“Open the door, Daddy” – First Sunday of Advent 2011

Sometimes I go into my study and close the door. Perhaps I have letters to write, or papers to read, and don’t want to be disturbed. And sure enough, a little tap will come on the door. “Daddy, are you there?” And if I don’t answer, the calling may get louder and more persistent, or may become crying (a very effective way of melting the paternal heart). Perhaps he will go away, and you will hear him ask his mother, “Is Daddy cross?” Or perhaps he will get up to mischief, or get himself into trouble, in order to get Daddy’s attention. Open the door, Daddy!

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence! (Isaiah 64:1)

What a rich and pwerful passage we have today as our first reading. The prophet explores the mystery of the absent God. Why did God create a world for atheists? Like the child, we find ourselves banging away at the impenetrable barrier of the heavens. We believe God is behind them, we know he’s there; but we cannot open the door or break down the barrier. All we can do is cry “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” – “Open the door, Daddy.” God appears to be absent: for the innocent suffer, the righteous do not prosper, the enemies of God triumph, and the human race goes from bad to worse. The prophet does not look for deep mystical experiences or astounding miracles but for acts of saving justice. Come to our rescue; save us! In particular, save us from your absence, save us from being cut off from you.

You were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.

This is perhaps the opposite to what we might expect. Not, “We sinned, and you were angry”, but, “you were angry, so we sinned”. That is, God has absented himself, hidden from us – “Is Daddy cross?” – and without him we fall to pieces, doing all the wrong things, lost without our Father.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

To be ritually unclean is to be cut off from community and from God. We feel ourselves separated from God, and all our good deeds do nothing to bring him close, to open the door – quite the opposite. Our good deeds, which seem to be disregarded, which seem to make no difference, actually increase the sense that God is absent, that he doesn’t care. And that thought freezes the blood in our veins, like the sap in the dry brown leaves of late November.

We all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

So absent does God seem, that

There is no-one who calls on our name, or attempts to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

There used to be an ad on the television for Barnardos or some such charity that had a line, “Little Johnny doesn’t cry at night, because he has learned that no-one will come”. This is the image of a world in which God is absent; it is the background against which we set our Advent prayers for God to “tear open the heavens” and come without delay to save us; and our Christmas Gospel of how God answered those prayers in the Incarnation of his Son and the outpouring of his Spirit.

We may speculate about why it is that God absents himself, why he hides from us. Perhaps we could not bear his full presence. Perhaps he leaves us alone, so that we may grow up as free creatures. Perhaps he absents himself, so that he may truly be God and not a little god of our own making. Perhaps he hides, so that we may look for him and find him. But he does not hide for ever. In Jesus he has torn open the heavens and come down, and exposed to us his very Heart.

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