Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace. Advent this time of waiting, of preparing for Christmas, this time of longing for the dawn of light and peace in the world. Peace in our own lives, peace in our families, in our communities, peace in the world. The scriptures use the word peace often, and we find it in the Christmas story. When we read these stories that may be familiar to us, I find that it’s easy to let them waft past our ears gently and fill in the surrounding sights, and make the stories that surround Jesus’ birth echo and match our desires and longings for some perfect Christmas moment, the silent, the peaceful scene. And yet…have your read these stories? Maybe the coming of peace is not actually as serene as we thought.
Take Mary for example. Mary the mother of Jesus. A figure who in our lore and tales so often is depicted in this peaceful glow, seemingly apart from anything trying or chaotic. And yet, did you hear the story we read today? The story of the Angel coming to Mary, likely as she was just going about her everyday business, and telling her that she was going to conceive a son in her womb and name him Jesus and he would be the Son of the most high, to reign over the house of David forever…
When we have the soft blue lenses with the “all is quiet and peaceful” on, we often skip straight to the last sentence, when Mary says “let it be to me as you have written” and the angel departs.
Okay, let’s think for a moment about this Mary. Maybe the story has become so common to us over the years that we forget how shocking this is. First, Mary is just going about her everyday life, from all we know. We have no reason to believe that she was asking for this or expecting it. The fact that the angel said to her, “do not be afraid” implies that her reaction at first was, understandably, one of fear. But she sticks with it. She listens. And then she does something that I find striking.
She asks a question. She’s not meek and mild. She’s actually pretty kick-ass. She has the courage and audacity to ask this angel who shows up. “How’s this going to happen?” “I’m a virgin.”
Now yes, this means what you think it means. And at that time and in the culture the idea of being pregnant without being married to the father of the child was no small thing. She was taking a major risk, particularly as she was engaged to Joseph at this time. But she keeps listening. And when she hears that it is God that will do this work, and that nothing will be impossible with God. She replies with these beautifully well worn words, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me, according to your word.”
And Mary’s song—these words of response, of praise, of proclamation that Mary sings in our gospel reading today—these are not sanitized comfy, and set-apart-from-the-world words. These are strong and powerful words about how the incarnate God’s coming into the world breaks into the systems of oppression and the hunger and the violence, and calls for another way.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
… has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
… has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.
Maybe Mary is more like you and me than we thought. Seeking to follow God in the midst of chaotic times. Calling for a world where hungry bellies are filled and those who are abusing power are humbled, a turning of our economic disparity and a world where peace is tangible for all. Making choices that were incredibly risky to her own being, to courageously follow the call of God—to engage God with us, coming into her life and into the world.
In the orthodox tradition Mary is called the “theotokos” a Greek word that means “God-bearer” or “birth-giver of God” and “the one who gives birth to God.” This is different, in my mind than being the “Mother of God.” And it opens up interesting possibilities and curiosities about the theological traditions of immaculate conception. That to be the theotokos maybe is not about being pure and already divine, but actually about being fully human and responding with a courage and strength to carry the divine.
There’s a passage in Swedenborgian theology that strikes me as relevant in this conversation…
“Before anything is brought back into order, it is quite normal for it to be brought first into a kind of confusion, a virtual chaos.” (Secrets of Heaven 842) This passage goes on to say that is through this process that we experience as confusion, even chaos, that the Lord re-arranges things, sorts things, and puts them in order.
This leads me to believe that in order to find the peace, that sense of God’s presence with us, we have to be willing to engage the chaos, the reality of the world around us, not to hide from it or avoid it, instead—to see it, to listen, to name it and then go to the Lord and offer our willingness to respond.
As much as we want to sanitize these stories, to make them something outside of our realm—clean, pretty, peaceful—it’s difficult once you read them. And listen again. Because we find out what the Incarnation, the coming of the Christ was not about.
It was not about something separated from the reality of humanity, of the suffering and questioning, joy and human feeling and vulnerability. It’s about the Light coming into the darkness, and the Prince of Peace showing up in the chaos of the world.
It’s like the bell at the beginning of our worship time together.
That silence that we find inside even with the chaos happening around us, God’s still small voice with us. Here’s the thing about peace—real peace, internal peace, lasting peace—it’s not about getting away or avoiding what is around us. It’s about finding God in the midst of it.
Because yet again, we’re shown how Emmanuel, God with us does not behave the way we might expect or show up in the pretty tidy picture we expect. The angels did not go to the rulers in the center of town, or the rabbis in the temple to share the good news. Instead they showed up in the darkness, in the cold, on the margins, in and amongst the daily tasks that were being done, bringing “good news of great joy… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all people!”
And this, my friends, is the message these stories of Advent keep returning me to this year—it’s not about finding peace “out there,” or about one perfect fix for our life struggle or the world—“if I just___”. “If we just….” The story of Advent invites us, reminds us, calls us to be people of hope, people of life, people who continue to show up and look for and work for goodness and transformation.
Because yes, there is darkness, there is hunger—spiritually and naturally. We live in a world where we see division and isolation, poverty of body and spirit. We each are living real human lives and we carry with us loss and longing along with our desires and hopes. And it is in and amongst all of this that Emmanuel, God of incarnation offers us hope.
Hope not devoid from the trouble and pain, just as silence is not devoid of sounds, and peace is not devoid of chaos. No the hope, the peace, comes as the Prince of Peace comes, in and amongst all the messiness of life. In and amongst our family systems, in and amongst a world that’s experiencing hunger and poverty. Showing us again and again that God isn’t far away and inaccessible.
And that God came down, Love incarnate, right here, as a human, with humans, born by a human because divinity and humanity are inexplicably intertwined, God is right here. In that moment when we open our eyes and see the light in a new way. As one hand reaches out to another, offers that gentle squeeze of knowing. In the silence, amid the sounds of voices and questions and confusion, Christ is born. The presence of love come to earth, then and now. Emmanuel. God is with us. Amen.