Advent – that great period of waiting – is almost at an end. Our waiting is nearly finished. Which leaves just one big question: If Advent is a season that is all about waiting, then what, exactly, are we waiting for?
The short answer is we’re waiting for Christmas, the coming of Christ into our world. But that is an answer that carries its own supply of questions: Who, or what is the Christ, the marked one. And what did the coming of the marked one mean to those folks back then? And why are waiting for it now if it happened back then? Are we even waiting for the same thing as Mary and Joseph were waiting for? We are in some way like kids around a Christmas Tree wondering what could be in the beautifully wrapped packages. What surprise has God got in store for us?
I’d love to say that I will spend the next few minutes answering these questions, but in fact all I’m going to do is raise more questions…
The cycle of Gospel readings we have through Advent has, so far, given us a heavy dose of John the Baptist. John the Baptist is an uncomfortable sort of person to say the least. Just last week John faces a crowd that has, after all, come to see him and calls them a brood of vipers. When a Gospel story involves a crowd, I think we instinctively include ourselves in that crowd. So welcome, fellow vipers…
But in this fourth week of Advent, we get a little relief. We no longer hear of John the Baptist who was, to be honest, a bit of a party-pooper… Today we spend mostly with Mary and her visit with her cousin, Elizabeth.
An angel has given Mary confusing news. She is pregnant, which might be good news, but she is engaged to Joseph, and he is not the father, so this might be bad news… But the child is actually God’s child… is that good news? She turns to Elizabeth, who is older and wiser and married to a high priest, and as it happens, also pregnant, for advice and counsel. As soon as Mary arrives, Elizabeth knows she is pregnant – and not just with any ordinary child, but with the Lord, with Messiah, the Christ. Elizabeth is astounded and honored. This must come as a massive relief to Mary. As far as we know, Elizabeth is the first person she has told.
Mary responds with this marvelous song, which we have come to know as Mary’s Song or Magnificat. It is so marvelous a piece of sacred poetry that it has become a fixture in Christian worship throughout the centuries. Each evening at the service of Vespers the brothers of St Benedict’s chant Magnificat, along with other assorted psalms and canticles. In a way it is a fulfilment of the prophecy included in Mary’s Song – she tells us that all future generations will call her blessed, and in fact we do.
Two things are notable in Mary’s Song… it is joyous, and it is faithful. It is not, in fact, terribly original. Mary seems to be quoting a number of bits of psalmody and scripture that she has learned over the years. But that enhances rather than diminishing the power of her response.
These two pregnant women, Mary and Elizabeth, are both unlikely mothers. Mary is a virgin, and if that doesn’t make you an unlikely mother, I don’t know what does… And Elizabeth is well beyond childbearing age. In Hebrew scripture there is a significant line of Barren Women and Elizabeth seems to be in that line. Yet by God’s miraculous grace, she is pregnant – an unlikely mother to be. It’s not just any old child she is carrying… She is about to give birth to that same John the Baptist who has been casting a long shadow over Advent.
Of all the Gospel writers, only Luke gives us this story. Luke, almost single-handedly, gives us the stories that are the joy of Christmas. This joyful glimpse of Mary and Elizabeth is Luke’s alone. Luke alone gives us the joyful stories about animals and mangers, shepherds and simple folk gathering to praise God.
Mark skips any birth narrative and starts his telling of the Gospel at the Baptism. John gives us this very mystical introduction of the word being with God and the word being God… Matthew gives us a birth story, but it is not nearly so blissful as Luke. Matthew does give us wise men – any time you see a manger scene with shepherds and wise men, know that those wise men have wandered in from another Gospel… Matthew gives us no stable – Mary gives birth at home… in Bethlehem… Mathew does give us frankincense, gold, and myrrh, which is nice. Mathew also gives us the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem… which is horrifying. And the flight into Egypt, which is only slightly less horrifying…
Luke alone gives us this happy, heartwarming story of Mary, Joseph, and a cast of cute animals and joyful shepherds. This is what we’re waiting for in Advent. But there is a problem.
If we really look at the words of Mary’s Song, there are some ominous things.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God… and to fear God is not to sit around in angst, it is to respect the commands God has given us. To be honest, when we look at human history up to the present day, there is plenty of evidence that we do not fear, do not respect, God. I’d love to be able to say that this is all on other people, I have been a consistent respecter of God… But I would be lying. And to tell the truth, I’m in abundant company…
God strikes down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. Think about that. It is not a gentle process. “Strikes” is not a peaceful verb. This is a revolution, a violent revolution, that Mary is singing about. The hungry are fed, but the rich are sent away in hunger. Mighty rulers are deposed from their thrones. It is an apocalyptic moment. But let’s remind ourselves that apocalypse and Armageddon are not at all the same thing… But most of all we have to remember that the coming of Jesus is a revolution. Jesus tells us that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword…
So, I come back to the question – what are we waiting for? And what were folks back then waiting for?
Mary’s Song has given us a few possible answers.
There was a significant group of faithful Jews who were waiting for a powerful Messiah, a savior, to come and free them from the oppression of Rome. Mary’s Song can be understood to foreshadow that. The mighty Roman emperor will be toppled from his throne… The Jews, who have been so oppressed by Roman soldiers, will be lifted up. The Christ, the marked one, is a sort of marvelous and powerful superhero who will fix everything on our list. In our popular culture, the current high interest in superheroes suggests to me that we still long for this.
For those waiting for a superhero at the time of Jesus, Jesus must have come as a terrible disappointment. Jesus never raised a powerful army… never knocked rulers off their thrones… never scattered anyone anywhere… He was the opposite of what was hoped for.
Yet the innocent and optimistic faith of Mary, expressed so powerfully in the Magnificat, still resonates. We still wait with anticipation.
Like little children we imagine those Christmas gifts being filled with marvelous surprises… like flat-panel televisions and new smartphones and other such toys… But God seems to have arranged for gifts of socks and underwear… gifts that we may need, that we can use and that really will improve our lives, but that are not glamorous… not the stuff of fantasy…
And likewise, year by year we get the Savior God has in mind, the savior we need, which is not the savior we want… the savior of our fantasies.
The faithful folks at the time of Jesus had to reconcile the savior who came with their expectations. There seems to be an undertow of disappointment even among the disciples throughout the Gospels. Even at the time of crucifixion the disciples are looking for Jesus to take up arms, to smite the foes… To suddenly rise to their expectation.
But then as now, whatever we want or expect, it is the Jesus that we need who comes to be with us – Emmanuel.
We need to look carefully at the Jesus we want and think we need so that we can work to let go of that. Of course, we have wants and desires and fantasy hopes. We’re human. But if we hold to tightly to our fantasies, to our illusion of who Jesus is, then we will not be able to see Jesus, God with Us. Emmanuel will be obscured by our preconceptions and prejudices, our illusion of Jesus.
As we draw to the end of the Advent season we need to pray for blessed disillusionment. When our illusions are shattered, then true vision becomes possible… vision that includes the reality that Jesus is here with us and beside us, walking with us, comforting us, tenderly holding us, giving us comfort and strength.
We need that strength because Jesus gives us work to do – to feed those who hunger, cloth those who are unclothed, bring humility to the mighty and honor to those who are dishonored – to be builders of God’s Kingdom where Jesus is Lord and where God’s love, God’s justice flows like a mighty river that waters the entire earth.