Advent: How to Open Your Heart

by Leonard Sweet

Advent is an intentional season of “preparedness.” We think of Advent as a “journey,” to use Oprah Winfrey’s favorite word. We think of Advent as a progressive path we take in order to arrive at a destination — the sleepy village of Bethlehem.

Preparing. Making plans. Charting a way. Scouting and scoping the landscape. Assessing and overcoming obstacles to avoid or override.

Sounds like life as usual. Sounds like something we can get our heads and hands and hearts around. Sounds like something we can get down and get done.

But wait a minute! Advent is not our journey. We are NOT in charge. Advent is not a journey we make, a journey we prepare for, a road that we navigate.


Advent isn’t a trip we prepare to go on. Advent is the time we prepare for God’s trip to us. Advent is the time we ready ourselves to RECEIVE God. The God who, against all reason and for our redemption, is making a journey TOWARDS us.

God had been preparing for this journey FOR A LONG TIME. Before the baby Jesus was even born, God had arranged for the ideal advance man, the perfect prophet to be conceived and born and nurtured to adulthood. Generations before John the Baptist there were other prophets whom God provided with selected slices of insight, like a freeze-framed GPS map. Moses and Isaiah, Malachi and Daniel: all provided peeks at the pathway God was paving.

John the Baptist, the prophet blessed to personally pronounce the arrival of the one who brought God into our midst the Messiah, the Christ, our Savior, Redeemer, Judge knew the message he needed to communicate. John did not preach “Prepare to get going.” John did not preach, “Prepare to journey to God.” John did not preach, “Prepare to find God.” John did not preach, “Prep yourself by making yourself invulnerable and invaluable.”

Instead, John preached, “Prepare the WAY.” God in Christ is coming. The Incarnation is impinging, incipient, imminent. God’s advance, God’s Advent, Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” cannot and will not be stopped. All we can do is “prepare the way.” All we can do is to “make the way straight” for the journey God is taking to us.

How do we make a straight “landing pad” for God’s arrival? How do we prepare for the Christ-child who comes every year anew, into our lives, into the world?

Our first impulse is to do something. We tend to want to pack bags to get ready for a journey. We want to pack Jesus’ bags for him but Advent is a time of unpacking and getting rid of things. Advent is not a season of doing but a season of being.

Anyone who has ever had to pack for someone else knows how hard it is to envision what that other person might need. Packing for a two year old requires a hugely different list than packing for a nine year old, which has nothing in common with packing for an eighteen year-old. How about packing for your spouse? Men and women do NOT pack the same kinds of stuff. Could you pack for your Mother or your Father? Could you pack for a friend whose culture, climate, and character are totally different than your own? Could you pack for someone whose journey is unexpected and uncharted?

That is what God is asking us to do during the Season of Advent. We are not just to “be prepared.” We are to “prepare the way” for that which is the most unexpected, most exceptional, most excellent arrival in the history of the universe.

There are lots of impediments to our preparing for this journey that God is making to come to us. But perhaps the biggest obstruction to our proper packing of Jesus’ bags this Advent season is our vulnerability “issue” (sorry, another favorite Oprah Winfrey word).

Advent is when we prepare by unpacking and letting our baggage go — let go of the freight that weighs life down: let go of safety, let go of structures, let go of certainty, let go of control. We can only “prepare the way of the Lord” by preparing an environment that encourages our own openness and our own vulnerability.

TED lecturer Brene Brown has made the study of “vulnerability,” or more accurately the “intolerance of vulnerability,” her life’s work. Surprise! NO ONE likes feeling vulnerable. We fight against it with every fiber of our being. After all, to be “vulnerable” is to be “weak,” right? If you are someone who is “vulnerable” you suffer from fear, from anxiety, from shame.

Being “vulnerable” is an utterly negative label in our twenty-first century culture. Just as we don’t want our electronic lives “vulnerable” to viruses that might threaten our identity, so we don’t want our physical, emotional, spiritual lives to be vulnerable to any unauthorized access. Unless we say so, and unless we are in control…

No one gets close.
No one comes near.
No one is let in.

Brene Brown has found in her research that an intolerance for vulnerability yields a devastating harvest. For vulnerability is the incubator of almost all the good things of life. To be invulnerable is to be incapable of joy, of love, of belonging, of creativity. The paradox of life is this: a perfect immune system is a disaster. You can’t grow with a perfect immune system. You need to be vulnerable and to be open to viruses to grow and mature.

When intolerance for vulnerability reigns supreme, your only joy is a “foreboding joy.” You know that feeling of “foreboding joy,” even if you don’t call it that. You look at your kids snuggled in their bed. Before a sigh of contentment escapes your lungs, the panic of impending doom — an accident, an illness, a catastrophe — clutches your throat and squeezes the breath right out of you.

When intolerance for vulnerability reigns supreme, you succumb to a Go-It-Alone approach to life that prevents the divine presence from hallowing and haloing your life. The Christian faith offers no Go-It-Alone, DIY (Do-It-Yourself) kit to spiritual peace and power. In fact, the Christian faith is based on God’s initiative, not our industry. When I look at how some people are working so hard at being good and getting it right, I want to say to them: “Hey, leave something for the Savior. You don’t have to do it all. Let go and let God. Leave something for the Savior.”

When intolerance for vulnerability reigns supreme, the likely result is extremism. Brown has a neat, devastating bit of math that explains so much of the fear focusing the trajectory of the world we live in:

Faith – Vulnerability = Extremism
Faith Minus Vulnerability Equals Extremism

Plug into that “faith” slot your pick:

Faith in country?
Faith in self?
Faith in denomination?
Faith in political party?
Faith in power?
Faith in money?

Whatever it is you have faith in, when you subtract the human factor of vulnerability, you subtract the possibility of failure, yes, but also of joy, of anxiety and of creativity, of fear and of love.

In sum, subtracting vulnerability subtracts the part of the human being that is capable of “preparing the way” for God’s influence and participation in human life. In Jesus’ day, “preparing the way” for the arrival of a King didn’t mean adding things to the road, but clearing away the clutter and trash that cramped the coming of the King.

The good news is that while Adam and Eve tried to subtract their vulnerability in the shrubbery of Eden, hiding their nakedness from God, God came looking for them. Just like God comes looking for us every year during the Season of Advent.

When God saw Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes, God didn’t turn away in disgust and abandon them. God didn’t throw them away and start over. When Adam and Eve were at their most vulnerable, when they were naked and they KNEW they were naked, that is exactly when God came walking down the garden path looking for them, seeking them out, bringing the divine into their midst. When we mess up, God doesn’t throw us away & start again. God comes looking for us: “Where are you?”

Every year during Advent we need to rediscover our nakedness. Advent season is when we embrace vulnerability. For it is our nakedness, our openness, our exposure, our vulnerability—getting rid of the baggage and clutter -that “prepares the way of the Lord.” Only when you are open can you be fully alive. Only when you risk a broken heart can you truly love.

We are not “in charge” of preparing during Advent. We are BEING prepared during Advent. We are BEING charged during Advent: charged and prepared for the greatest act of love the world has ever known.

You want to prepare the way of the Lord? How vulnerable are you?

Maybe the best Advent hymn ever written was written by the Beatles:

“When I find myself in time of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, “Let it be.”

And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, “Let it be.”

There will be an answer: “Let it be!” Used by permission.


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