I’m pleased to share these Advent devotional reflections. As you will see, they are meant to be read one per day, along with a brief Scripture passage that I have attached. I urge you to read those biblical texts before moving on to what I have written. If you’ve been around our church for awhile, you may recognize some of what follows. That’s because I have done some borrowing from old sermons and newsletter pieces. But most of what’s here is newly written, and with you in mind. Since Advent invites spiritual preparation, it is a fitting season for deep reflection on our world’s situation and on our own lives, as well as on the ancient divine promises and the coming of Jesus. To that end, I hope these reflections will be of use to you. And since many of us will be reading these words on the same day, maybe we can feel an added connection to each other in shared reflection and devotion and gain a deeper sense of our purpose together in this fortunate community of faith.
Peace and Love in this holy season,
Paul Simpson Duke
Sunday, December 3
Read Luke 21:25-28, 34-36.
If it were left up to me to decide how Advent should begin, I’d start with slow, achingly beautiful music and with the great old biblical texts that speak poignantly of longing, of waiting in the dark for the Light to shine. But the people who decided long ago what we should hear on the first day of Advent made a very different choice: surreal words from Jesus about worldwide calamity, ominous signs in the sky, violent storms, people fainting, the heavens shaking, “the Son of Man coming on a cloud.” Not my Advent music–more like a shriek.
Advent means “arrival,” and the Advent season is about living in expectation of Jesus’ many arrivals: his birth, his return, and the countless other ways he shows up in the meantime.
The season of Advent begins with the advent that comes at the end. What it will be like is beyond us to know. The scene that Jesus paints is of nature’s upheaval and human confusion and fear. Whatever else it means, it suggests that when God’s Love brings the world to conclusion, it will not be because of the grand progress(!) we have made, but will be a disruption of our wrongheaded status quo. In other words, our hope is not in our own goodness but in God’s overruling goodness, however baffling and mysterious. Thanks heavens!
Jesus concludes this vision of cosmic turmoil with the wonderful words: “Stand up and raise your heads! Your redemption is drawing near!” Raise your heads. We are not to live with our heads down, weighed down with numbing distractions or the stupor of our discouragement and sadness, forgetful of the perfect Love that shines on us and will shine again more brightly. Raise your head—open-eyed and alert to the power of that Love to astound us and to change our world. There will be justice, there will be peace, there will be healing and wholeness. And to live in expectancy of Christ’s coming in all its ways and times is to let ourselves be useful instruments now of all the wonders that his arrivals will bring.
Let this be our intention in the days ahead: that our thinking, our praying, our action, and our love will all be expressions of the church’s ancient prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Monday, December 4
Read Isaiah 9:2; 45:3.
We use the word darkness as a metaphor for the terrible, the sinister, the dreaded. And why not? Darkness is the absence of light, and light is what we see by. What is unseen may be treacherous, even monstrous. Who or what is hiding there? And in the dark, how do we find our way? Darkness cloaks us in isolation, uncertainty, We say ignorance is being in the dark. Depression is like darkness, as is grief, guilt, despair, and fear. The final darkness is death. There is much to recoil from in facing the dark–living in it, disappearing in it.
But we take this too far. Through the prophet Isaiah, God says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness. There are treasures to be found only in darkness. There is no seeing of the stars until the coming of the night. Scripture says more than once that God dwells in “thick darkness.” And in the story of creation, God does not eliminate darkness, but divides it from light, giving them both a place.
Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shined.” Nothing is said about all the darkness being obliterated. The prophet is singing in the dark of a light that is shining in it. Can such a light be seen by us if we pretend we are not in darkness, blanketing ourselves in false light, unwilling to acknowledge the truth of whatever long night we are in? It is better to be present in it, open to the truth that God dwells in darkness, and gives treasure in it.
Wendell Berry was speaking to a small gathering at a coffeehouse on a dark December day. He looked out the window and said, “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” Jesus the Light joined us in the dark. He was unafraid to weep, to mourn, to know loneliness and pain, to tremble in the shadow of death. Shining as he was with friendship and mirth and irrepressible life, there was also darkness in his eyes. And he said he would return when it is darker still.
We have seen that Light and will see it again. We are not afraid of the dark, or to sing in it.
Tuesday, December 5
Read Psalm 137:1-4.
We experience Advent as a time for ramping up toward Christmas, and how can we not? Our journey will take us to Bethlehem, and something in us is counting the days. But as you know, Advent is a more complicated season, and is all the more so for those who have drunk deep from the wells of injustice, grief, outrage, despair.
So, for us, it is a blessing, a confirmation, that Advent speaks of judgment on the world. These darkening days invite us to stand before the wreckage of the world, to feel the bitter cold of our isolation, to give voice to our lament and longing, and, perhaps most of all, to consider all the good that God has not done, not yet.
