Shhhh

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The Incarnation is strange. Amidst all the gifts under the tree wrapped in ribbons and shiny paper, it’s the one wrapped in wrinkled paper, with its bow crumpled and askew. Inside is something you didn’t ask for; in fact, it’s the opposite. Instead of the latest iPhone, it’s a pair of socks.

At least, this is how I imagine the Incarnation seemed to a world waiting for a Messiah, long ago.

Longing for God to act powerfully and unmistakably as he had in the past, God’s people waited for a miraculous intervention. You know, something dramatic, like the ten plagues or the parting of the Red Sea. But there was no obvious miracle on Christmas. No, just a small, everyday miracle: a healthy birth, remarkable only to the parents who know His true provenance, some shepherds who had a vision and three foreigners who followed a star.

For the rest of the weary world, this gift was just another Jewish boy born into occupation and poverty, one more generation waiting to hear God speak through His prophets, one more generation longing for God’s rescue. For all the world knew or cared, this child was like thousands of others born that day.

The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” paints a beautiful picture of the strange beauty of the Incarnation.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”

No fanfare to demand our attention. For the world that so desperately waited for a Messiah and the pageantry that would announce him, the child arrived in deafening silence. They continued to hope and to pray for deliverance, never knowing that it had arrived and lived among them.

And even once He came into His ministry, His very ordinariness was reason to overlook Him. When Jesus proclaimed that He was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah, the crowd responded, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” They might as well have said, “This is not the gift, nor the wrapping, we imagined.”

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

This year, my Christmas Eve will be different. Usually, Christmas Eve is music and laughter and loud conversations. Instead of a houseful of people and too much food, it is just the two of us (well, four if you count the cats). We might go out to eat, or I might make a simple dinner before we head off to church. I am surprisingly OK with this. As much as I have loved all those boisterous Christmas Eves with family and friends, somehow having a quiet Christmas Eve feels right this year.

I want to to have the space and the silence to notice how quietly Christ enters: My Stealth Savior.

Like the world He was born into, I am waiting for miraculous interventions. I wait for prayers to be answered. I wait for suffering to stop, for children to be rescued from war, for persecutions to end. I want the big, Technicolor miracles. And I may see one or two. While I wait, I want to be quiet and take my eyes off the bright, shiny objects. I want to look instead at the homely gift I didn’t ask for, but that will be exactly what I need.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in

I wish you a joyous, silent Christmas.

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I shift in my seat.
I grumble and mumble.
I roll my eyes and let out exaggerated, exasperated sighs.

This is how I wait.

I’m not proud of this, mind you. I know that petulance never makes the line move faster or the plane take off any sooner. But man, I hate to wait.

There seems to be only two ways to wait: passively and actively.
The passive waiter is patient, unhurried, easygoing. In other words, not me. No, I take charge and act: I switch lines or switch flights. I make things happen, though often action born of impatience turns out to be ill-advised, unwise and generally not a good idea.

But Advent shows us a third way of waiting.

In Advent, we see a push-and-pull of action and stillness, of active preparation and passive acquiescence that leads to nothing less than a miracle.

Mary and Joseph are able to act decisively and boldly when it is required of them to act. They both actively collaborated with God’s plan when they each said “Yes” to the angel’s proclamation to them. Mary wastes no time hurrying to Elizabeth when she hears of her miraculous pregnancy. Joseph obeys his visions and marries Mary, then takes his family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous rampage.

Yet, they are also able to be still, to rest and allow God to work out his purpose, in His time, in His way. They could prepare for his birth, but nothing they could do — no amount of  impatience — could hasten the birth.  Once their son was born, they would feed and clothe, nourish and instruct him in the the faith. But their actions could not prepare them for the singular challenge of raising the Messiah, for watching Him die, or seeing the glory of His resurrection. For this they could only depend on God’s action, and they did.

Mary and Joseph live in this tension of action and rest, knowing and not knowing. They are able to live “in the meantime”, not with passive inertia nor with frantic, panicked activity.

