My daily prayers throughout the Advent season thus far have been guided by the second volume of Take Our Moments and Our Days, which runs from Advent through to Pentecost. One of the readings for Morning Prayer today was a familiar one from the Gospel of Luke:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:26-33)
As is often the case with well-known, oft-rehearsed texts, it’s easy to read these words mechanically, as words we’ve read or heard a thousand times, as words we already know, as the introduction to a very familiar narrative. In other words, to not really read the words at all.
Today, though, I found myself wondering… How would Mary have heard these words? What would she have thought when she heard phrases like “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” or “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David” or “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever?” What would she have thought?
My guess is that she would have interpreted these pronouncements rather literally. She probably would have been thinking about literal thrones and literal kingdoms, a literal overthrow of Israel’s oppressors, and a literal return to greatness for her people, the people of Israel. What else could have occurred to her? This was what she and her people had been hoping and waiting for. She could not possibly have imagined how things would turn out—for her little boy or for her people. She could not possibly have imagined a crown of thorns or a cross or kingdom that is not of this world. She could not possibly have imagined a king or a reign that looked anything like Jesus and his kingdom.
Truth be told, she probably wouldn’t have wanted it if she knew. Come to think of it, few of us probably would have. Or do today.
The narrative(s) of Advent and Christmas are easy—too easy!—to domesticate, to reduce to pleasant scenes of babies and mangers and adoring shepherds and wise men, to slot nicely into our holiday parties and lights and music and cheer. It’s too easy to forget that the Incarnation is not just Jesus coming as a humble baby to identify with the human condition, but as the bewildering, shocking, unexpected and often unwelcome “surprise!” of a God who comes to live and die for his people, who comes to jolt us out of our complacency and lethargy, who unsettles and irritates and judges and turns human expectations upside down, who refuses to behave in God-like ways.
I don’t always want this God to come—at least not in these ways. But still, God comes, regardless of my preferences, regardless of the ways in which I would prefer to imagine or receive his coming. Perhaps one of the lessons to be learned this Advent season is simply the continued call to be open and attentive to the work of God in the world. Of all the reminders occasioned by the Advent season each year, perhaps an important one would be to guard against the assumption that this God is out of surprises.
I like the nativity scenes. They make me smile. Your thread here, Ryan, has me thinking they are simple and pure scenes but anything but easy. The difference between “is” and “ought” that we often talk about in other contexts.
We ought to be a people who revere life, who rejoice over each birth, sharing that expression with all of nature, not just humanity. We ought to be humble, recognizing the priority of relationship before material desire. We ought to be holy, recognizing that everything is a gift from He who is most holy. We ought to remember that He prefers to come to us fully vulnerable, fully self giving, wholly dependent on our responses to fully glorify His will. He offers us full partnership when no such offer is warranted. Only a fool, only an infant…only a great and powerful, God of love, could imagine such a scandal….
But you remind me also of justice, of truth, of the gap between is and ought. Nativity is the “ought”, the Cross, is the reality. In the end, the love God is, defers to free will. The Nativity of God becomes the Cross of Jesus, for we did will it so.
We took His perfect simplicity, His perfect pureness and perfect vulnerability and nailed Him to a cross. We simply surrendered to our corruption and would rather kill Him that offer salvation then face the truth of our real motives and conditions.
But even in this, even through this, His love prevails. He absorbed and continues to absorb unto Himself, all that corruption, all that sinister motive, all our brutal and impoverished conditions. The Cross resurrects and the “Nativity” prevails. “Is” is temporal, “ought” is eternal.
In a popular Christmas pop song of my generation, John Lennon once sang…” So this is Christmas and what have you done?…War is over, if you want it”…. a brilliantly simple and necessary confrontation followed by a truthful but still somehow inadequate and narrow recommendation for living.
Better is a revision that says…”So this is Christmas and what have you done,….. Nativity is here…Heaven is here… if you want it.”
Very eloquently said, Paul. So much wisdom and truth in here…