As I am intentionally walking through Advent this year, this time of waiting and expectation, I am noticing new things. Often, we can tend to miss the cultural context of this first Christmas story. The Jews were waiting to be rescued from the oppression they were experiencing under Roman rule. Life was hard with heavy taxation and the heavy-handed rule of the Roman Empire. They felt God had abandoned them and were waiting for a human savior to rescue them by military force. This is an important understanding in reading the gospel accounts. The Israelites wanted and needed to be rescued from their oppressors. They didn’t expect a baby or even someone like Jesus.
Luke tells us about Mary, a young girl visited by an angel, Gabriel. Mary is “greatly troubled” yet, inquisitive, curious, and bold in her conversation. Mary is confident and expectant as she responds with an openness to the invitation. She receives this gracious gift of being the mother of Jesus as depicted by Gabriel. She receives this gift of incarnation without the expectation to earn it by performance and without trying to manage it. She only receives this precious gift of God for humankind, boldly yet freely (Luke 1:28-38).
As the story continues, we read that from this place of receiving and trusting, Mary stands on firm ground. We see her respond with openness to Gabriel and confidence in the song she sings, the Magnificat. This first proclamation regarding Jesus shows a strength in both Mary and in her expectation of what all this meant for Israel.
Mary didn’t completely understand the implication of God breaking into this world for humankind, nor did the world around her, but do we? Do we expect to be rescued from our current situation and then placed in a position of power over those who we feel oppress us? Or do we follow the teachings of Jesus to love the outcast, the sinner, those around us who are like us and those who are different from us?
What would it be like to have this gift of Jesus in our world now - oh wait, that is what we are invited to experience every Advent, even every single day. This is the incarnation lived out in our very own lives.
In Matthew, we read about Joseph and his interaction with an angel as he receives direction in keeping Jesus safe from those who desire to kill him (Matt. 2:13-15). Joseph responds with obedience to what he is told. He doesn’t seem to doubt but follows through on each request. Recently, I noticed something different I hadn’t noticed before.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene (Matt. 2:19-23).
Joseph followed through on returning from Egypt once Herod had died as instructed. When he discovered that Herod’s son, Archelaus, was reigning in Judea, Joseph became afraid. Through my life, I have ignored my emotions and perceived them as weak, false, or negative. Here, we see Joseph paying attention to his fear, pausing in it, and then being met in a dream that validated this same fear response. It wasn’t a bad thing to be afraid. It was wise to notice and to pause. As Joseph paid attention to what was going on in his own heart, God met him in it.
What a wonderful story! What a wonderful invitation to adventure as we live moment by moment while listening in quietness (inner) and peace (no judgment) to our own hearts along with thinking through the implications of what we do with grace, openness, and courage. We are invited to walk this life out moment by moment, step by step - only paying attention to the present while still noticing all that is around us. We, all of us, will do this so very imperfectly.
But we are invited to trust Love, trusting God’s gentle provision, leading, care, intrusion, and Presence. We are invited to be like Mary who openly received and trusted and like Joseph who openly trusted and received. We are invited to love in contrast to the expectation of being rescued and then potentially becoming an oppressor ourselves. We are invited to live out the Love of the Incarnation.
As I have been intentionally walking through Advent this year, this verse caught my attention. I’ve been thinking about it in relation to this last Sunday of Advent being about hope and John the Baptist preparing the way.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor. 13:4-7, NIV).
This love is a welcoming love. Previously, I would strive toward being this kind of love. Maybe we all have journeyed that path. How do I love this way? How do I become an invitation to this kind of love?
These are really good questions. Yet, as I ponder this, I believe they miss the point. As I have sat with these words, it has become more and more clear to me that God is this kind of love. God is patient, God is kind…
This is the invitation, isn’t it? It is in experiencing this God of love which transforms us into being this kind of love. This is the invitation to love both ourselves and those around us. It takes an openness within our own hearts to love like this - to love so freely and in humility.
Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun from the 16th century, spoke about our transformation being like the wax used in a seal. The wax cannot impress the seal upon itself, or even soften itself, it can only be there to experience the transformation from a chunk of wax to a means of expressing the officialness of a document or letter.1
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2, NRSV).
Notice, in the second verse, Paul uses the passive verb tense of be conformed and be transformed. Much like the wax, Teresa of Avila spoke of, we can only be there in the transformational experience. It is something that happens to us as we allow ourselves to experience God as love, this bold, humble, gentle, and kind love.
This transformational love is so completely outside of our own understandings. It is a true and fierce love. It seems this true love is being believed in, seen, heard, and known. In realizing and experiencing this true love, we are reshaped and made new.
As we think about Christmas coming, this beautiful gift of incarnation, we are invited to consider the implications of God breaking into our world. God broke in as fully human and fully divine, to show us a new way to live, a new way to love. This new life is outside of our own imperial worldview of power and self-protection which creates division both inside us and with those around us. This gift of God breaking into our world to bring us back into right relationship with Love transforms us, integrates us.
Preparing the way of the Lord is being this invitation to Love. We are invited into being this love, being the invitation to this Love. We are invited to hold the one in front of us, regardless of who it is. Every. Single. One.
This work of becoming the invitation is the transformation which happens to us, to me. It isn’t something any of us can earn, but only fall into. We are invited to be still as the wax and to allow, follow, and love. We may be passive in the process but we are also invited to be very bold. This boldness within ourselves is a place of being vulnerable, to allow our own perceived frailness of humanity to be seen by God.
Who we believe this God to be, affects how vulnerably we can allow ourselves to be seen. This is the journey of transformation - we are invited to experience this God of love and to allow our own perception of who we think God is and who we think we are, to be changed. It is in this process, this journey, that we are invited both to be seen and to be the invitation of this love toward others. May God bless you on your own journey to experience the transforming power of Love.
1Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, translated by E. Allison Peers, (New York, NY: Start, 2012), 74, Kindle.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!