The great theme of the ancient epic poems is the human quest for what lies beyond us.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the titular hero embarks on an extraordinary journey for immortality that takes him through the tunnel through which the sun passes, a land of stone giants, and a watery underworld. In the Odyssey, the hero defies death, monsters, and mischievous gods to return to his true home. The Aeneid tells of a Trojan refugee who became the legendary founder of Rome and was rewarded with immortality for his efforts.
These heroes were seeking permanence of some kind. We could also say they were striving for eternity, which is another way of saying they were looking for God. Indeed, the quest for God is the driving force behind not only ancient myth but also all world religions, traditional philosophy, and even modern science and technology.
But in Advent, this fundamental pattern is reversed.
Seek and you will find, Jesus told his disciples. This command is possible only through God, who moves us to seek and enables us to find Him. “For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work,” as Paul states in Philippians 2:13.
In his great sermon at the Areopagus in Athens, Paul explains that we were created by God to desire Him:
He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:26-27).
In the Old Testament, Abraham is called out of his home city of Ur to become a desert nomad, where he encounters God. The Israelites wander in the desert before arriving in the Promised Land where they experience the presence of God. Elijah strikes out into the desert and finds God in a mountain cave. Later, an exiled remnant of Israel will return home.
But this is only half the story. In Advent, the hinges of history turn the other way. God seeks us out. This is what happens in the Incarnation. Heaven comes to earth. The invisible meets the visible. The infinite is inscribed in the finite.
Man could always imagine the ascent to God. He could conceive becoming more than what he was. The limits of his own existence taught him to long for more, as St. Augustine realized.
But it never occurred to man that God might first come looking for him. He never dreamt that God might descend to him. That God would not only do this but also become one of us—in the fullness of our humanity all the while losing none of His divinity—was beyond the imagination of ancient man.
Heaven arrived on earth, but there no armies of angels that stormed the land, no horsemen of the apocalypse deliver God’s wrath to sinners, no fire and brimstone, no earthquakes or eclipses. Instead, angels sing songs to sleepy shepherds. A couple takes shelter in a cave. A woman gives birth to a son.
What makes the Incarnation so great is that it was so small. God did not need conquering armies or avenging angels to announce His arrival on earth. No clouds of fire or quaking mountains accompanied His descent. The kingdom of heaven broke into earth not with a cry of battle but instead the cry of a newborn—because nothing could be more powerful than the fullness of God’s presence in single human being and no voice could echo through eternity like the divine Word Incarnate.
In becoming fully man, God came to us in a way that stirs us to seek Him all the more. He came as a child, born at night, hidden in a cave. This is the lesson of the shepherds watching by night and the three wise men who journey from the East. We do not need to tunnel through the bowels of the earth or walk on the bottom of the sea to find God. He has already crossed the chasm of the infinite to find us. Seek and find Him because He is present to us even now.