2000 years ago in the land of Palestine, a young woman was pregnant with her first child. We often call her Mary, or sometimes Miriam. She was a teenager by our standards, but not by theirs. She was a young woman, married woman. And she was pregnant. We love talking about Mary as poor, because there really were only two possibilities- the ruling class and everyone else. She wasn’t desperately poor. She had food and family and shelter and the men in her community were educated. She might be called middle class if such a thing had been invented.
Palestine, part of the land called Canaan, had two parts: Judea and Israel. The land had been invaded and divided and won back several times in history. When our young family was playing out this drama we’ve reimagined countless times over millennia, the land was part of the Roman Empire, having been Greek for centuries. Roman soldiers occupied and defended a complicated system of kings and emperors. There was a national religion and lack of adherence made you not only an outsider but potentially treasonous. Jews were living in a fragile world, practicing their own religion and trying to stay under the radar.
But tension was high. Violence erupted periodically. Jews were an easy target since they did their best to remain outsiders and not part of mainstream Roman culture. People lived on edge, and with so much pressure coming from outside, Jews often fought with each other about what they wanted to do about their situation. They were a conflicted and divided people.
Mary lived her life as all pregnant women in first century Palestine did. She fetched water and ground grains to make flour for bread. When she heard her cousin was pregnant, too, she travelled a distance to help her through that difficult transition of the last few weeks of pregnancy, birth and the first few weeks as a new mother. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and returned home in time that she and her husband could head back to Bethlehem to register for the census and pay their taxes. I want to tell you that it was nearing the solstice, that the days were short and nights were long – I want to tell you that and I will even though Jesus was born in the spring – let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story. So, it was a time of darkness. Mary and Joseph and their parents and brothers and sisters and all the people who loved them were all waiting for the birth of this new baby.
It was all very ordinary.
Pregnancy is a good metaphor for this season, this Advent season of waiting. Light is less and the darkness takes over. This is the Christian response to the natural cycle of Earth. Every religious tradition has stories and rituals around the turning of Earth away from and then toward the sun. The Christians use the story of Mary’s pregnancy, a time of waiting and expectant hope. Advent marks the last few weeks of her pregnancy, leading up to Christmas Day when her child is born.The Christian readings at this time call for patience and the expectancy of a new age of justice and peace when wisdom will be born into the world and the light will return.
Waiting is what pregnant women do. It is a holy time. Movement is limited in those last few weeks. Feet are swollen, backs are strained. Early contractions highlight the anticipation. Advent ends with the birth of Jesus, the birth of the light into the world. It is predictable, but knowing that it will come, doesn’t alter the anticipatory experience of living in the meantime, that space between what was and what will be.
Advent walks us into the darkest days. The light grows shorter and shorter and the nights are not only long, they are deep and dark. The dark is pregnant with expectation. The unknown opens up the possibilities. The emptiness of the dark is filled with hope. The dark of night will end with a glorious sunrise. The dark of winter will end with the spring. Spiritually, each dark night of the soul comes to a close, ends with an awakening, a new way of living and being in the world. We sit in the dark, waiting for the holiness of the coming light. Like the new mother knows, the dark of expectant pregnancy soon gives way, soon births something unknown and gorgeous and exciting.
And we need something gorgeous and exciting to be born.
Darkness is welcome during Advent. It reminds us that we’re living in this in-between space, the period of waiting. I love Advent, possibly more than Christmas. Christmas, is just one day, maybe a day and a half, while Advent is four full weeks. Advent is about getting ready, about expecting something greater than what we have now, waiting for the light to be born. Jesus in the Christian story is the bearer of the light, the bringer of hope to the world. Christmas is the big celebration, but Advent has depth and a richness, that allows Christmas to be what it is. The anticipatory beauty of Advent is found in so many Scriptural images – valleys filled up, mountains made low, crooked made straight, the angels and virgins, and promises of a Messiah- Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord- all will be right with the world.
Advent’s beauty is in the blending of hope for something better, for a Messiah, something to look forward to, together with real life, the life we are all living right now. It’s the messiness of people looking for more. We have the people in the desert going to John the Baptist, wanting to follow a prophet. The hypocrisy of religious and political leaders, a truth we still live with. A young girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the reality of difficult life choices. Advent speaks to the real circumstances that people – everyday, average people – deal with all the time. And Advent weaves the coming of a Messiah through it all. Christmas tells us of the extraordinary. Advent is about living in the ordinary world, knowing something magical, something extraordinary is going to happen.
Advent poetically demonstrates the interweaving of incarnation and current events. We have become a people waiting for a Messiah. Not unlike the world of 1st century Palestine, we have civil unrest, an uneasy tension between people, leaders who are either incompetent or power hungry or both. Too many are poor, sick, oppressed, treated unjustly; too many seek violence or even war as a solution. It’s into this world- our world – that hope is born.
What I’m wondering this morning is what, exactly, were waiting for. What is the child we are wanting to be born? What are we pregnant with?
Is it hope for a new presidency? That might alleviate some of the pressure, would let us move forward on climate and health care, but that’s not all of it. We’re also waiting for a vaccine and the end of a pandemic that upended our lives in previously unimaginable ways. We’re also waiting for racial justice, for economic justice, for full inclusion of transgendered people and people with many different physical abilities and body types. We’re waiting for an end to the national divisions that seem to only get worse. And maybe we are waiting for an end to grief. To loneliness? To fear and anxiety? To financial insecurity?
This is our season. This is our time to wait. To wait, and to act. As Mary was waiting, she spent time with Elizabeth, her cousin. I’ve been watching you all do the same thing. You’re calling each other. You’re sending and receiving gifts. You’re writing letters, you’re protesting, you’re posting pictures of your lives on social media. You’re reaching out when someone is in trouble. You’re going for walks and meeting in parks when it’s safe, maybe sharing a bench and a sandwich. You’re showing up here, looking for your people, finding joy in each other’s faces. You’re not just waiting in the dark. You’re quietly, beautifully, building the new world. From the dark, you are delivering love into the world.
We’re about to hear the song O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel means God is With Us. We are all part of the divine spirit. We all participate in the Mystery we call God. During this Advent season, aware that we live In the Meantime, in the in-between space between what is and what will be, we look to each other in hope. The dark is pregnant with expectation. We will wait, together.