That last part may seem surprising, but there is no dodging it. To be people of Jesus is to acknowledge and celebrate that God has done wondrous things through him, but that some of the promises are incompletely fulfilled. In this regard, Jesus was doubtless a disappointment to many of his followers. They believed, as we do, that he was the one the prophets had said to look for. But what did he tell them? To keep looking! He settled much for us: issues of freedom, guilt, grace, purpose, and much of the nature of God. Yet more is needed, urgently and painfully: more healing, more reconciliation, justice, equity, peace, the fulfillment of so much unfinished good. Advent thrusts us back on that need and asks us to stop ignoring it, but instead to face it, name it, pray it, and to lay claim on all that God may yet do in the world and in us..
The birth of Mary’s child will sing to us that God listens to the human cry and answers ancient promises and has come in great vulnerability to join us; lullabies will be in order. But for now, lament has its due. Given what you know of yourself and what you see of the world, what do you need to lament, to weep for and long for? These are the days for holding it close and getting it said.
Wednesday, December 6
Read Luke 18:18-22.
Today, December 6, is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas. Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians are honoring him. In our part of the world, images are already everywhere of the fat, white-bearded, “jolly old elf” that we call by Saint Nicholas’ name. But here are some facts about the original.
He was Greek (olive-skinned?), born to wealthy parents around the year 270 in what is now Turkey. He fasted every Wednesday and Friday. He spent three years with monks who lived in caves on a mountain that overlooked Bethlehem. In the city of Myra, he was made a bishop. Under the persecution of the emperor Diocletian he was imprisoned and tortured. Later he was among the bishops who assembled at Nicea to craft what became the Nicean Creed. Nicholas was known most of all for his empathy and works of charity, especially among the poor. He gave them money when he could. It is said that he advocated for three unjustly accused convicts awaiting execution and got them exonerated. His generosity to poor children was legendary.
Was he “jolly”? Maybe not. At the Council of Nicea he got into a heated debate with a famous heretic, Arius, and is said to have grown so angry that he punched the man in the face! But, then again, how could anyone be so generous with the poor and so kind to children and not be given to smiling? Maybe at times it could even be said, “his eyes, how they twinkled.”
I don’t mind the modern Santa Claus and the extra magic and wonder he brings for children. But this much is worth recalling: while he brings to many of our children an extravagance of expensive gifts, the real Saint Nick, a survivor of incarceration and torture, gave all his gifts to the poor.
A suggestion. When you see a modern stand-in for Santa, whatever else you think of him, try seeing through the red suit and the blubbery belly to a person who is lean from fasting and who walks the city streets to be a friend of the poor. Then consider what you and your loved ones might give for the vulnerable this year. Of such good choices, the holy Child, born so poor, would approve, as would the real Saint Nick. See his eyes, how they twinkle!
Thursday, December 7
Read Romans 13;11-14.
Some children are early risers. At the crack of dawn they’re up, they’re perky, and for reasons I’ve never understood, they talk. Other children have to be peeled from the bed. When you get them up they drag, their faces droop, and if you don’t keep moving they’ll lean on your leg and fall asleep again. But on one day every year in homes that celebrate Christmas morning, the rules change. Whether a child normally rises fast or slow, on that morning almost every child rises like a rocket.
4:00 AM.: “Mom? Mom! It’s Christmas! Wake up!” Mom opens an eye and the kid’s face is one inch from her face, bright-eyed and ready to go. Were you ever that child? Do you remember what it’s like to wake up early Christmas morning, the house still dark and quiet, but your little heart so full of eagerness for the day that nothing in the world could make you go back to sleep?
Well, in today’s text, that’s exactly the tone. Paul’s hand is on our shoulder, shaking us. He says, “You know what hour it is, it is full time now for you to wake from sleep.” The Day is here, he says. The Great Day we’ve been waiting for! Wake up!
Something in us drowsily answers, ”What day? What time is it?
What are you talking about?”
“The Day of Christi” he says. “The Day history as we’ve known it is done, and all wrongs are made right and all tears wiped away. The Day when we shall see the Face of God and live! It’s here! Wake up!”
“Go back to bed,” we mumble. “It’s not the Day yet, it’s still early.
Look, it’s still dark!”
“No,” he says. “The night is far spent, the Day is at hand. It is full time now for you to wake from sleep.”
When you are a child on Christmas morning, though all around you it’s dark, the day arrives in your child’s heart and you know it’s time to wake up. So with the coming Day of Christ. It hasn’t fully arrived, we don’t yet see it. But the Spirit prompts us to feel its nearness, to get up and get dressed and go with Child-Joy to greet the day.
