This womb of mine will not know the pangs of pregnancy. My skin will not tighten when another body becomes part of my flesh. My inner organs will not shift to make room; my ankles will not swell; my appetite will not increase because my body is making another person.
This womb is empty, creased. That potential has been offered upon an altar, a sacrifice. “I vow to God Almighty to live consecrated celibacy for the rest of my life and into the next,” I once proclaimed in front of my Franciscan sisters, family and friends, surrounded by statues of saints, standing firm. I have vowed to keep this womb empty so that I can live a life of boundless love, devoted service and deep prayer
How do you pray?
Do you pray with hands folded?
Do you air out your words on the line? Do you clip them down one by one, and then let them dance in the breeze until they are fresh, light? . . .
As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students:why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?
I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?
The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”
“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”
The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”
I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher mode — I was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.
I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.
My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which way — if anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed something — I couldn’t see what he could.
It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.
But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?
Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day — my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances — become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.
My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:
Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.
Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:
Do not be afraid.(Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.(Matthew 6:34)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.(Matthew 6:25)
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.
Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.
Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.
I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.
Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.
In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.
Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.
Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.
When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.
At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.
Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.
There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our Godby which the daybreak from on high will visit usto shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.(Luke 1:76-79)
Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” –Luke 1:41-44
Gaudete! This is the week of joyful anticipation!!
Just as Jesus and John leaped for joy in the wombs of their holy mothers, we rejoice and leap for joy as we wait for the great things to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises!
Yes, we are aware that we wait in darkness. We are overwhelmed and pained by the intensity of oppression suffered throughout the world, near and far. Children sleep on streets, many people lack adequate shelter and water, bombs are being dropped, refugees are fleeing. Poverty, injustice, and violence are real and serious threats upon the dignity of humanity.
Still, with hope and joy we lovingly labor for a world where God’s reign is known, wherein justice is triumphant.
No matter our circumstances, how can our voices contribute toward the coming fullness of God’s reign? How can we join our voices together and sing a song of reversal that is in harmony with the strength and hope heard in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55?
And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
I recently studied Elizabeth Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) within her masterful work Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003) as part of my graduate studies. This writing encouraged me to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of the struggle for justice. I was provided a solid footing in information about the requirements for justice.
For example, even though Mary’s song is the longest speech from any woman in the entire New Testament, it is one of several hymns sung by Jewish women; it is parallel in content and structure to what was sung by several prophetesses in the Old Testament. Like their songs, Mary’s song also praises God’s creation of a liberating revolution.
With scholarship and reverence, Johnson details how Mary’s particular circumstances established her as dangerous for anyone who does not embrace God’s reign. God chose Mary, a poor woman, to be the partner in our salvation and she praises God from the depth of her relationship with God; God has preference for those who are economically and spiritually poor.
Mary was an oppressed woman and her song paints a picture of justice; throughout salvation history we understand that God defines justice as reversal. Mary’s voice foreshadows Jesus’ message in the Gospels. Fittingly then, Mary’s song is a “revolutionary song of salvation whose concrete social, economic, and political dimensions cannot be blunted.”
Praise and justice come together; by the life-giving body of the pregnant Mary we know a role model for solidarity with the oppressed. In her message, we can envision a world where all the hungry are fed and all power structures turn upside down.
Mary’s song is a song for everyone, and it is very much music to the ears of people who live in poverty. Yet, Johnson admits, “This message will not appeal to those who are satisfied with the way things are.” She advises that those who are prosperous strengthen their solidarity. I was invigorated for my task of informing those of us who comfortably enjoy privileges about the needs of a hungry humanity, of calling all of us to more mindfulness.
Ultimately, Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat provides me with a hopeful lens through which I can view the injustices of today. It taught me how to joyfully sing songs of response that glorify and please God, through both word and deed.
By Mary’s partnership we experience the dawning of the Messianic Age. Her song is also a daily prayer that can inform our every-day work of helping God’s justice reign. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.”
Indeed, as Johnson so clearly articulated, in Mary’s universal song we hear the ultimate Advent hymn—a song of hope to reverse the patterns of suffering prevalent in the world today.
As we leap in joy and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of God’s Kingdom fully known, let us join Mary and do the work of establishing God’s justice while this song rings in our hearts!
 Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum, 2003), 263-264.
Right now, at this Internet-saturated time in history, screams for help are coming out from the shadows.
As Christians, we can choose to ignore the serious pleas for help and deny the existence of problems. Or, we can we do as Jesus instructs and heed the call coming from the wilderness. Let us study the brightly glaring sign of this time and respond with courageous compassion and advocacy for systemic changes.
There are 27 million people in slavery today, which is more than any other time in human history. Ninety percent of people are trafficked because of the sex industry.
