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The Wonder Report: December 17, 2021
Who is like God?
It’s one week til Christmas, a sentence that will likely evoke thrill, panic, or relief in various readers. With Christmas comes the end of Advent, of course, as our season of preparation draws to a close on Christmas Eve. But Christmas itself is not the one and done holiday I’ve celebrated most of my life. Rather, the Feast of Nativity, or Christmas Day, is the first day of Christmastide, what’s also known as the 12 days of Christmas, a feasting season on the liturgical calendar that gives us time to truly celebrate the Good News of the Incarnation. Christmastide ends on January 5, and on January 6 we’ll celebrate Epiphany, another high feast day that highlights the arrival of the Magi and reminds us that Jesus came to save the whole world.
Approaching the final day of one year and the beginning day of another is different from the perspective of the liturgical calendar. This isn’t just a special time of year for parties and gifts; it’s an annual reminder that the God of the Universe is also a God who came near.
Which is why this week’s Question for Advent might be my favorite of all: Who is like God? That’s what we’ll explore in week three of our Advent series where we’re asking (and responding to) questions from the Psalms.
Let’s jump right in … and then be sure to stick around til the end of this week’s Wonder Report for a little housekeeping about the next few weeks.
1. Who is like God?
Who is like God?
It seems like such a simple question with an equally simple answer. Who is like God? No one. In fact, it’s the unstated answer the Psalmist expects when he asks in Psalm 113:
Who is like the Lord our God, who is enthroned on high, who looks far down to the heavens and the earth?
But while it seems like a simple question with a simple answer, it’s also a complex question with a million different answers. Why? Because if we want to know who is like God then we need to know what God is like. And even God himself has a lot to say about that.
Because he’s not just the God “enthroned on high,” as the Psalmist writes. He’s also the God who “raises the poor from the dust,” the God who “lifts the needy from the garbage heap, to seat them with noblemen, with the noblemen of His people. He has the infertile woman live in the house as a joyful mother of children” (Ps. 113:7-9).
When I read that last sentence, I think of John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth, who’s own miraculous pregnancy becomes wrapped into Luke’s version of the Christmas story. “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when he looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men,” Elizabeth said (Luke 1:25).
But when I read Psalm 113, I also think of Mary, who sang these words of praise to God after learning of her own, very different kind of miraculous pregnancy:
“My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond-servant;
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is to generation after generation
Toward those who fear Him.
He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has given help to His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
Just as He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
It’s one thing to ask, Who is like God?, when we are thinking of him as Creator of the Universe, filled with power and might. It’s another question entirely when we ask, Who is like God, who is merciful and kind, who scatters the proud and feeds the hungry? It’s another still when we think of him as Father or Judge or Shepherd or Savior. And oh, who is like our God who is all these things at once?
An Advent tradition I first learned about last year, in the Anglican church where we now worship, is the eight O Antiphons of Advent. O Antiphons are short prayers that are a regular part of liturgical worship, but the eight Advent O Antiphons particularly draw from Old Testament prophecy and focus on what Jesus is like. They “close out” Advent beginning on December 16 and ending the day before Christmas Eve.
In some Christian traditions, there are only seven Advent O Antiphons; they begin on December 17 and the final one, which is definitely different than the others, is omitted. Also, the O Antiphons are prayed “antiphonally,” as the name would suggest, either divided as a call and response or prayed before and after the Magnificat. Perhaps most interestingly, none of these Advent O Antiphon prayers uses the actual name of Jesus, relying instead on “the mysterious titles and emblems given him from the pages of the Old Testament [that] touch on our deepest needs and intuitions,” writes Malcolm Guite for The Rabbit Room.
There is, I think, both wisdom and humility in this strange abstention from the name of Christ in a Christian prayer. Of course, these prayers were composed AD, perhaps around the seventh century, but in another sense, Advent itself is always BC! The whole purpose of Advent is to be for a moment fully and consciously Before Christ. In that place of darkness and waiting, we look for his coming and do not presume too much that we already know or have it. Whoever compiled these prayers was able, imaginatively, to write ‘BC,’ perhaps saying to themselves: ‘If I hadn’t heard of Christ, and didn’t know the name of Jesus, I would still long for a saviour. I would still need someone to come. Who would I need? I would need a gift of Wisdom, I would need a Light, a King, a Root, a Key, a Flame.’ And poring over the pages of the Old Testament, they would find all these things promised in the coming of Christ.
It also seems so appropriate that the lyrics of the classic Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” were also drawn from the Advent O Antiphons. So even if you haven’t known these simple prayers as liturgy, you’ve likely sung them in worship.
As we enter these final days of Advent and ask this question, “Who is like God?” perhaps praying through these O Antiphons of Advent will help us arrive more fully at an answer: Truly, there is no one like God.
December 16: O Sapientia, (Wisdom) that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, that reachest from one end of the heavens to another, and dost mightily and sweetly order all things: come to teach us the way of prudence!
December 17: O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai: come to redeem us with outstretched arm!
December 18: O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom the kings shall shut their mouths, unto whom the Gentiles shall seek: come to deliver us, make no tarrying!
December 19: O Clavis David (Key of David) and Sceptre of the house of Israel; that openest and no man shutteth; and shuttest and no man openeth: come to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death!
December 20: O Oriens (Day-spring), Brightness of the everlasting Light, Sun of Righteousness: come to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death!
December 21: O Rex Gentium (King of the Gentiles), yea, and Desire thereof, O Cornerstone that makest of twain one: come to save man, whom Thou hast made of the dust of the earth!
December 22: O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and Salvation thereof: come to save us, O Lord our God!
December 23: O Virgo Virginum (Virgin of Virgins), how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? That which ye behold is a divine mystery.
I wonder … Who is like God? Is it helpful to start with a different question: What is God like? As you read through the O Antiphons of Advent, what title or description of Messiah most resonates with you this year?
2. O Come, O Come Emmanual by Lauren Daigle
3. Struggling at Christmas
As we round the corner toward Christmas, I’m thinking of the many people for whom this time of year is not all cookies and cocoa. For some, it’s the first holiday season without a beloved family member. That’s what it’s like in our family. For others, singleness or childlessness becomes a painful reality in light of the holiday emphasis on family, especially if they are newly single again or have lost a child through death or estrangement.
Below, I’ve collected a few articles that offer hope and help to those who are struggling in various ways this holiday season:
4 Ways Churches Can Help Grieving Children by Clarissa Moll
When I Didn’t Want Christmas to Come by Mel Lawrenz
Celebrating the Holidays with Grief by Clarissa Moll
A Childless Couple at Christmas by Lore Wilbert
Childless at Christmas by Karen Swallow Prior
And if there’s anything I can pray about on your behalf this holiday season, please be sure to let me know.
It’s been a beautiful Advent season, and thankfully it’s not over yet. There’s still time to prepare for Christmas. While I have cookies yet to bake and gifts to wrap and Christmas cards to get in the mail, there’s also the sense that I need some time to be still and rest with Jesus, too. Not just during Christmastide, when the pace will slow considerably, but even before, even now, as the days continue to grow shorter and darker until the Winter Solstice in the middle of next week.
So this will be the last Wonder Report for the year. If all goes as planned, I’ll pop back into your inbox on January 7 where we’ll begin a month long exploration of time.
Speaking of time: Thanks again for sharing this time with me, for being my people. I never think of writing in the abstract anymore; I’m always writing to you. It makes such a difference.
And as always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
Until next time,