Friday, December 8
Read I Thessalonians 5:1-11.
True story: A minister in New York was preaching one Sunday in Advent on the subject of the Messiah, when suddenly an unfamiliar old man with long white hair and fire in his eyes rose slowly out of his seat in the congregation. As the minister kept preaching on the subject of the Messiah, the man came forward down the aisle, then onto the chancel. He walked right up to the pulpit and said to the preacher, “It’s all right. I’m here.” What could the preacher say? He paused for a moment, then said to the man, “Not yet.” The man furrowed his brow. “Not yet?” he asked. “Not yet,” said the minister. The man nodded, apparently completely satisfied, turned and walked slowly back to his seat whispering under his breath, “Not yet.”.
The Not-Yet component of the gospel turns out to be very good news. It declares that, however much good has happened in the world, it is not yet as much goodness as there is going to be. What we see now isn’t all there is, This is not “as good as it gets.”
Sick as we are of the madness of the world, we are prone to a dismal and paralyzing discouragement. Nothing seems to change. In fact, it all seems to be getting worse—so why keep trying, why keep hoping? But Abraham Joshua Heschel told the truth when he said, “Despair is always premature.” Impatience may well be in order; restlessness may well be a form of faithfulness. But the God of Love who has done great wonders among us has not yet completed the outpouring of wonders. So we lean our lives in love and hope toward the great, beckoning Not-Yet of God, which will one day give way to Here-at-Last.
Saturday, December 9
Read John 1:6-8, 19-29.
The Gospels don’t let us meet Jesus until we’ve seen someone pointing toward him with a life: John the Baptist. Most of us don’t relate well to this man. He seems so strange. But if you read only John’s Gospel you wouldn’t think so. In this Gospel there’s nothing about John wearing animal skins, eating grasshoppers or calling his congregation a brood of snakes. All of that’s in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In this Gospel all we see him do is point to Jesus: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Without the skins and the bugs and the rage, what we see in the Baptist is the irreducible core of what he is: he is a voice.
They came to John and asked him, ”Who are you?,” and this is what he said, “I am a voice.” It is no easy thing to be a voice. It’s easier to be just another echo. What if all of us are either a voice or an echo? An echo duplicates what others are saying. An echo does not require a mind. It makes precisely the sounds that the crowd is making—-same words, same tone. An echo is the sound made by a surface. It’s the easiest thing to do: shouting echo-slogans, driving echo-mobiles, buying echo-stuff, making echo-payments, sending the children to echo-school, and spending our evenings watching echo-vision.
How different to be a voice in this world. Do you suppose that is why John the Baptist has taken himself into the wilderness? He has positioned his life so as to have distance from the noise of prevailing attitudes, fashionable opinions, and the mechanisms and pursuits of society at large. He has gone to a space where there is silence enough to hear another Voice. In some sense, we really do have to remove our minds and hearts from the cultural yammering. Without some inner distance and stillness, how can we hear the Word? It doesn’t take moving to the desert. It does require some desert of the heart. It invites a quiet center of prayer that will wait and listen. Any of us can do this. None of us has to live our lives as echoes; we can be a voice. Our lives will have something to say that is distinctive and life-giving if with John we will find a silence where the Word can find us.
Sunday, December 10
Read Isaiah 40:1-11.
The most unforgettable performance of Handel’s Messiah I ever attended was memorable because of the illness of the tenor. His illness had affected his throat. When the orchestra finished the overture, he stood and opened his mouth to sing “Comfort Ye” and what came out was not comforting at all. The voice was raspy and cracked and excruciating. We wondered if he’d stop and sit down. The conductor looked at him with raised eyebrows full of permission to stop, but he kept singing, cracking, breaking all the notes like vases. We all developed a sudden interest in our shoes. Everyone blushed and squirmed as he kept on trying to sing those impossible notes. On and on he tried for six torturous minutes. He sang about valleys coming up but they stayed low, and the mountains wouldn’t budge for him, and so far as we could tell, all the rough places were rougher than they’d ever been before.
He was a good man. In his right voice he could sing the piece beautifully. But on this night before all these expectant faces, he couldn’t get it right, and he just kept singing. · I’m glad now that he did. His public struggle with these words was like a sign.
Our text says, “Get up! Get up to a high mountain and sing out the news.” We answer: God, we can’t, our voices are awful. “Lift up your voice.” God, we’re not sure of ourselves. “Lift it up with strength.” But we’re afraid. “Lift it up, be not afraid. Say to the people: Here is your God.”
Every way we’ve got of bearing witness to the good news can feel flawed. It has always been so. It was so even of the strongest, most famous voice who ever took up this text: the man named John, who became for a time the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. His voice was far from perfect. He knew it. He knew that only the one to come would get it right. But he also knew that God does not command the perfecting of our voice, only that our voice be lifted.
