November entry: Little Advents
Column Description: Image to Image: Musings on Faith, Media, and Story is a monthly column that illuminates old and new ideas about media ecology from a Christian perspective. Dr. Mitchell will explore what it means to bear God’s image and Christian witness in a mediated world, with a particular focus on the relationships between theology, media, and orthopraxy across different Christian traditions.
By Chase Mitchell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Media and Communication, East Tennessee State University
The fall leaves of southern Appalachia are all but gone. A few hang on for dear life, but most of the color has transformed into crispy brown flakes underfoot, which means it’s almost Christmastime The sights, sounds, smells, and foods we enjoy at each year’s end reimpress our memories and conjure nostalgia in even the Scroogiest among us.
The Christmas season is a remembrance and celebration of Christ’s Advent. We plan parties, decorate our home, sing carols, bake cookies, attend candlelight church services, and put on Nativity plays. It is right and wonderous to do so, to commemorate and relive these traditions as liturgical scenes of spiritual repose. But I would suggest that because Christmastime is so magical, we at times miss Christ’s “little advents” that manifest in unexpected times and places.
In 2011, my wife Mott and I were visiting her extended family in Bangkok, a city that—though beautiful in many ways and home to faithful Christians (and many ordinary Thais who do their best to live well and love one another)—is one of the world’s spiritually darkest corners. I won’t detail the horrors that plague that city, but suffice to say that the worst things you’ve likely heard about it are sadly true.
One hot July afternoon we were shopping in a busy downtown district. As we passed an open courtyard between the two main thoroughfares, I noticed a young man, fourteen or so, exit one of the nearby apartment buildings. He walked to the center of the courtyard, stepped onto a bench, and to my surprise lifted a wooden crucifix high in the air with his right hand. He said nothing, but stayed there, cross aloft, for several minutes.
Memory is a funny thing. As I think back on that day in Bangkok, I marvel at how the Spirit works across time and space to transfigure our recollections. I was not a believer when I witnessed the young man and his cross, and internally I mocked him. But it made a mark on me. I remember his act of strange and unexpected faithfulness, and now pass it on to you.
Ten years later, I reflect on what made him do that—what little advent sparked such light? Scripture illuminates: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or wakes, the seed sprouts and grows, though he knows not how” (Mark 4:26-27). Even (and especially) in dark places, Christ is there, waiting to reveal Himself.
Christ’s final Advent was unexpected: born to an impoverished Jewish girl in a cave at the margins of the Roman empire. Christ continues to show up—to make Himself perceptible to our eye/ear of faith—at unexpected times and places and in unlikely forms. It is the Spirit’s work, not ours; we need only yield to His little advents. In so doing, He gives us the honor of mediating His will, reflecting His light, and bringing joy to the world.