Nothing That Is Possible Can Save Us: An Advent Devotion

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name […]

David Zahl / 12.5.11

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21)

The poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “Nothing that is possible can save us/ We who must die demand a miracle”. This is a bold statement, and one whose truth might not be self-evident in everyday life. Many of the problems we face on a daily level can be fixed, or at least, addressed: If our car breaks down, we can take it to the garage. If we get a headache, we can take some aspirin. If we say something mean, we can apologize, and so on.

Auden’s meaning becomes clearer when we consider problems of a less everyday nature. The kind that keep us up at night. I was speaking with a friend recently who had just separated from his wife. He told me, “I’ve done everything I can think of. Even couples’ counseling hasn’t helped. She just doesn’t want me. It’s going to take a miracle to save our marriage.” He had pursued all the right options, and nothing had worked. The problem was simply beyond him. So it is with us. Our condition is not fixable. That is, we can empirically say that the solution to human nature has not been found in the realm of “what’s possible”. Instead, we need a miracle to save us – from ourselves, from our sin, and ultimately, from death.

It should comes as no surprise that the birth of the one “who will save his people from their sins” was full of the Impossible. Mary’s pregnancy is merely the first part. Equally miraculous is the fact that Joseph actually believes what the angel tells him here. And he not only believes, he obeys. These are miracles! To explain them away or downplay their importance is to deny the extent of the Good News.

Is there a situation in your life where nothing short of a miracle will help? An impossible problem or person that just won’t go away? This passage gives us permission to acknowledge that some problems are indeed too big for us. You are not imagining things – “we who must die demand a miracle”. Yet the “glad tidings” of Christmas are that Jesus is the miracle we have been waiting for, the one who saves us. The impossible problems of this life have found their impossible answer in him. Repeat the sounding joy!

(The above first appeared in The Mockingbird Devotional)