The road to God’s new future seems full of obstacles, detours and delays. But the power of God lifts up valleys and lowers mountains and straightens what is crooked on the way. Including and especially our voices, our lives. If only we’ll offer them, crooked and rough as they may be, the power of God will lift them and use them and make them straight enough to serve.
Monday, December 11
Read Isaiah 11:6; 9:6-7.
Is there a more lovely and whimsical vision in the Bible than of this unlikely collection of animals gathered in peaceable companionship? Wolves, leopards, bears, and lions lying down with lambs, calves, goats, and oxen. Goats and grizzlies have become best friends, a lamb and a wolf munch clover together for breakfast. But no cuteness is intended here. This is poetry for desperate times. The predators in this dream are symbols of devouring empires and tyrannical rulers who live by destroying more vulnerable nations and people. Can predatory nations, individuals, and systems cease to be predatory? The prophet envisions such a time and surprisingly imagines that leading this revolutionary arrangement will be a child.
What do we do with such a vision? Perhaps we start with ourselves. In most of us is both vulnerability and aggression, gentleness and hostility. We can say with Carl Sandberg, “Oh, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie inside my ribs.” But what if the opposing forces in us could be reconciled, integrated in peace with each other? Imagine Christ coming to lead them all together. Imagine the aggression in us calmed to a more peaceable strength, and the easy gentleness in us stirred to greater courage–the gentling of the lion, the roaring of the Lamb with a lion-hearted love? Isn’t he called the Lion and the Lamb? Who else can lead our conflicted lives into wholeness and harmony?
In a children’s picture book called Dance in the Desert, Madeleine L’Engle tells of a man and woman traveling with a caravan through the desert toward Egypt with their young child. One night, when all in the caravan are sitting around the fire, a great lion appears at the edge of the camp, and everyone is terrified. But the child holds out his arms and the lion rises up on his hind legs and, of all things, begins to dance. And then from the desert come little mice, then two donkeys, three eagles, a snake, an ostrich, a unicorn, a pelican, and two dragons. And they all bow to the child and they all dance round and round him as he stands at the center and laughs with delight.
All the beasts within us may bow to that Child, be led by him, and dance for him, God’s peace and God’s delight.
Tuesday, December 12
Read Isaiah 7:10-14.
Martin Buber said, “Each of us is encased in an armor whose task it is to ward off signs. Signs happen to us without respite, living means being addressed, we would need only to be present ourselves and perceive.”
The word sign shows up more than once in the stories of this season. To a king named Ahaz, frightened of an enemy army close by, the prophet Isaiah said: “The Lord will give you a sign. Look, a young woman will conceive and bear a child and shall call his name Emmanuel–God with Us” Then, when an angel visits the shepherds with good news of great joy, he says: “And this will be a sign to you. You will find a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (I doubt the real sign was just a swaddled baby, but that he’d been put in an animal feedbox.)
It is a good thing to live our lives on the look-out for signs. Events and encounters can carry more meaning than may be seen at first glance. It is a matter of paying attention, of pausing to consider and reflect. It is the ongoing project of being open to the possibility that you are being addressed.
In both biblical texts mentioned above, the “signs” are human beings: a mother and child, and a baby in a feedbox. And so it is that most of the signs we are given will come in human encounter. A stranger can be “a sign unto us.” So can a friend. So can any number of others if we look and listen closely enough.
An old, anonymous Christmas poem says it perfectly:
Whether you share the poor man’s mite
or taste the king’s own fare,
He whom you go to meet tonight
will meet you everywhere.
For he is where the cattle wend
and where the planets.
Lo, he is in your eyes, my friend;
stand still, and look in mine.
Wednesday, December 13
Read Ephesians 4:14-16.
Eight-year-old Melissa had learned that her mother would soon have a baby. Melissa was thrilled. One day she was telling her aunt how much she was looking forward to the new arrival, and her aunt replied: “Hey, that’s neat! You’ll soon have a new person in your home.” Melissa frowned. “I don’t want a person. I just want a baby!”
The implications of that sentiment for our Advent and Christmas reflections are not hard to find. As these days go by, our attention turns more and more to Jesus the baby. Nothing wrong with that at all. God’s Love given in a baby is wondrous, precious, and powerful. It speaks of Divine Love as vulnerable, dependent, and entering into the same human experience with us all. But it’s a bad idea to become over-attached to an infant Jesus, to forget that this baby means to grow up in a hurry and challenge the world while redeeming it.
A baby makes demands, but not with words that haunt you. A baby is weaker than we are, can be held for awhile, then passed off to someone else, and is in some ways manipulable. The full-grown Jesus is none of these. For these and other reasons, we prefer the baby to the Person.
