During a retreat several weeks ago, we were invited to sit with Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “Three Times My Life Has Opened,” to reflect and journal about three significant transition points in our lives. Three times our lives have opened. Three watershed moments.
My mind went to that moment when I was 17 years old. When I moved away from my immediate family in Oklahoma to attend Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, Pa., for my senior year.
I had grown up as a missionary kid in Mexico and as a third-culture kid in Dallas and Tulsa. The move was about the dream of playing basketball. But it was also about a desire to discover family roots and the Mennonite community that had shaped my parents lives.
It was a watershed moment.
When young Mary received the message that she was going to give birth to one who would be called Son of the Most High . . . when she opened herself to the mystery of what this word meant for her as a virgin, as a human being . . .
— it was a watershed moment.
Watershed moments change the course of our lives. They are moments that are bigger than we can fully comprehend. They are moments that we live into.
Mary models the ability to question and see our limitations as human beings, but also the capacity to turn to wonder.
In a world of rational answers, in a world that conditions us to the accept how things really work — how do we leave room for wonder? For the possibility that God is at work in the world, in this moment, in ways that require us to pay attention.
Because Mary turns to wonder, she is able to receive the gift given to her. Mary trusts even though she doesn’t understand all that is happening.
When we are in this kind of a place, we need to find companions for the journey. Mary finds this space at the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Turning to wonder requires courage. When we cannot see clearly how things are going to work out, it is a gift to have spaces that help hold mystery. It is a gift to have people who bear witness to what is stirring within us.
Elizabeth does this for Mary. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she bears witness that what is being formed in Mary is of God. The child in her own womb bears witness by leaping for joy at the sound of Mary’s greeting.
Mary believed that there would be a fulfillment to the word that was spoken to her by the Lord. But believing also means waiting.
It means waiting for the miracle of life to grow within her womb, waiting for baby Jesus to grow up day after day, waiting to discover the meaning of Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would also pierce her own soul.
Stanley Hauerwas says that Advent is patience. He says it’s about God making us into a people who are able to live patiently in an impatient, violent world. Because of Christ.
Allowing ourselves to be formed into Advent patience is hard. Especially when we feel the pain of all that is not yet as it should be. We want to lash out and make things right. We want justice. We want validation. Or, we may feel weary of all the conflict. We may want to withdraw and become detached.
Mary’s story calls us to a different kind of response. One that is fully engaged from a place of humility and love. One that sees our small ordinary lives as having something to do with God’s work in the world. Even beyond our lifetime.
Mary proclaims that God’s work in the world has to do with changing the way things are. Not in the by and by, but in the here and now. God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God brings down the powerful from their thrones. God lifts up the lowly. God fills the hungry with good things. God sends the rich away empty.
I can’t help but hear Mary’s words in the text through the events of last week — a week in which we saw images of a black man, Eric Garner, choked to death by a white police officer. A week in which we heard the news that even though the medical examiner officially called this a “homicide,” a grand jury said no charges will be made.
Mary’s words call me, as a white person of privilege, to wrestle with what it means to be embedded in a system that treats persons of color differently. Mary’s words disturb our easy answers that claim if you work hard, no matter your skin color, things will work out.
A mystic once compared human nature to a stable inhabited by the ox of passion (desire) and the ass of prejudice (fear). Advent calls us to examine how we are feeding the ox of desire and the ass of prejudice in our lives. Advent calls us to create space to turn to wonder and learn patience as we wait for God’s word to be fulfilled in us.
Let me offer a few practical ideas for how we might do this. . . .
- Be intentional about creating space personally. Find at least one spiritual practice which helps you remember God each day. Something like an Advent devotional.
- Be intentional about creating space corporately. You could create space at your family table before meals to light a candle and read a scripture passage.
- Be intentional about creating space in your life to listen to the stories of others. How might you find a way to listen to the perspective of someone whose experience in the world is very different from yours?
Maybe that means you step out of your comfort zone and go to a community vigil promoting peace and justice in the midst of racial tensions.
Maybe it means you read a book written by someone whose skin color is different than yours. (Prophesy Deliverance by Cornell West and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone are books I think I need to read.)
These are just a few ideas for how we might get the ox and the ass in our stable to make room for Jesus.
May God give us grace and courage to be like Mary.
In the midst of the all that is broken in a violent and impatient world, may we turn to wonder so that Christ may be formed in us and so that light may shine in the midst of darkness.
Brian Miller is the lead pastor of Sunnyside Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa. This is based on a sermon he preached there, also available on the blog, The Work of Formation.
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