As we continue this Advent journey, Loving God, may we find peace and rest in your compassionate presence in this moment. And may we respond to your invitation to relationship and service with open hearts and willing spirits. Amen.
The birth of Jesus wouldn’t have happened without Mary. That’s an obvious statement, I know. But Mary is central to the story. And she was integral and influential in Jesus’ life not only because she gave birth to him. But also, because she, along with Joseph, did what parents do and raised Jesus, nurtured and cared for him, taught him what she knew about life and faith, walked alongside him in his ministry, and stood by him until the end. In addition to being his mother, the gospels imply that Mary was also one of the most faithful followers of Jesus in his lifetime.
And Mary’s story of faith offers so much for us to consider for our own lives as well. Mary’s willingness to say yes to God’s invitation, Mary’s trust in God, and Mary’s faithfulness in following through on her calling are a model for us all.
When the angel Gabriel showed up to let Mary know that she had found favor with God and to offer this invitation to become the mother of this special child, Mary had her questions. Of course, she did! “How can this be?” she asked.
Perhaps she also wondered, why me? Gabriel told her that her child would be the “Son of the Most High” and the heir to the throne of David. Perhaps Mary wondered why not choose someone with more economic, social, and political power? But she was chosen for a reason. And she demonstrates that reason through her faithfulness and her willingness to serve.
“Nothing will be impossible with God,” Gabriel tells Mary. And her relative Elizabeth is proof. After years and years without children, Elizabeth thought she was barren, but now she’s six months pregnant. Mary has to see this for herself. So, off she goes to visit Elizabeth.
When Mary shows up at Elizabeth’s house, baby John the Baptist leaps with excitement inside her womb. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, shouts for joy, and offers Mary a blessing.
In this moment, Elizabeth really becomes a prophet, a messenger for God, as she points to God’s creative and redemptive work that is unfolding before their eyes. Elizabeth has also responded to God’s call. And the Holy Spirit has given her the insight to perceive what is going on with Mary before Mary even has a chance to tell her.
In response, Mary offers what has become known as the Magnificat. It’s a song of praise to God. If this were a Broadway musical, this song would be Mary’s big solo. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
She goes on to sing about God’s mercy. And she sings about God’s power to overturn the status quo – confronting the proud; bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly; feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty. All signs that God has once again remembered the promise made to Abraham and his descendants.
In this moment, like Elizabeth, Mary also becomes a prophet. Her proclamations are reminiscent of many of the biblical prophets who came before her. And her prophetic message serves the purpose of reminding all who hear it that God has remembered those covenantal promises God made. It’s in the past tense to remind all who hear it that God’s work has already begun. God has and will continue to work with and through humanity to bring about redemption, and healing, and the righting of the world’s wrongs.
Mary’s prophetic song provides a sort of overture to the Gospel of Luke. It lays foundation of hope that yet more can and will be done to bring us closer to the Reign of God and the world as it should be. And, as we know, the rest of the gospel illustrates how Jesus lived toward that vision and enacted God’s saving power – through his life, death, and resurrection; through teaching, healing, forgiving, caring, and calling us all into right and loving relationship with God and with one another.
And the gospel proclaims that the Reign of God is not ushered in by a violent overthrow of the powers that be, not by some dramatic and otherworldly toppling of the world as we know it. But, instead, the Reign of God is revealed to us in the life of the one we call the Prince of Peace – not a conquering hero, but a servant and a teacher, who entered the world in the way we all do – as an infant in need of care and nurture. The story of Jesus’ birth reminds us that in our vulnerability, in our fragile humanity, there is such strength, power, and potential.
God was working in and through Jesus to bring us closer to a just and peaceful world. And God is still working in and through us. The Prince of Peace, called us to be peacemakers too. And we are called to be justice-seekers too because without justice, there can’t be true peace.
Biblical justice is not about punishment. The biblical prophets speak instead about restorative and distributive justice. If we return to Mary’s prophetic song for a moment, though it might sound a little harsh, it’s not really about punishing individual people – the proud, the powerful, the rich.
Instead, it’s about reordering the world so pride is not our goal; instead, pride is unnecessary because life doesn’t need to be a competition. It’s about reordering the world so some don’t wield all the power over others; but instead, power is shared and leadership is collaborative. It’s about reordering the world so there are no longer rich and poor; but instead, everyone has enough.
