God with us. There is perhaps no more profound name than that. For millennia religions promised a connection with the divine, that humanity could somehow touch the heavens and experience unity with the gods and that we could do this through ritual purity. Human perfection seemed to be the key. Jump through the right hoops and appease heaven and you'll get your reward.
Much of Christian history seems to have fallen into this mental trap even though our messianic narrative doesn't support it. Most Christians could write a thesis on their lived experience of guilt but only a small few could write as much about their experience of grace. How many of us think religion is about following rules and pleasing God? How many of us have immense guilt because we think religion is about private perfection?
There's something funny, something off about our world and ourselves, and we know it. We seem to do it wrong, we stumble, we fail. When so much of creation seems to be harmonious and balanced, we appear disastrously out of step.
But - still - God is with us, constantly reconciling us to himself, redeeming the dissonance.
In my favorite book, Tolkien's The Silmarillion, there is a creation story for that fictitious world. The supreme, God-like being - Eru - begins to sing things into existence. He sings a theme that all the Ainur (angelic beings) add onto, like individual instruments in an orchestra. Soon it's a beautiful and full sound that is singing and weaving everything into being.
But then Melkor (a satanic and human stand in) desires to sing his own theme. He sings a theme of his own design that doesn't complement the original theme of Eru but rather is dissonant with it. Then Eru does something amazing: he inexplicably weaves Melkor's dissonant theme into his own. This happens several times, each time the 'fallen' theme seems much too dissonant and each time Eru reconciles it to himself. Defying all logic, all prediction, Eru reconciles the two themes so that they do indeed fit, and the result is the music is more beautiful than before.
Emmanuel, God with us, is the same reconciliation. It's the same process. Christ enters the world and weaves our hopelessly blundered musical tunes into God's own song, the song. What's even more amazing and beautiful is that with the Incarnation we can see God everywhere and at all times, as Richard Neuhaus says. With the coming of Advent we can finally realize that Emmanuel was here all along, that the Word was here since the beginning and that nothing has happened outside of it. Advent isn't the realization that a hero has arisen. Like Clark Kent changing into Superman before our very eyes, Advent is the realization that the hero has been here all along, we just didn't see it.
The start of the liturgical year means beginning anew our remembrance of the never-ending story, the constant musical theme. We reorient ourselves to having a heart and mind and spirit that doesn't just hope for but sees union with God. Contrition for sin and our brokenness is necessary. But we don't remember so that we'll be perfect from now on. God doesn't want us to focus on our own musical theme, God wants us to see the ways in which our music is part of hers. Preparing for Christmas is about wholeness and union despite ourselves. We can leave the desire for personal perfection at the door. After all, God already has.