the entry of a migrant God—unwanted and uninvited—into our precious space. For many, this arrival is a trespass, an illegal crossing, and perhaps even an invasion. Jesus did not gently appear on the scene or casually cruise through the border check. Advent is an intrusion.
We were not very accommodating.
Christmas is full of joy, but also a lot of faff. Family visits can be messy. Holidays can remind us of painful loss of what we once had… or have yet to gain. But into the mess God arrives. His passport does not quite check out and his immigration status is questionable. But there he is—covered in straw by a manger, whisked off to Egypt in teenage arms, mixing mortar with his dad in Nazareth, wondering lost in Jerusalem, and sitting at the table by your awkward relative and there in the corner in the lonesome dark.
God has arrived. He is in the midst. And his itinerary is not over…
Andy Byers joined the Ridley team as Tutor in New Testament at the start of Michaelmas Term 2021. His latest book, John and the Others: Jewish Relations, Christian Origins, and the Sectarian Hermeneutic, was published by Baylor University Press in September 2021.