Porn revenue is larger than all combined revenues of all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises worldwide. U.S. porn revenue exceeds the combined revenues of television broadcasting companies ABC, CBS, & NBC ($6.2 billion). Child pornography generates $3 billion annually.
One million children are forced to work in the sex industry every year. Between 100,000 and 300,000 children in America are at risk for sex trafficking annually.
In the past week, I was blessed to hear Matt Fradd speak at the high school where I minister. He was entertaining and enlightening for the youth about the tough topics of sex and pornography (and made my job of teaching the theology of the body much, much easier. ) I was haunted to learn more facts about this issue that has been disturbing me for several years. For example, I learned that recent scientific study shows that people who are addicted to pornography have significantly smaller brains than those who aren’t. (The scientists aren’t sure if the smaller brains are a result of the addiction or more that those with smaller brains are likely to use porn.) Thanks be to God, Matt has an excellent ministry of sharing God’s healing love and mercy. Plus, his website is full of the support and facts that people need to heal and recover.
His presentation was mainly focused on promoting St. Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, or helping Catholics connect their theology and faith with their sexual attitudes and behaviors. He was effective at critiquing this sexualized culture and promoting chastity. Plus, my students and colleagues alike were marveling at how gifted he was at talking about uncomfortable topics in an accessible way.
Although Matt’s presentation was a thorough and informative introduction, I left thinking about how the picture he painted was incomplete; our wired society’s increasing addiction to pornography connects to many other systemic problems that he didn’t even mention. Here are some indicators that I’m aware of: I have felt increasingly disturbed to notice more sex shops creeping up at rural exits along major highways and worried about how their presence harms rural communities and families, not to mention the children that see the billboards and shops. I recently watched this documentary online and felt heartbroken for the young teens who were manipulated and then tattooed with the names of the pimps that they are forced to work for.
I became convicted that all children who run away from abusive homes and then end up in the sex industry are everyone’s child; we all have a responsibility to help them. I grieve the many ways that people are objectified and abused when others fail to recognize their sacredness and dignity. I mourn the violations to human dignity that occur on every level.
For certain, the statistics are terrifying. The Church—the Body of Christ, the people of God—is broken and in severe pain. It is time for us to unite and open clinics and heal the wounded, hurting body of humanity. Let us pray and discern and act so that we can be instruments of mercy and redemption.
I am concerned, though, that we aren’t doing enough. And, I beg you to pray with me that we will discern how the Spirit is calling us to respond, pray that we have the graces and courage to act and that we then act with great love and compassion.
As I pray, I think of Mary. I think of her poverty and how she was able to offer her body to God as an instrument for freedom and salvation. I see in her a beautiful sign of hope that we can all partner with God in ways that honor our dignity and worth and build up God’s reign. Let us have hope, from Mary, that these sins and crimes will come to end, that’s God’s victory of peace and justice will be triumphant. Let us live boldly our belief that one day soon all children of God will deeply understand that they are no one’s property.
For every woman, man, or child who has ever been abused and has experienced the darkness of fear and pain, there is a human sign of hope.
Jesus, please care for all victims and perpetrators of violence. May they know healing and strength and may the violence come to an end!
For every person who has ever been bought, branded, and sold as a slave there is hope. In Mary there is proof that you don’t have to suffer in this way for your body is precious and has value and worth. You deserve to be honored as holy, because you are—you are a child of God made in God’s image and likeness.
Mary, pray for us sinners who permit the sex industry and human trafficking to continue today. Guide us, Holy Mother, as we aim to advocate and change the systems that trap people in slavery. Help us protect all children!
On this Holy Saturday the Easter story, read from the Gospel of Mark, left me more confused than comforted. This is how Mark tells it: early on the third morning, three women come to the tomb with spices to care for Jesus’ corpse. They worry about how they’re going to move that impossible stone. But what do they find? An empty tomb. No angel. No Jesus. No blinding light or writing in the sky. Just a man in white telling them that Jesus is gone, that he has been raised and has gone before them to Galilee. What do the women do? “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
And that’s it. The very last words in our earliest written Gospel. “Afraid.” What are we supposed to do with that? Well, usually we skip over it. We prefer the confident glorified Jesus in the Gospel of John. We just don’t know what to do with an empty tomb and silent women that run away. The early Gospel writers even tacked on an ending (Mark 16:9-20) crafted from bits of other Gospel passages, to make people feel better. In this added ending there is a resurrected Jesus standing at the tomb. The disciples still struggle to believe but at least Jesus is visible. What are we to do with silence, and darkness, and an empty tomb?
