These familiar words signal the beginning of the Advent season. What started as a season of fasting and prayer and preparation has degenerated into a combination of a buying season and block party! Originally it was not so. Advent’s history begins somewhere between 460 and 490 AD. It was one of two penitential seasons of the Church and lasted six weeks. The original date for the beginning of Advent was November 11. Over time, members of the church became weary of two seasons of fasting that were so close together and the season was shortened from six weeks to four. During the Medieval period, those four Sundays were used to remind the faithful of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. How would you like to have hell as the preaching theme the Sunday before Christmas? The four last things of the medieval period have been replaced with different themes in the cycle of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.
An Advent Lectionary Journey
The first Sunday of Advent traditionally deals with a sobering reminder that Christ will come again. If you followed the lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent 2014, you reminded your congregation of a day coming when the sun will be darkened and the moon will refuse to give light (Mark 13:24-37). Last year was the disturbing passage where two are grinding and one is taken (Matthew 24:36-44). Next year, it will be another apocalyptic text. The idea is to startle us out of our complacency to remember that what we are doing now is not God’s ultimate plan. Jesus is coming again in power and authority.
The Second Sundays of Advent are a bit more familiar. John the Baptist appears as one of the familiar biblical characters that we have come to associate with Advent. Though John’s ministry was colorful the texts draw our attention to the ties between John and Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness.
By the Third Sunday of Advent, the biblical narratives draw us into the speculations and longing of those times. Could Jesus be the Messiah? The text used this year comes from John’s prologue and reminds us of John’s testimony of the One greater than John.
It is not until the Fourth Sunday of Advent that the texts even begin to speak of the birth of Christ. In our haste to finally get to the comforting memories of shepherds in bathrobes and cardboard angel wings, we often overshadow the dilemma of Mary and Joseph. Mary, probably a teenager, and Joseph, an honorable man, both had their lives interrupted by an untimely pregnancy from on high.
A Youth Group Revolutionary
If Mary had been a member of your church (excuse me, synagogue), she would likely have been a member of the youth group. Many critics place her in her teen years. It would not have seemed odd to Mary or those around her for her to be given in marriage in her mid-teens, after all, life expectancies were much shorter then. When I read Mary’s story, with not-so-distant memories of my last youth group, I continue to marvel at her maturity. Most of the youth I remember would have been overwhelmed by the sight of an angel and unable to hear the rest of what God had to say. To be able to hear and respond was a sign of great maturity. But I am more taken by her song of praise:
(Luke 1:46-55) And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (NRSV)
Mary’s prophetic song of praise speaks of how God will
- Scatter the proud (verse 51)
- Bring down the powerful, while lifting up the lowly (verse 52) – a clear allusion to Romans and Jews
- Not only fill the hungry with good things, but also send the rich away empty (verse 53)!
Her words preview and forecast the words of her son about the topsy-turvy nature of the Kingdom of God where the first are last and the last are first (Luke 13:30).
What a bold song for someone of Mary’s background and status. Mary was a youth, living in a country under Roman occupation. From all appearances, she was from a working-class or poor family. Added to this, Mary was born female in a time when women were not taken seriously or often offered an education.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
All of us mourn in lonely exile here* waiting for the Second Coming of the Son of God. This Advent, I am called to cry myself to sleep singing Mary’s song in response to the evening news. I see far too many similarities with Mary’s sitz im leben (setting in life) to ignore her song as a theological source for the Integration Paper of my life. When I look at poor and marginalized peoples of our community, I see that this Advent, in reality, is a crying season, not a buying season. The specters of poverty, race, immigration, politics, and hatred loom larger than life over our all our heads. They are old, moss-backed demons who will not evaporate with a simplistic “try Jesus,” they are the hard things of which Jesus spoke that only respond to fasting and prayer. We see the spirit of Mary’s song embodied in the peaceful demonstrations of youth and young adults of every hue who are gathered in the streets to remind us that life matters and no life should be thoughtlessly taken away.
This Advent, more than ever, we are called to ready ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ, who has left us here to be a force for good while we are waiting. Mary sang her song, and then she rolled up her sleeves and yielded what God needed of her. She did not indulge in the luxury of empty, idealistic prattle, she suffered as a result of this yielding. She suffered, and her Son, whom we celebrate this season, also suffered. Had the Romans heard (and understood) Mary’s song, she and her family could have been jailed or executed, yet she sang a song in present tense that spoke of what God would do in the future. May God give each of us the grace to see things present through the eyes of the Second Coming as we work and sing together.
*Mourn in lonely exile here, is an echo of Thomas Helmore’s (1854) English translation of the 12th Century Latin hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”