December 03, 2017
If you attend Church of the Resurrection on the first Sunday of Advent, odds are that a few notable things will strike you. For one, you’re likely to hear congregants cheerfully greeting each other with the words “happy new year” even though it is still November. Upon entering the sanctuary, you will find the altar, stage, and clergy robed in purple, a welcome change from the twenty-some weeks of green that have marked the long season of “after Pentecost” Sundays. Finally, you’ll notice subtle changes in the music and liturgy, including the service being opened with the somber and beautiful song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
These physical and verbal cues are markers of the fact that Advent is the beginning of the liturgical calendar year. This calendar is a tool that the Christian church has used for millennia to establish a sacred daily rhythm, in which the life of Christ is as important as the changing of the months. Thus, the “happy new year” greetings are not a joke, but rather the acknowledgment that Advent invites us into the Biblical anticipation of Jesus’ life on earth, and thus the beginning of our walk through his life in the seasons of Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, and Eastertide.
The word Advent is from the Latin adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.” Yet Advent readings do not solely focus on prophesies of the arrival of the Christ child in Bethlehem, but also scripture in which Jesus’ second coming is foretold. This is because the liturgical calendar is not simply convenient way in which to commemorate Jesus’ life, but instead an active tool for our daily spiritual formation. We rejoice in the fact that the God of the universe chose a moment in history to take on a human body and walk among us, but also that the Bible promises that Jesus is active by the power of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives and that he will physically come again to judge the living and the dead.
This is why the color purple is the color of both Advent and Lent. Advent is like being told that you’re going to have a very important house guest, but their specific date of arrival is unknown. The natural thing to do is start cleaning your house so that when they do arrive, your house is not a mess! In Advent, we do our spiritual house cleaning both in preparation of the joy of Christmas day, but also in the joyful expectation that Jesus is coming back. The song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” captures this reality, as it speaks to the longing of our hearts for Jesus to come again even as we rejoice in the promise that he will.
So it is that we celebrate four weeks of Advent before we jump into the joy of Christmastide, even as we pray this collect on the first Sunday of Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
December 18, 2016
Be it unto me as you have said:
may my heartbeat be his ocean
even as my veins run wet with rain
that he spoke into existence.
Be it unto me as you have said:
that the Word Himself will cry out
for my embrace in the dark
which in the beginning, he named Night.
Be it unto me as you have said:
thus my hands will guide his first step
on the green earth that is turning
safely in the curve of his palm.
Be upon me, be within me,
be over me, be beside me,
be, grow, walk, God:
I am the servant of the Lord.
Advent is a season of pregnancy. It begins a new church year, which walks through the story of Jesus’ life. But when we begin, we don’t start with Jesus' birth. We start by expecting. We start with conception—his coming as conceived by the prophets. Then, the fourth and final Sunday of Advent culminates with the sudden appearance of a celestial messenger to a Jewish girl, bearing the promise of a baby boy. This last Sunday belongs to Mary, and her story is the icon by which we learn to say yes to God.
In Luke's Gospel, he tells us that when the veil between what is seen and what is unseen is snatched away before Mary’s eyes, she is greatly troubled. But she doesn’t run. The angel says that she will have a son. To bear a son in the ancient Middle East was a sign of honor, even success. But certainly not before marriage. It’s perilous, this promise. It’s not without pain.
Who will believe me? she may have wondered. “How will this be?” she asks Gabriel. As a Jew, Mary would have prayed for the advent of the Messiah—the one who God promised would come and save her people from suffering. But to be the vessel by which he emerges into the world? “One day,” was here, and it didn’t look like she expected.
Gabriel tells her more: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." Scholars tell us that the word translated as overshadow is the same word used for the holy presence of God that dwelled within the Jewish temple. Mary was going to be a temple, her womb the Holy of Holies—the sanctum where the very presence of God resides.
Then, comes the part in Luke’s story where my breath snags every single time—Mary’s yes. “Behold,” she says, "I am the servant of the Lord: let it be to me according to your word.”
She doesn’t ask any more questions. She says yes before she knows what her intended husband is going to say. She says yes to being ostracized, to nausea and sore feet and labor, to sleepless nights, to utter mystery, and to unfathomable blessing. She says yes to God. Her yes is a step out of her known reality, setting foot into virgin territory. No one can tell her what is going to happen. Her faith is astonishing. I’m a woman, not too much older than Mary might have been. What answer would I have given?
Maybe we have not seen an angel, but we are offered the promise of Christ all the same. Mary’s yes is a picture of the yes that we can give, too. The church fathers call Mary the first Christian (Christ-in), as she was the first to have Christ within her. If you have said yes to Jesus, like Mary did, you are called to bear him within you and bring him into the world, like Mary did. And just like Mary, your circumstances will be less than ideal. Things will be against you. There won’t be any epidural for the painful process of surrendering your body to God. There wasn't any room in the hotels when God’s mother arrived to Bethlehem, sweating and swollen. I think God could have convinced the innkeeper, if that had been his will—hadn’t Mary been through enough, riding on a swaybacked donkey over rocks, scandalously huge with a baby that’s not her husband's? But Mary had made room for Jesus in her body, and she was willing to bleed for him on the filthy ground if that’s what God’s promise of salvation meant. She would one day watch him bleed on a filthy cross.
May we give that kind of yes to God. May we prepare him room within our hearts, our bodies, within our very lives. May we go to the stable, and then to the cross, believing his promises, saying yes when it makes no sense, when it hurts, when it leads into the unknown. May we surrender ourselves to him this Advent, that we may be vessels of his deliverance, bringing him into the world. And like Mary, may they say of us, “Blessed are they who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to them from the Lord.” Come, Lord Jesus.