But what if the Gospel of Mark was meant to end that way? What if the empty tomb itself is enough proof that Jesus is raised from the dead? What if the women’s reaction was actually an expression of faithful witness? What if it is all right that sometimes you cannot find words for the “bewildering” mystery of God? What if to flee the tomb in “utter amazement” is a legitimate way to live our Gospel faith? What if we just speak really poor Greek (which definitely describes me) and the word translated here as “fear” is more accurately and consistently described as God-inspired awe?
Mary, Mary, and Salome did not fail. Because, actually, they did tell someone the good news of Jesus’ victory over death. They told it with their lives. How do we know that? Because the church started, which is something the first readers of Mark would have known for sure. They were the church. They were gathering in homes and telling these mind-blowing stories, breaking bread, healing the sick, and willing to risk their lives for this Jesus they talked about. Sometimes, they even died for him—just ask our brothers and sisters in Syria, Kenya, and Libya what they know about that.
What is enough for me to believe that Jesus has smashed death to pieces? I do not need to see his risen body in front of me. I do not even need any archeological or scientific proof. The overpowering awe that shook those three women on that early morning still reverberates in my own small heart. Their utter amazement was a spark that started a wildfire that cannot be stopped. I know Jesus is alive. I know that he brings freedom, light, and truth to all, usually in unexpected ways. As unexpected as an empty tomb. That is enough.
Imagine you’re making your way throughout your day, doing your job, or maybe just going for a walk. And suddenly, you are dazzled, bewildered, so incredibly confused, but there’s this stunning image in front of you. A ghost maybe? Some ethereal being, that’s for sure. I mean … she’s floating.
There’s a smell of roses maybe, or a feeling of incredible peace. And then, suddenly, she’s gone. Did she just speak to me? What … what did she say?
You go back to work or your home, share this news with a handful of people, and pretty soon you are that guy – that guy with the visions, the strangely healing visions. Which isn’t the best way to be known, seeing as there are some pretty intense suffering going on elsewhere for people experiencing visions.
She keeps visiting you. At this point, it would be nice to see more of her, maybe prove something, but do you kind of want her to go away?
What does she want?
Oh God. Make it stop or help me prove it.
And He proves it.
Oh Goodness, here we go.
Today, right now, if you saw Our Lady of Guadalupe, if she appeared to you and shared her message … would you recognize it? Would you believe it? Would you trust your experience enough to know that this was something sacred? Would you share it?
Can you imagine if Juan Diego didn’t?
Take some time to recognize and share your sacred experiences this Advent. You may just have a hand in a miracle.
Crisp color changes and the crunch of Autumn’s evolving paths can lead us to deeper God-consciousness. Let’s slow down and open our eyes and minds to the width and depth of God’s amazing love. We may harvest and celebrate our abundance. We may pray and hope for a peaceful winter. No matter the season, the God-given change is lined with lessons.
Here’s one that I’ve been pondering: All of nature is impacted equally by the happenings of the weather. No creature is untouched by change.
Us humans have a lot to learn from nature’s way of gracefully bending to change and cooperation with biodiversity. No matter who we are, how we deal with or accept changes matters. We all get to play a part in God’s mysterious and phenomenal creation. None of us are bigger or better and all of our discipleship is special and significant–especially those acts that may seem small and silent. Sometimes our submission to God’s greatness is enough to help things move the right way.
A simple pro-life part of the Christmas story reminds us to stay open to the graces and goodness available in all kinds of changes.
Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
generously, according to your means.
For he is a God who always repays
and will give back to you sevenfold.
But offer no bribes; these he does not accept!
Do not trust in sacrifice of the fruits of extortion,
For he is a God of justice,
who shows no partiality.
He shows no partiality to the weak
but hears the grievance of the oppressed.
– Sirach 35: 12-16
How could you give all you have gotten from God back to God today?
How can you spread appreciation to all parts of God’s creation–even those who are ignored, unliked, or on the margins?
Advent is drawing to a close, Christmas is almost upon us. Once again, I feel that the days have passed all too quickly. I seem to have been too busy to attend to advent. Now Christmas Day is around the corner and I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve missed something, that I’m not ready yet.
How often this is the case! I imagine that having a time for waiting is equivocal to having extra time. So much time that it’s common to talk casually about “killing” or “wasting” it. Then, as I do verbal violence to time I wound all that lives within it; killing and wasting the potential waiting to be born in every moment. Momentous events that were meant to come as presents become a presentiment for which I am un or under prepared.
But it’s not too late! Advent is not over yet! And really, is advent about waiting through a patch of time or practicing a way of being, practicing and paying attention, learning to listen. I am beginning to think of advent being akin to waiting on a table. An active stance, attending to a particular table and to its place in a larger room; listening, watching, anticipating, understanding, acting according to what has been seen and heard.