It’s an ambitious vision to be sure. And some days it can feel like we are still just so very far away. How can we imagine a just and peaceful world when there is still so much injustice and violence? What do we do about school shootings? Can’t we figure out a way to protect and care for our kids? What do we do about hate in its many forms? What do we do about poverty? What do we do about the deep divisions between people? How do we work together to take better care of our earth?
We still have so many unresolved issues and so much work to do. We still face many of the same human struggles as the people who lived at the time of Mary and Jesus.
And yet, they had hope. Both Mary and Jesus demonstrated hope and faith, even in the midst of difficulty and uncertainty. And they drew upon the hope of their ancestors. If they could do it, why not us? If Mary could take seriously the angel Gabriel’s message that “nothing with be impossible with God,” then why not us?
The season of Advent invites us into this hope. Advent also invites us to consider how we too, like Mary, can bear God’s love into the world. And Advent invites us to consider how we are called to be peacemakers – because peace on earth can’t happen without our participation.
And I do think that in order to work for outer peace in the world, interpersonal peace, we also need to find our own inner peace. We need to find our grounding, our center, in that peace of God that surpasses all human understanding. We need to embrace those spiritual practices that nurture us and bring us peace.
And one of those practices is Sabbath, the practice of rest. I do think rest is an essential practice for Advent. It can feel counter-cultural and challenging at times, given the busyness that this season often holds. But Advent invites us into the practice of waiting, of resting in God’s presence, of trusting that God is bringing forth new growth in us as we wait.
I also think lighting candles in the dark is an essential practice for Advent. Some of my favorite childhood Advent memories are moments my family spent lighting our Advent wreath candles at home and reading devotionals and stories together – sitting in a darkened room, watching as the little light of one candle grew to two, three, four. It gives us a chance to get more comfortable with the darkness and see how just a little light makes a difference.
And on Christmas Eve – we lit all the candles! At church, of course, but also at home. And not only on the Advent wreath, but all the candles we could find. And not only inside, but outside too. I grew up in New Mexico where it is tradition to set out farolitos (or luminarias, depending on who you ask) – brown paper lunch bags, filled with a little sand, and a votive candle. These little fires symbolically light the way for the holy family on Christmas Eve. My dad and I put out twelve dozen every year to line our sidewalk and driveway! Our neighbors all put out a bunch too and it was gorgeous. The Holy Family wasn’t going to get lost on our street.
Like Clark Griswold, my dad taught me everything I know about exterior illumination. It was mostly safe. Although one year I did wake up on Christmas morning to see my mom stomping out a small fire in her bathrobe because one of the farolitos had burned down and caused a landscaping timber to smolder. Oops! We also put a candle too close to a light fixture once and melted it. Sorry, mom, for the wild Christmas pyrotechnics!
Several years ago, I learned that there is a name for my need for restful quiet time and candles during Advent and Christmas – and it’s in my Swedish DNA. Have you heard of hygge? It’s a Danish word that basically means the art of creating coziness. Scandinavians have learned how to endure the long, dark Nordic winter by embracing hygge – lighting candles, snuggling under fuzzy blankets, sipping a warm cup of tea, enjoying the company of friends and family, and intentionally creating relaxing and comforting time and space to just be.
We all need that, perhaps especially this time of year.
And so, one of my prayers for you this Advent is that you may find some rest, embrace some hygge in your life – even if only for a few minutes here and there, and be refreshed and renewed by the deep and sustaining peace of Christ.
I like to imagine Mary a little later on in her pregnancy, maybe after returning from her visit to Elizabeth, before the journey to Bethlehem – perhaps sitting by a warm fire, maybe knitting or weaving some swaddling clothes, sipping a cup of tea, humming a lullaby, and contemplating the coming birth of her child – her expectant joy and hopeful anticipation – pondering who he will be, how he might grow, what light and love he might bring into the world.
Perhaps, during this Advent season, we can all create some time to meet dear faithful Mary in a moment of peaceful rest – to remember her story and ponder with her what is yet to come.
And, as we do, may the faith, hope, peace, and joy within us grow as well, as we consider what new love and light we are called to bring forth into the world this Christmas.