As the season keeps moving us toward welcoming a newborn, maybe we should pause to read the Sermon on the Mount and prepare ourselves to be met by the one who will demand that we love our enemies and sell our possessions to give to the poor.
Thursday, December 14
Old people play a big role in the Advent/Christmas stories. Our minds may be mostly on the very young—a baby and his teenage mother, the prophesies of a child, plus all the children whose excitement is front-and-center this time of year. But the Bible stories of this season have a fair sampling of senior citizens. As Luke tells the story, the first characters on the scene are the old couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth—she, who was way past child-bearing age, but got pregnant anyway and gave birth to John the Baptist. Then, when at the end of the story, Mary and Joseph take baby Jesus to the temple, they are met by another elderly pair, Simeon and Anna, age eighty-four. Right or wrong, Joseph himself has been pictured as gray-bearded. And were none of the magi, as we say, pretty “long of tooth?”
The only child at the stable is the baby, but the stories of his arrival include a number of old people. They are present in these narratives in part to remind us that the coming of the child is the fulfilling of ancient promises that faithful people have been hoping and waiting for for a very long time, So it’s fitting that we contemplate these elderly faces, weary with waiting, now lit up with gratefulness and wonder. Old eyes that thought they’d seen it all, now filling up with laughter. Wrinkled hands trembling with praise as they reach for their newborn hope. They cradle him with love that is well-aged.
So if you are feeling your age, congratulations to you! This is your season after all. And if you know some folks who are older than you, think of them these days. Think of ways to show them that it’s faces like theirs the Christ Child came to light up with joy.
Friday, December 14
Read Luke 15:1-2.
Several years ago in the middle of December, one of our boys expressed concern that he was not in the Christmas spirit. The tree was up, the decorations out, the music of the season was playing, and he kept expressing his puzzlement that the usual thrill of the season hadn’t arrived for him.
Most of us can relate to him. The “spirit” of the season, whatever that’s supposed to mean, comes late, if at all. Is the daily news part of the absence? This on top of the usual troubles, busyness, grief, fatigue, financial strain and general annoyance with the season’s pressures and distortions. What chance does the “spirit” have. For that matter, who needs it?
My good friend Gareth Phillips is a singer/songwriter. Some years ago, he and his wife Noelle moved from Ann Arbor to North Carolina. In time, he sent me a Christmas song he’d written and recorded. It is haunting and whimsical, describing the incongruities of the season, the strange new setting for him in the balmy south, the separation from friends, the distance from family. Over and over comes the refrain: “It’s Christmas, but we’re out of range.” But the final verse takes a surprising turn:
When the light came, it didn’t come through the gates of the palace,
but into an open field.
The temple may have been empty, but the stable was hopping,
and the Presence rained down on the prophets and the prostitutes,
lepers and the fishermen, the blind and the lame,
the widows and the lunatics, possessed and dispossessed,
who’d all but forgotten they were waiting for change.
It’s Christmas if you’re out of range.
It’s Christmas because we’re out of range.
Not feeling the “spirit”? Maybe that’s good. Maybe that is what puts us more than ever in range of the real news of the season.
Saturday, December 16
Read Philippians 4:4-7.
I saw this on a Christmas card: “Rejoice, Y’all!” I love the joining of those two words, since rejoice is a stained-glass churchy word, and y’all sounds like bluegrass and grits. “Rejoice” is a sermon; “Rejoice, y’all” is a welcome to the party. When the Apostle Paul says to his friends, “Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say rejoice,” I hear “y’all.” It’s worth knowing that in Paul’s language, the word for joy was a verb as well as a noun. So what he says is, “Let’s joy!”
What is joy? Is it the same as happiness? No, though we might call it deep happiness. Typical happiness comes and goes; joy is less tied to circumstances and feelings. Joy is a subterranean river, not always seen or felt, but there just the same. Up on the surface of your world may be nasty weather, struggles, darkness. But beneath the surface, joy remains, quietly flowing, deeply nourishing, and in certain places springing up–or rising enough toward the surface to be reachable if you dig down to reclaim it and drink deeply of it again.
It’s the digging down to it, the reclaiming of it, that Paul has in mind when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” He knows something about having to dig down for it. He’s writing from prison and suspects he will soon be executed. His friends know this, too, and are worried. “Hey, y’all, let’s joy–in the Lord. I’ll say it again–joy! This is the opposite of what our culture is saying when it offers us a cup of seasonal cheer and says, “Be merry! (And buy something!)” It is a quiet invitation to remember the Source of our hope and of Love for us and all the world. It’s also an urging to make better choices in how we live, because right living is the ratification of joy and the giving of it. Joy, y’all!
