I offered this reflection as part of a contemplative retreat on Saturday, December 3rd at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The theme of the retreat was Be Born in Us: Preparing for the Advent of Christ.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ -Luke 1:39-45
Imagine: two women stand, side by side, at the edge of the world.
Behind them, receding from view, the conventional lives that they expected—lives of predictable joy and predictable sorrow, all held safely within the boundaries of what they already understood. Behind them, now, the future that they had been preparing for—the one that the world had prepared them for from their earliest days.
Here they stand, bearers of good news carried on the lips of angels. Here they stand, backs turned on all of those old certainties, facing instead toward a great unknown.
True, the villagers in this unnamed Judean hill town might just see two women like any other, shoulder to shoulder, staring out at nothing in particular. Hands instinctively resting upon their bellies. Two regular women, pausing to catch their breath, perhaps, caught up in a memory, or a daydream, or a question.
And why has this happened to me? asks Elizabeth.
They might still look the same as before, but inside, it feels as though they are standing at the edge of the earth, at the edge of a wide and restless sea, knowing that whatever must come next is out there beyond the solidity of the ground beneath their feet. But how does one step out into the unknown? How does one learn to walk on water?
The sun is coming out. The light is bright in their eyes.
Are they weeping? Are they laughing? Maybe both? Who can say?
But at the very least, they are willing.
Yes, let it be done according to your word. Blessed are we among women.
For Mary and Elizabeth, one just beginning her life and one late in her years, there is a new type of kinship on this day. Not just one of blood, and not just because they both find themselves unexpectedly bearing a child in their womb.
No, they are kindred spirits in this moment because they, like so many others before and after them, have come to the edge of what they know, of who they thought they were, and now must ask themselves:
How do I prepare for whatever comes next?
How do I prepare for the things nobody told me about? The things I could not have seen coming? How do I prepare for the bottom dropping out, for the unimaginable news at the door?
And how do I prepare for God, who comes like a thief in the night, making off with my comforts and my complacency, leaving me instead with strange, shadowy miracles and a song on my lips, only half-understood?
How do I prepare when I could not have ever prepared for this?
These, ultimately, are questions for all of us. And at their heart, they are Advent questions.
Because Advent, far from simply being a cozy, quiet season ahead of Christmas, is actually a season of learning how to live with that which is unknown and unresolved in our hearts and in our world.
It is the season of waiting and of preparation for Christ, but it is also the season that reminds us that preparation only brings us so far, because what lies ahead—the fullness of who God will be for us, who God will ask us to be for Him—is inevitably surprising and more expansive and more wondrous than we can imagine. It demands all, even as it redeems all.
What will be revealed to us, Lord, when you arrive? What will be revealed about us when you arrive? How can we ever prepare ourselves for you, when you are so much more than we understand?
And yet, even as we ask such unanswerable questions, even as we stand facing the unknown, there is new life stirring within us, leaping with joy at the promise of His appearing.
So we come here today to ask such questions, to notice this joy, to find kinship with Mary and Elizabeth: to dare to believe that God can indeed be born in each of us, even if we feel utterly unprepared for that to be possible. Even if it scares us a little bit.
It should scare us a little bit, if we’re honest. The truly important things always do.
I invite you to consider what you need this year during Advent—if there is a prayer or a question on your heart in this season of your life. I invite you, right now, to take a moment and close your eyes and call it to mind.
Feel the significance of that need or prayer or question within you, how your body holds it. Is it light? Is it heavy? Is it comforting? Is it unsettling?
What is God calling forth from within you?
My hope is that you will carry that intention with you in this season, that you will spend some time being very honest with God and with yourself—that you will consider what it is that you need, and who you are becoming, and that you will name these things—whether in conversation with others or in the silence of prayer with God.
Because the strange thing is that even if we cannot perfectly prepare for the unknown future, it is in knowing God and ourselves more deeply, and in knowing one another more deeply, that we will be able to bear it, whatever comes, whenever it comes.
Even if, sometimes, it feels like you are standing at the edge of the world, remember that you are not standing there alone. You are in solidarity with Mary and Elizabeth and with every person who has ever longed to let the powerful love of God be born in them, to transform them, to take them out beyond certainty, beyond complacency, into the wide and eternal mystery of grace.
Today we step out upon those waters, trusting that they will hold. Trusting the spirit of God who lives and moves within us. Trusting that the life of God which we carry will ultimately carry us.
For this is, in the end, how we truly prepare: by being bearers of love. By letting God’s love be born in us each day, no matter what happens. Standing side by side in the light of sun, facing forward, saying yes, saying come, saying even though I will never be ready, I am willing. Blessed are we. Blessed are we.
Are we weeping? Are we laughing? Maybe both? Who can say?
But we are willing. Yes, whatever comes, let us be willing.