Advent as a Way of Life

The Annunciation (Creative Commons Image by Emily on Flickr)

I wonder if the annunciation to Mary might function as a summary of the Advent season; a “hindsight is 20/20” kind of experience, kind of theology, kind of Sunday.

Here we are. The last Sunday of Advent. Looking back on the last three Sundays, the last four weeks, what has this season actually meant? Why does it matter? A preacher might need to answer such questions, especially three days before Christmas, when the last four weeks have seemed like a blur of parties and Christmas paper and pageants. What difference has it made to wait, prepare, anticipate for four weeks? Perhaps recognition of Advent’s meaning might occur in remembrance. And perhaps this is an essential truth of how we make sense of what we have experienced. That is, we can only interpret the full meaning or meanings of past experiences in the present recollect — and even in the possible trajectory into our future.

Mary is our model, our example, our witness, our sister who voices for us a pattern of Christmas expectancy and Christmas response. She embodies our Christmas feelings, our Christmas questions, our Christmas ponderings, not only in response to the time leading up to Christmas but also in our post-Christmas reality.

How does she do this?

First, we discover that Mary doesn’t really do anything. She is favored. Regarded. The angel Gabriel comes to her. She doesn’t seek this encounter out. God seeks her out. It’s important to ask, would we really, honestly, seek God out given the chance? Or would we find ways of avoidance, absconding to our places where who we are will not be found out, abdicating our own need for or trust in God lest God might decide that our loyalty is not worth the effort or a chance worth taking?

Second, we learn that Mary is perplexed. No kidding. At the same time, the only thing Gabriel has said so far is “the Lord is with you.” There’s been no mention of pregnancy or a virgin birth. Rather, simply, the Lord is with you. Let’s be honest. Perplexity is exactly our response when the Lord shows up. To me? Why me? Why now? I think we underestimate the impact of what it means to know that God is actually around. Here. With us. Doesn’t God have better things to do? Bigger things to take care of? More major issues to maintain besides me? Perhaps some more perplexity would do us well.

Third, Mary asks, “how can this be?” To what extent is Mary’s question here the called-for response when it comes to the amazing things God does? Mary not only utters these words for the sake of herself but also for the sake of God. God, really? Is this really what you want to do? Are you sure? Being human? Subjecting yourself to the vulnerability of humanity? You may want to rethink this.

Fourth, Mary makes a commitment. “Here am I.” Like the prophets of old, she commits herself to the God who chooses the unexpected. At the same time, she entrusts herself to a new self, to a willingness to imagine a future beyond her present, to embrace an identity of which she has little knowledge or understanding but to which she willing to commit.

Wow. Thanks, Mary.

Mary’s witness in the season of Advent invites us move outside our liturgical constraints to imagine the meaning of a liturgical season beyond its weeks; beyond our propensities to locate responses to faith, living out faith, understanding faith that are inextricably tied to events established by religious institutions. Mary’s response is honest and truthful. It marks time. It acknowledges that the activity of God in our lives cannot acquiesce to easy assent or understanding, that God coming to us will set in motion a course of life, a series of events, a believing trajectory over which we will have little control.

In this sense, in Mary’s sense, Advent establishes a way of life. A way of faith life. That is, so much of how we experience life can be identified with or connected to this pattern — a sense of favor and regard, feeling perplexed, voicing our concern, confusion, wonder, amazement, and then a response voiced liked the prophets of old, “I’m here, God.” This is true not only for the specific, localized, and concrete events in our life. It is also true for the arc of our life of faith. In other words, the pattern set by Mary — regard, perplexity, questioning, commitment — provides the template for action in and understanding of specific moments in our life but also establishes a means by which we might envision the entirety of our relationship with God.

I like the idea that Advent might matter beyond this Sunday — that it has a bearing on our life after its own ending, even after the season of Christmas is officially over. Why? Not just because it helps us appreciate the reason for a season; not just because it gives cogency to how the church has decided to organize theological time; not just because it encourages preachers that all of this really matters; but because I like the idea of Advent as away of life, a way of life that seems to resonate with the meaning of incarnation. You see, regard, perplexity, questioning, commitment sums up God becoming human, our response to this decision of God, and how we seem to make sense of our own human condition. I need that the incarnation matters past December 25. I need that I matter to God beyond God’s initial regard. I suspect you do as well and so do our parishioners.

Maybe this can be the year to live an Advent way of life.