Sunday, December 17
Read Luke 1:26-37.
“Hello, favored one. The Lord is with you.” And a startled teenage girl looks up to see an angel. No need to see him sporting wings and golden curls. The word angel means “messenger,” and we might as well imagine him looking like anyone in Palestine. We might also imagine a twinkle in his eye and the hint of a smile on his lips.
But Mary, being smart, is troubled that a stranger such as this is speaking words such as this. So the angel, Gabriel by name, has to say what angels always have to say: “Don’t be afraid”—and he uses her name: “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” Then he goes on to give his news. Mary has found favor with God and will soon bear a child and name him Jesus. He will be called “Son of the Most High,” and “his kingdom will not end.”
Surely a silence follows as Mary tries to take this in. Then she speaks the first words we ever hear her say: “How can this be?” Does she ask it in a panic or in a quiet bewilderment? Her meaning is of course biological. She can’t be pregnant without a man, and since she hasn’t been with a man, the question, How? is the right one and she makes it explicit: “How can this be–since I have not been with a man?” But set the last part aside, and let her first four words hang in the air and grow larger and larger. “How can this be?”
Bless her for asking! Yes, there’s inquisitiveness in it and likely some disbelief. But the words may also communicate wonder, amazement, even awe. “God has found favor in me? I’m to bear this miracle-child? I’m nobody–poor, unmarried, illiterate, a left-out girl in a noplace town. But now I stand in the Presence of the Holy, so favored, overflowing with grace, Eternal Love borne in me! How can this be???
It’s no business of mine to say why God chose Mary to give her DNA to Jesus and to raise him as her own. But I would nominate as one of her qualifications the capacity not only to question an angel, but to feel and give expression to wonder, awe, and amazement. What if we were to make more regular room in ourselves to take such notice of the great Love on our lives that we could join her in wonderment and in her awestruck question?
Monday, December 18
Read Luke 1:38.
Imagine that after Gabriel answers Mary’s question, he grows awkwardly quiet. Imagine that he seems fidgety, almost nervous, looking at Mary with questioning eyes. He needs a response. What will she say?
It’s worth noticing that he doesn’t ask for one. He hadn’t framed his announcement in the form of a question. He just gave her the news, as if there was no decision for her to make. But Mary knows otherwise, and surely the angel knows it too. W. H. Auden, in his Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being, has Gabriel actually say it:
What I am willed to ask, your own
Will has to answer; child it lies
Within your power of choosing to
Conceive the Child who chooses you
What was at stake if she did so? A law was on the books (though generally unenforced) that said a woman pregnant out of wedlock could be stoned to death. Regardless, she would be shamed and ostracized. So we should see her reply as an act of courage, even defiance: “I am the servant of the Lord.(Not the servant of my social system or of other people’s opinion or of a future I had hoped for–but of the Lord!) Let it be to me according to your word!”
The woman who consented to bear the scandal of the Messiah in her body was a woman of courage, entirely and bravely given to the purpose of God for her and for her oblivious world. She said Yes. Thank God she said it, and thank God her son never stopped saying it.
Of the moment before Mary’s reply, Frederick Buechner wrote:
“The angel, the whole creation, even God himself, all hold their breath as they wait upon the answer of a girl.” In this season of waiting for Christ, we should consider the possibility that God is also waiting, waiting for us.
Tuesday, December 19
Read Luke 1:39-56.
Mary of Nazareth is classically imagined as rather quiet, maybe because Luke tells us three times that Mary “pondered” various happenings. Christmas carols sometimes call her “mild,” since a word has to be found that rhymes with “child.” But at least one report shows her to be ferocious. She has a sharp eye and a prophet’s voice. She sing out God’s judgment on the mighty and God’s vindication of the vulnerable. For centuries her song has been called the Magnificat (Latin for the first word of her song]. C. S. Lewis described it starkly: “The Magnificat is terrifying… It makes our blood run cold. If there is not mildness in the Virgin Mother… where shall we turn?” Her song is like a roar.
It begins in joyous praise of what God has done for her–in view of her “lowliness.” Then she grows more fiery, declaring that God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and “brought down the powerful from their thrones”,,, “lifted up the lowly”… “filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Make no mistake: she is referring to social realities and to God’s reversal of the present power arrangements. She knows that God takes the side of the poor, the denigrated, the vulnerable–and that through her son, God will be at work in a yet more powerful mercy to lift them up.
But what if you and I are not among the hungry and the lowly whose happy rising Mary sings of? What if we are the proud, the rich, the privileged? What do with her song? We pray for dear life that the Mighty One cast us down from our thrones. We ask the Love of God to lead us to our emptiness and make us rightly poor, and to bring us as low as we need to be so as to be lifted, as God delights to do for the lowly.