They know the difference between what is theirs to do and what is God’s.

In Advent we mark the time when we wait for Christ to be born in us.

  With Mary, we ponder how God will use us to bring about his Kingdom.

  With Mary, we wonder how He will make life where there is none.

  With Mary, we hear ourselves say, “I don’t see how you’re going to use me, but I’m willing.”

  With Mary, we do what is asked of us, then wait with patient trust and expectancy.

The first Advent, and every one since, marks the uneasy, uncomfortable, hidden, mysterious, beautiful time when we are asked to act and wait, to be still and to be on the move, to do our part and to leave room for what God will do.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability —and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually — let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
                                             (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

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The Gift of Hope

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This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope.  

I don’t mean the kind of hope we casually toss about in our every day conversations. We say “I hope you feel better” and what we really mean is that we want it to be true, and — fingers crossed — maybe it will be. It is no more than a wish we might make on a shooting star.

That kind of hope is easy, cheap and useless.

No, the hope I want is different. Not a facile, throwaway pleasantry, the hope I want is grounded in certainty and expectation. When God’s people say they have hope, it means they fully expect something to happen, despite any evidence to the contrary.

In the times of trouble, when darkness whispers that there is no light and never will be again, people of hope hear another voice. Probably the most radical thing the Christian faith teaches is that even in these dark moments — especially in these dark moments — we can can hear that other voice, reminding us that God is faithful. Faint at first, then growing stronger and louder, we hear the words that say we can hope in God because He has never forsaken us and never will.

Although we can’t be certain how or why or when, hope says we can be confident that God will act.

Scripture is full of this kind of hope. The Psalms declare over and over God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; the Prophets warn of God’s judgement, but just as often remind us of his inviolable covenant with us. But for my money, if you want to know what real hope looks like, listen to Mary’s song in the gospel of Luke:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Now this is a young woman who has every reason to be afraid and worried. She knows that her pregnancy will, at best, make her the subject of gossip, snickering and shaming. She knows that at worst, it could lead to her death as an adulterer.  She has been given the unimaginable responsibility of raising the Messiah, something nothing can really prepare you for.

And yet she has hope — not the wishing kind that would have her saying, “Man,it would really be nice if God shows up!”

Her hope is the expecting kind, the kind that says, “I know what God has done in the past, and I know He will do it again.”

Confession: There’s a cynical world-weariness still lurking in dark corners of my soul that thinks this not something a real person could actually do or feel in times of trouble. The Mary I met in Sunday school was someone so impossibly holy that although I found her admirable, she was no more real than a princess in a fairy tale.

And yet, as I have grown in age and faith, I know that there are people — real people — who have the same kind of expecting hope as Mary. Real people who face uncertainty with the certainty that God will act. Ordinary people who face death — their own or others’ — with a peace that undergirds to their grief. And I ask myself, how do they do it?  How did Mary? 

The answer lies in the angel’s declaration to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is what will make the impossible — a virgin conceiving — happen. It is also what makes it possible for her to have the joyous hope she sings about in her great song of praise.

Her expecting hope is nothing less than a gift of the Holy Spirit.

My jaded reaction that having this kind of hope isn’t something that real people could do is partly right: it isn’t something that comes naturally to us, or something we can manufacture. It is a gift we receive from God, a gift we can ask for and that will be joyfully given, a gift we can nurture, a gift that is nothing less than a beautiful mystery.

This gift allows Mary and us to do two things: remember God’s faithfulness to the individual and the community.   First, the gift of the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has already done for her:

“For He who is mighty has done great things for me”  

Second, the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has done for her community:

“He has shown strength with his arm…
he has exalted those of humble estate …
he has filled the hungry with good things …
He has helped his servant Israel …”
This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to come upon me and the power of the Most High to overshadow me, as He did to Mary.   I am praying Paul’s powerful prayer from Romans Chapter 15 over myself and over a world sorely in need:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope.”

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