A Song of Ascents

Part Three

I love a good legend. There is something about the way we tell stories to tell ourselves about ourselves that is fascinating to me and almost always has been. Whether it is ghosts and monsters, gods and goddesses, great warriors, great civilizations, or just a simple folktale, I love looking at the world through the lens of myths and legends. 

A more recent legend that I have read is about an ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery. The story is about the fifteenth century shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Yoshimasa was not regarded as a great shogun, in fact, during his shogunate there was a civil war, The Onin War, over economic distress and the question of who would succeed Yoshimasa as shogun. He was, however, a great patron of the arts and built the great Silver Pavilion, a beautiful retirement villa in the eastern mountains of Kyoto, which would eventually become a Zen Buddhist Temple. Yoshimasa was also a practitioner of the Tea Ceremony[1] and this is where our legend begins. It seems that at some point Yoshimasa broke his favorite teacup. Distraught over the apparent loss, he sent it to be repaired by Chinese craftsmen with the hope that he would once again be able to enjoy this very personal treasure. He was dismayed to find that the repairs were done with ugly metal staple like ligatures, leaving the cup in worse shape than when he sent it out. The Chinese had so damaged the cup in the process of repairing it and it seemed the cup would be irreparable.  Not one to give up, the shogun gathered his own craftsmen and ask them to repair it.[2]  

The Japanese craftsmen decided that a normal repair would be impossible, so they decided to transform the cup into a work of art. They mixed a special kind of resin and powdered gold and layered it over the cracks to hold the cup together while at the same time giving it a jeweled effect. The result was a process that would become known as Kintsugi, the golden repair. This art has come down through the centuries and across continents to allow people to create masterworks of pottery out of what might have been thought of as simply trash.  It has spilled over into other arts and even philosophy as the idea of repairing broken things to be better than they were before they were broken.


Psalmists spent a great deal of time writing about praises but also about laments. Many of the psalms are cries for God to fix something or someone, smite something or someone, or otherwise make the bad things go away so good things can show up. In this way, the psalmists are much like we are, they spend a lot of time talking to God about the extremes of life, but it seems they lose track of the day to day in the process. One of the long-held criticisms of Christianity from both within and without, is the tendency we have to want to engage God only when the things go really bad or when things go from bad to good. Sure, we do our daily readings or say our daily prayers, putting God in the box to be checked which is where most people like their God, safe, controlled, with no surprises, no challenges to the status quo. But then something happens, and we want things fixed, smote, or otherwise taken care of on a cosmic level. We want God to be something controllable and in our image. St. Augustine was once quoted as saying, “If you understood him, it would not be God.”[3]

While this is apparent in the passage we read this morning–Stir up your might, and come to save us!  and How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves–there is also something else, something I think beneficial on a more continual basis. I think this other thing is an underlying message that might help us get past this sense of God being out of the box when needed and in the box when it’s inconvenient. 

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved, is a phrase repeated three times, in verses three, seven, and nineteen. It is a prayer of help us get out of the present calamity, but I think there is something else there, something under the surface. There is a sense of recognition, a realization that our relationship with God should not be lived at the extremes of extreme need and extreme dismissiveness. I think what’s underneath this is the idea of presence. The phrase is a way of saying let us be in your presence as much as that is possible that we may find wholeness. 

The presence of God is portrayed in different ways in our biblical writings. In the Old Testament, God was often veiled from view, the holiness of God so overwhelming that those who encountered it died. Think about Moses and his many encounters with God, taking his shoes off before the burning bush or hiding his face on the mountaintop. Think about Elijah hiding in the cave and turning his face at God’s presence. Think of Isaiah having a vision of God and being unable to look directly at God even in the vision. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit becomes the means for God being with us, something we see in Jesus’ baptism, his transfiguration, his life, and ministry. We see it later in the church at large, the ministries of Peter, Paul, Philip, and others. 

What does all this have to do with the Advent/Christmas seasons?

The very name of Jesus (Yehoshua in Hebrew) implies the idea of restoration and salvation. When we look at this with the idea of incarnation (the presence of God through the Holy Spirit in Jesus) I think it speaks to these ideas of presence and wholeness—Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. Jesus’ incarnation was for the purpose of restoring our relationship with God so that we could live in the presence of God. Unlike the temple theology and practice where God was bound to the holy of holies, the Holy Spirit has become the means of us being able to be in the presence of God at any time.

But we choose. I do not believe God is not a God of force. God invites, God offers, but God will not force us to engage. If we were forced, it wouldn’t be a relationship and we would be nothing more than automatons. Advent is the example of presence as God’s spirit comes to us through the life of Jesus, a life who’s beginning we celebrate during this season. What we are celebrating is living in and with the presence of God through the Spirit.

The question for us is, do we want to live lives of presence, lives filled with the unexpected, filled with constant presence or do we want to live with a boxed God, a theological toy we take out and play with when it suits us, a djinni to grant our wishes when things get uncomfortable. 

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis describes Aslan, a type of the Christ, in a conversation between Mr. Beaver and Susan,

“Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”[4]

If we answer the call of the babe in the manger, we are answering the call of the man he becomes, the call of prophet, the call of the lion. We are answering the call to live into Jesus teachings not the teachings about Jesus. We are answering the call to read and know the gospels and those red-letter words so they can be lived out. Is it safe? No, and Jesus never said it would be. In fact, it is a spiritual journey of constant surprise, challenge, work, and much more than most of us would ever suspect. But in that life is a life of true presence. It is a life of restoration, a life of wholeness, a life in and with the Spirit.

So, chose. But remember, your choice will define you. Chose the babe, the prophet, the lion or chose the djinni, the god in a box, the one who isn’t really a God after all.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ashikaga-Yoshimasa

[2] https://www.lifegate.com/people/lifestyle/kintsugi

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/243169-if-you-understood-him-it-would-not-be-god

[4] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/344456-aslan-is-a-lion–the-lion-the-great-lion-ooh