The Renaissance painter Botticelli painted a scene of Mary actually writing the Magnificat. It is not a time-bound representation: she is surrounded by angelic figures, one of whom is crowning her as she writes on a page in Latin! The loveliest thing about it is that Jesus, as a baby, has his hand
on her wrist as she writes, joining her in the writing of it. Whatever else this image may suggest, it points to the truth that what God will do with the mighty and the lowly has deep connection to the coming of Jesus to the world.
Wednesday, December 20
Read Matthew 1:18-19.
Joseph is the only character in the Advent and Christmas stories who never says a world. Everyone else in the pageant (except the baby) gets at least one line. Zecharian, Elizabeth, Mary, the angels, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, the Magi, Herod, and John the Baptist–they all get a voice. The husband of Mary doesn’t. ‘
Is he the strong silent type? Is he stepping back for the spotlight to be entirely on the mother and child? Or is he concerned, calculating in his head: “How am I going to pay for all this?” Or is he just shy and awkward around babies and big to-do’s? Whatever we may imagine of Joseph, we can let him serve as a stand-in for everyone who feels like they don’t have much to say, especially in this season. I am referring not just to you introverts, but to you whose current life-situations or frame of mind or absence of feeling leaves you pretty much without words. In the Christmas play, you get to be Joseph.
And how should you look as you play his part? Like you’re confused? Exhausted? Seriously troubled? Regardless, here’s a happy thought: this story isn’t about some happily married couple who get everything they want, including this baby. The story is about two people who are pressed hard, worn out, and, perhaps in Joseph’s case, dazed with uncertainties. The Christmas story always was and always will be for plain people under pressure. If that’s who you are, let everybody else do the talking and the singing. For now, just stand beside Joseph, and listen. Rest yourself, and listen.
Thursday, December 21
Read Matthew 1:20-25.
Some dreams you wake from slowly, like you’re deep underwater and must swim to the surface. Other dreams throw you out of sleep so fast you sit bolt upright. I’ll bet Joseph woke from his dream with a start, as wide awake as he’d ever been before, for this dream wrecked his plans and insisted that he completely revise his life. I’m
He had made as good a plan as could be made in a terrible situation. His fiancee is pregnant with a child that isn’t his. Now he must work out what to do with her. Being a carpenter, he is accustomed to fixing things, calculating and recalculating, making a plan and sticking to it, repairing damage, imposing his expert control. So now he takes control of the Mary-situation, And being a good man, he makes the kindest decision he knows to make: He will quietly divorce her. Quietly (I miss the King James rendering: “privily”!) There will be no punishing, no public shaming, no tantrums, no drama. Just a discrete transaction, then she can go, perhaps with relatives to another town.
But the dream ruins the plan. An angel tells him to put aside control and to try some trust. God has overruled the rulebook. The Holy Spirit has been outrageously at work. Joseph is to release his illusion of being in charge. He must stop trying to manage Mary and start believing her, being a partner, and following her lead. He is to take a leap of faith, which will be a leap of love.
Above all, he will now have to make room in his life for a Child. Room in his house and in his marriage and in his lap and in his way. This Child will ask you questions, rearrange your priorities and your furniture. He will ask to be taken places. He will bring you laughter and tears and new discoveries. And he’ll grow. Every year you let him live with you, he grows larger and larger, till he fills up your life. We are all being asked to make room in our lives for this.
What do you do after such a dream? Here’s what Joseph does. He gets up from his bed, goes into his shop, carefully selects the perfect pieces of wood, and begins to make a cradle.
Friday, December 22
Read Isaiah 60:1-6.
The picture shown below was drawn by an artist of my acquaintance. It includes some new features in the Christmas story that bear some reflection.
Before the shepherds or wise men arrive, and while Joseph was apparently gone out for some air, we have a moment when the barnyard animals gather round to adore baby Jesus. He’s being cradled in his smiling mother’s arms. She’s holding him high, higher than anyone else in the room, for they all know how important he is. Someone else also knows, and has thoughtfully attached rockers to Mary’s chair and even to the manger, the better to welcome and comfort him. Surely this is Joseph’s work, but don’t you wish we’d thought of it?
In attendance are three unlikely animals. A duck is standing on the manger for a better view. The duck means that the Ridiculous are welcome in the presence of Jesus. And a rooster is there, just behind Mary, slightly ashamed of himself. The rooster means that the Proud are welcome in the presence of Jesus, though they will be humbled. And of all things, there is a pig. What’s a pig doing in a Jewish barn? Who invited him? The pig means the Not-Clean are welcome in the presence of Jesus–by special invitation of the smiling Child.
