December 19, 2021, Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Unwrapped Package of Advent
Last week I spent a few days in Washington DC, making the acquaintance of my new grandson. Each day I watched my son and daughter in law bring in packages from the porch, as they prepared for baby’s first Christmas. Cookies were cooling on the counter. The fragrances of ginger, peppermint and pine needles surrounded us. I shared stories of my son’s childhood and some of the songs I sang to him when he was a baby.
So many emotions and sensations swirl around us at this time each year: Arrivals, deliveries, waiting, celebrating, bittersweet memories of those who have left us, rejoicing at new life. Reunions are extra sweet this year, after an extended period without family gatherings. Children have been born or have grown, there’s an empty place at the table, a Christmas card arrives with extra-shaky writing, another entry in the family address book has to be crossed out.
Things have changed since the time before Covid. The latest viral variant threatens to shut down holiday gatherings. We don’t leave the house without a mask and some hand sanitizer. All our plans are contingent and subject to cancellation. It’s a complicated, unsettling, disappointing time.
And yet, and yet: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Mary’s Magnificat rings out today as powerful and as revolutionary as ever, a defiant manifesto by a young girl whom the world disregarded, but who would turn out to be the instrument of God’s salvation.
Advent means “coming”. Grammatically it’s a present participle, implying that something is on the way, is in process, is real and certain, but has not yet come to fruition. This is the time in between, the time when we have heard and believed the promise but not yet seen it in its fullness.
The Rev. Fleming Rutledge writes: “In a very real, deep sense the entire Christian life in this world is lived in Advent, between the first and second comings of the Lord, in the midst of the tension between things the way they are and things the way they ought to be.” End quote.
We are Advent people, living out our lives in this in-between time. We enter into relationships hoping for the way things ought to be. We bring children into the world and make commitments of all kinds in this tension, hoping for something that we cannot yet see. And, because we are in between times, we live with something less than that which we dream of, we live with things the way they are.
At this point in Advent, less than a week before Christmas, there is a lot of anxiety going around, even in a “normal” year. Will the gifts you’ve ordered arrive in time? Will the goodies you’re baking turn out well? Will your loved ones be disappointed by what you give them? Will bad weather delay the visitors you’re longing to see? And this year in particular: will everyone stay healthy, and will the restaurant bookings and theater tickets and church services be affected by this pesky Omicron variant?
There is room for so much to go wrong. Packages of all kinds that turn out to be empty or worthless: people who disappoint, promises broken, expectations dashed. Ambition, wealth, competition, so many glittering packages that in the end fail to deliver. CS Lewis gives us a vivid parable in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he describes Narnia under the sway of the White Witch, “Where it’s always winter and never Christmas.” The church fathers were wise to schedule Christmas at the solstice: the gradual return of the sun after December 21 is a promise that we desperately need to be fulfilled, and its coinciding with the Nativity, the coming of the light into our world, has a beautiful logic to it.
Listen to this poem by Margaret Atwood that captures the mysterious promise of the season.
This is the solstice, the still point
of the sun, its cusp and midnight,
the year’s threshold
and unlocking, where the past
lets go of and becomes the future;
the place of caught breath, the door
of a vanished house left ajar.
In our faith tradition, the familiar stories of angels, babies, shepherds are balm to our frayed spirits at this time of year. As we hear Luke’s narrative unfold each year we can greet each character as an old friend: Gabriel, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, Mary, Joseph, even the reluctant innkeeper, all are welcome. We know this story. We know what we will find when we unwrap this package. In the midst of an uncertain and unpredictable world, we find comfort in the familiarity, the inevitability of the Advent season’s trajectory. “This is the truth sent from above,” as the old carol goes, “the truth of God, the God of love”.
In our broken world we make distinctions between rich and poor, rulers and ruled, predator and prey. In each of those dyads, the first has a voice, the second, not so much. We expect important people to dominate the headlines; but in our salvation story over and over it’s the small, the overlooked, the insignificant, whom God chooses for great things.
Bethlehem, the least of the clans of Judah, becomes the birthplace of the long-awaited Messiah. The one who will give the bread of life to the world will be born in a town whose very ordinary name means the house of bread. The warble of a newborn’s cry carries more promise for humanity than the loudest pronouncement from the seat of government.
Someone has pointed out that in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, the men are silent: unusually for Scripture, here it is the women who lift up their voices to praise, proclaim, and prophesy. As Sojourner Truth wrote, the Savior was born through the cooperation of Mary and the Holy Spirit: men had nothing to do with it.
Mary and Elizabeth, two women facing the real danger of childbirth, come together and each sees in the other a sister in faith, a bearer of unique promise. Elizabeth recognizes Mary’s baby as her Lord, recognizes Mary as someone uniquely chosen by God. Mary, encouraged and empowered by her cousin’s recognition, sings of the transformed world her son will initiate. The unborn babies in this story are wrapped packages, who, when they are unwrapped and come into the world, will turn it upside down.
This holy season of Advent presents us with a package yet to be unwrapped. Blessed is the one who believes in the gift that will be revealed to the world when the days of Advent are fulfilled.
Our King and Savior now draws near. O come, let us adore him.