Advent being a time of waiting that precedes Christmas gives context for the attention, a framework, a particular story, instead of a particular table, and how that story stands in the context of time, historical and present. This story reveals Mary, minding her own business, surprised by an angel who tells her not to fear, an angel to whom she responds with acquiescent boldness, “May it be done unto me according to your word.” Joseph too is taken by surprise, no doubt. Before any angelic intervention he discovers that his betrothed is with child (and it is evidently not his). Analyzing the situation, channeling conviction, and perhaps affection, into a generous, socially acceptable action, “unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, [Joseph] resolved to divorce her quietly.”1
And this could very well have been the last we hear of Joseph. Indeed, we may not ever have heard of Joseph accept that, though he had “resolved” in his mind the action he would take, he was waiting. Despite his logical, even loving resolve, “he considered these things.” Joseph too heard the voice of an angel, speaking to him in a dream, saying “do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” he paid attention, overcame the constraints of his anxieties and in so doing entered a new life.
“Do not fear,” continually accompanies the angelic announcements. Indeed, it would require a love that casts out fear to hear, receive and act on the words these angels delivered. Had God’s messenger not intervened, had Joseph been preoccupied, he may have inadvertently been excluded from being a key player in God’s remarkable plan. What God desired of Joseph was not that he follow the law of the land (which would have allowed Joseph to divorce Mary publicly), nor to be politely philanthropic (to show continued care and preserve Mary’s life and some shred of dignity). He was being invited as Mary was (dare I say, as we are?) to move from memory to imagination, to enlarge reason with faith, to take a counter-cultural stand, to stand with God.
The invitation is to participation in Incarnation, an it is an invitation continually extended, even today. That is what the waiting is for and it is not just about a baby born in Bethlehem (but oh what a beautiful image of vulnerability and interdependence – what tender, bold risk!), it is happening everyday; God with us, in us, around us. To receive and respond to such an invitation we need to listen and allow the spirit to supplement and surprise our intellect with the impossible possibilities of God; we need courage.
Advent is almost over, but it is ultimately a reminder, and one that does not lose its relevance with the changing of the season. The waiting is not wrapped up once Christmas arrives, nor is it an indication of empty time standing in the way of a day that is grander than that which is present. The waiting is a reminder to attend to this moment, to recognize Emmanuel, “God with us.”
So I am learning to listen to God who is always with us, not only on a particular day or in a particular place, but on every day, in every place. And to listen to my heart, attending to its quakes and whimpers. What voices are countering the echoing instruction, “do not fear”? What inhibitions obstruct from taking part in God’s extraordinary vision? Where am I blinded by lack of imagination? What sights and sounds are keeping me so distracted that I’ve no longer eyes to see and ears to hear?
This is the time. Wait, be still, listen.
Footnote: 1. Scripture references from Matthew 1:19-20, ESV.
I didn’t get it right. The new mass words have begun this Advent and I have often found myself stumbling and failing at it. I hate that, failing. The irrational part of me flairs up in a puff of anger at myself and others. I want to be “right,” and such simple failure touches a profoundly deeper disappointment at myself and others for a world so wrong.
As I sit in disappointment the seasons change and it has gently become winter. The crisp and refreshing air, the thick sweaters and coats, and the relief of shelter all bring a sense of peace to my struggle. I need the comfort of warm protection and a home to reside amidst the quickening darkness.
My need reminds me it is Advent. “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” says the prophet Isaiah on the second Sunday of Advent. God is here to dwell and longs to dwell deeper admits our darkness. Jesus came to love, grow, and embrace our un-right selves and reality.
But such a coming is not un-situated; Jesus is not a Santa Claus of sorts that dwells outside of what makes the night dark. Amidst the cold systems that crush the many and uplift some, Jesus was born with the forgotten. His life was a constant struggle against the dehumanizing structures of his day and was powerful enough to be killed as a political criminal.
Such thoughts of Advent remind me of the old activist adage, “Be hard on structures, soft on people.” God desires to dwell with us and incarnate in us to affirm our human goodness. God births in us patiently as we love, care, and belong to one another.
This birth comes while we are positioned and contributing to the structures of sin, reminding us not to ignore our responsibility as if they were as natural as the weather or barns burning themselves down. God shoulders the weight of reality in our church, our government, and our economic systems as we struggle in them.
As we look towards Christmas, we remember Joseph and Mary searching for a home to give birth to our savior in. Caught up in a system of mandatory forced migration for a census, they needed personal care and institutional justice. In 2010 there were 30,978 homeless children in the city of Chicago. They not only need care and shelter, but a state that does not cut funding and citizens who ignore it when it happens. This is one issue among many we are invited to start caring about and use reason to truly move structures towards the good.
We are to have the faith that God is at it too, as St. Paul states on the third Sunday of Advent, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”