I often compare the season of Advent to pregnancy. A promise sits in the womb of a woman and waits for that predictably unpredictable moment when it will manifest for all to see and behold causing much rejoicing and celebrating for all at the birth of a child. At Advent we enter a season as the people of God of waiting for, preparing for that day where we celebrate the king who has come, the Word made flesh, the baby born in a manger who would bring salvation to our world. Instead of preparing for Christmas by shopping, spending, busyness we replace those cultural liturgies with formational liturgies fit for the people of God, liturgies like reflection, worship, practicing hope. When it comes to the season of Advent, often we look through the eyes of John the Baptist who came with a message of preparation and clearing a space for the coming of the Messiah, but I think we can also see Advent through the eyes of Mary the mother of Jesus. After all, she was the one living out the Advent promise by carrying the Christ child in her womb waiting expectantly for the day of fulfilment. If anyone was ever literally living out Advent it was Mary!
Mary’s ‘advent season’ causes us to reflect on particular themes for the people of God during our season of Advent and brings to our mind a series of questions that challenge us to think about our experience and practice of the gospel today.
Have the people of God domesticated the message of Christmas?
To domesticate something is to tame it, control it, make it palatable for consumption in order that it might become more suitable for usage. I wonder if we have domesticated the message of Christmas? We sing carols with traces of sentimentality, we focus on the sweet baby in a manger, we obediently attend church services and try to get time to reflect on the fact that ‘God has moved into our neighbourhood’. However the song of Mary challenges us and critiques our softening of the gospel. This woman who was on her way to give birth to the Messiah sings defiantly the radical message of the gospel in what we have labelled ‘The Magnificat’. She sings ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant…he has shown strength and scattered the proud..he has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly…he has sent the rich away empty…’ (Luke 1:46ff) This song is nothing short of a revolutionary cry of freedom, a release from oppression, and a gasp at the unexpected humility of the coming King. E Stanley Jones once said that the Magnificat was the ‘most revolutionary document in the world’(1) yet we often sing carols with a posture that conveys a tempering of this revolutionary and disturbing message of the gospel. Christmas ought not only to be comforting. Surely this advent season is a time to reflect on the disturbing nature of the gospel? Surely we ought to be pondering the upside down values of the message of Christmas so that we are encouraged to live with a ‘hermeneutic of hunger’ (2) which is expressed as a hunger and thirst for righteousness to come into our world more fully so that we see the Magnificat which is the gospel message, become embedded in our world which needs the revolution of Jesus to keep being incarnated through us the people of God.
Does the church live in hope?
There is an overriding emotion of hope that we can sense through Mary’s experience as she firstly receives the good news and decides to believe, then as she sings this song which proclaims that God has been faithful to his people by coming through on his promise to deliver them (Luke 1:54,55). Hope in the Christian sense is not some flimsy emotion which sways with every slight breeze, it is the sure and steady expectation that God will come good in his promises that he has spoken. Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination ‘Hope on the one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension to the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question’. As Mary sings the Magnificat she destabilises the status quo by daring to announce a new story which is better and thus speaks out a hope on behalf of all who long for a change in the dominant narrative. Is the church a proclaimer of this hope in a public culture prone to rehearsing a narrative of despair? Kathleen Norris in an essay called “When beauty speaks, truth answers” in Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination, reminds us that ‘It is important to remember that the prophets are all about hope, and do not traffic at all in optimism. Biblical hope requires envisioning a common good for God’s people; optimism merely settles for a slightly better version of the status quo as it benefits me’. Our reflection this Advent could be; Is the church trafficking mere optimism or are we promoters and proclaimers of a hope that “envisions a common good”?
Is the church walking in its prophetic calling?
The Magnificat is a deeply prophetic song in that it speaks out a reality which has not actually come to pass yet. The promise sits in Mary’s womb in hope of revealing itself to the world yet there is a period of waiting. However Mary proclaims the message of truth in the midst of that season of waiting. While we wait today for God’s promises to manifest in the ‘now and the not yet’ of the last days what is the church’s prophetic response? A response of course requires imagination. Norris says ‘The Imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing’. The beauty of the gospel is that it speaks words of promise to us. Some of the effects of the message may not have come to pass yet, however as we allow our collective imagination to be moulded by the Spirit, we begin to ‘see’ God’s promises in order to proclaim and live them out in faith until they in God’s time, morph into reality. Advent is a season to reflect on our prophetic call as God’s people who remember the one who came into our world to comfort and disturb us, to call us to a greater imagination and to bring about a revolution which turned upside down the values of the kingdom of this world. As we take time to reflect at this Advent season, the church can ask this question;
“Do we believe Mary? We still haven’t learned her song. If we really did believe, then preachers wouldn’t have to keep ranting at Christians about consumerism; we wouldn’t give in to the culture’s push for excess; we wouldn’t just pay lip service to Advent. We would be, like Mary, preoccupied by other things—by singing for joy and by working for justice; by praising God and by lifting up the poor.” (3)
Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination. “As if we lived in a Liberated World: The prophetic vision of Dorothee Soelle” By Rebecca Laird
- (Same as 1)