On top of the stable stands an angel, grinning like Christmas and juggling stars. The angel is enormous–no wonder they always have to say “Fear not!” But how can he not be huge? He stands for God’s dream: peace on earth among all who are so favored. He stands for God’s Love over all us Ridiculous, Proud, Not-Clean creatures, with welcoming arms stretched out across the whole sky.
Saturday, December 23
Read John 1:9-14 and Romans 5:6-8.
Let us not forget that every birth, sooner or later, will be followed by a death. This fact is worth considering as we approach the Child in Bethlehem. If we are to believe that in this baby, God wondrously joins us in our full humanity, then we are to understand that God is fully joining us in our mortality. The newborn Word is not inhabiting flesh, or wearing flesh like a costume. This is a more terrible thing: the Word has become flesh–and won’t get out alive. Divine Love has cut all ropes, sealed all exits, and is Self-marooned in a human life with all its limits and no exit but death.
The circumstances of his birth point to the manner of his death. Joseph and Mary are in crowded Bethlehm because the greed of the empire has ordered them there to be taxed. Empires extract resources from the places and people they colonize. This is what puts Mary in a barn to have her baby far away from family and home. The same empire, to keep the “peace” and assure subservience, will drive nails through the flesh of her son. His mortality will be administered efficiently and cruelly. Into this empire Love chooses to be born and so chooses to die.
T.S. Eliot wrote a poem in which one of the magi asks: what
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death
But had thought they were different: this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
Is the Advent/Christmas gospel an unmitigated good? We say yes. But when Mary laid her infant in the manger, she was laying him already in the tomb. And in all the lights and the music of that night, nobody noticed there were tears in the angels’ eyes.
Sunday, Christmas Eve
Read Luke 2:8-15.
“Shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Peasants at their low-wage work. Why them? Because this is heaven’s characteristic move. These men are poor, and society shows them no respect. Besides, they’re awake. So of course they’re the ones to whom the good news is first given.
It scares them. They are “sore afraid,” as the old version has it, which is to say, they are terrified. Who wouldn’t be? The sudden appearance of a celestial being, while “the glory of the Lord shone round about them.” This “glory” is a blinding light out of nowhere, flooding the shepherds, covering them in unbearable brightness. Yes–sore afraid!
Soon enough, the fear will subside, at least a little. The angel tells his great news, and after the sky has stopped ringing with ecstatic music, the shepherds “make haste” to go and “see this great thing.” But let’s return for a moment to their fear. See their bright-white-lit, terrified faces in freeze-frame. See how their bodies reel, or fall. That’s how their Christmas story begins. And though their particular fear is explainable by the sight of the glory of God, it can also be seen as a snapshot of us.
We do not speak much of our fears, but we have them. And maybe among our fears are some that resemble the shepherds’: fear that the world is ending, fear of God’s nearness and Otherness, fear of what will happen to us, fear of what will be required and of what will follow.
On Christmas Eve, we sing that simplest and tenderest carol, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Sweet as it is, I’m glad it includes the line, “shepherds quake at the sight.” But their fears were quietened. Not by an angel who said, “Don’t be afraid,” but by gazing on the Holy Child. That is our only calling today and tonight: to gaze at the child in wonder. That is all. Fears, for now at least, can be quieted, even overcome, by the inner hush of this holy night.
Monday, Christmas Day
Read John 1:1-5, 14.
“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And God started speaking the Word–but not many people understood it. God spoke through Nature: sang the Word in the splendor of sunsets, whispered it down from the night sky, murmured it in from the sea, shouted it from the mountains. And most of us were awestruck, but the Word itself was hard to grasp. “get it.” And if we did at least partially “get it,” we couldn’t keep it.
So God spoke the Word again, over and over. Into Scripture God spoke the Word. In tablets of stone at Sinai, in a splurge of stories about slaves set free and tyrants thrown down, God spoke. In the ringing words of prophets like Amos, in the great music of singers like David, God spoke and sang and shouted and whispered.
We didn’t get it. Possibly, we weren’t paying close attention. And maybe it was drowned out by all the racket we humans make. Maybe we’re just too dimwitted to catch on. Or maybe we’re not that dumb, but frankly wanted nothing to do with what God might be saying. Whatever the reason, here was God, calling and calling and not getting through, as the world kept slipping further and further away. The echoes of the Word grew fainter and fainter.
So God did a new thing. At the center of the Infinite came a constriction. The Word gathered into God’s heart. It gathered like a life in a woman’s womb. And in the fullness of time the Word tore out of God’s heart with a cry, and uttered itself on the earth as, of all things, a baby. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”–so that in new and eye-opening ways, we can start to ‘get it.” Jesus is what God has always been trying to say.
Let the Word to you today be Joy. Let it be Peace. Let it be the truest, deepest Love.