We lament our broken world and all that is wrong. Even so, we try to appreciate the moments that bring us laughter and joy. We say we long for more of God in our lives and in our world. But God has a way of coming into our experience in unexpected and life-disrupting fashion. Are we always willing to let go of how things are to embrace what God might be doing? Not always, I must admit. Maybe not even often.
In this fourth week of Advent we focus our attention more on Christ’s “first” coming into history. The story is full of paradoxes. One juxtaposes obscurity (baby born in a borrowed barn) and ovation (baby heralded by shining star and angel choir). Another contrasts the mundane and the momentous in the lead-up to the birth of God, especially in the experiences of the four principal characters of the story: Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph. And after each one’s unique encounter with God, they had choices to make and a kind of waiting to practice, both requiring faith.
Let’s imagine each one’s experience.
Zechariah. We’ve already rehearsed in our Week Two Reflection the story of this aging priest who encounters an angel while performing his duties in the sanctuary, who perturbs that angel with his (understandable) skepticism, and who is rendered speechless by the whole episode. He doesn’t have much choice about letting go of his voice, but when his term in the temple ends and he returns to his hometown, he does have opportunity to exercise faith: to let go of his doubts, to assuredly tell Elizabeth what would come about, to have sex while trusting her (menopausal?) womb would be(come) fertile, to wait for the early signs of pregnancy, to pace and pray during the hours of labor, and to obediently affirm that the newborn would be called by the angel-given name, John. Whereupon the Holy Spirit fills him with joy and loosens his tongue!
Elizabeth. Unlike the other three characters, Elizabeth does not get her news directly from an angel. Rather, she hears the annunciation through her husband, and presumably not the highly detailed version since he can’t speak. Undoubtedly, she thinks about the famous story of elderly Sarah who, when she overheard three angelic figures tell her husband Abraham that she would have a son, laughed in the tent (and then lied to the angel about it). Does Elizabeth choose to believe Zechariah straightaway? At what point is she able to let go of her disappointment and long-borne disgrace? What is going through her mind and heart when they next sleep together conjugally? After that, she waits. Once she suspects she’s pregnant, she secludes herself for five months, joining her husband in quietude and pondering.
Then young cousin Mary shows up at her doorstep, and the two women—one a young virgin with child, one an old crone with child—have an ecstatic experience of confirmation through the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth’s baby leaps in utero and she loudly proclaims a prophetic blessing on Mary and her holy embryo. In turn, Mary soulfully magnifies the Lord. God has given each to the other for three months of comfort and care. Elizabeth successfully(!) gives birth and eight days later, in keeping with her husband’s report, names the child John.
Mary. She is young, student-aged we might say today, and surely caught off guard by the appearance of an angel in her home. But in lovely biblical irony, the barely adult woman’s reaction is perplexity while that of the life-long priest is terror! Mary has her questions, but astoundingly she lets go of her (understandable) anxieties and chooses, with courage, to say yes to the mystery of God. Denise Levertov portrays this in these lines from her poem “Annunciation”:
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness. [i]
Mary voices her letting go by saying “Let it be with me as you say,” willing to be a servant of God’s will.
The last thing the angel tells Mary, to underscore that “nothing will be impossible with God,” is that Elizabeth, her relative in old age, is six months pregnant with a son. Immediately, Mary acts in faith and hurries off to Elizabeth’s town and there receives her elder’s Spirit-prompted greeting as the first of many signs of God’s favor as she waits for what has been promised: an accepting husband-to-be, an available stable in a crowded city, a band of shepherds reporting their own angelic annunciation, a pair of prophecies on circumcision day in the temple, and eventually a visit by strange magi from the East.
Joseph. How easy to overlook Joseph! I remember once walking into a gallery in the Norton
Simon Museum in Pasadena and being surprised at seeing the painting Saint Joseph Embracing the Infant Christ by Giovanni Battista Gaulli. I suddenly realized that I’d never seen a “Father and (Christ) Child” painting. Such masculine tenderness! Do we gravitate toward Luke’s dramatic narratives and perhaps neglect the inherent drama in the Matthean perspective that centers more on Joseph?
Imagine your way into his story: engaged to be married, learning his fiancée is pregnant by someone else, wrestling with how to break relationship without breaking her, trying to flush the feelings of betrayal and disgrace. And then he has a dream. In it an angel tells him to marry Mary and embrace the child as holy, not only God-given but somehow God-present (“Emmanuel”). We know how crazy-fantastical dreams are, arising as they do from our subconscious conflicts and anxieties. But Joseph accepts the message in faith and lets go of his self-protecting instincts. He takes Mary as his mate, waits anxiously for the birth, names the baby “Jesus” as instructed, and from then on protects Mother and Child, whether in the crude animal shelter of Bethlehem or on the road to Egypt fleeing murderous Herod. What quiet courage and grace!
In the conception and birth of Jesus, God slips into history. In time he would disrupt the whole show! But he begins by intruding into the lives of four ordinary persons. Unexpectedly. They make choices—in trembling faith—to believe, to act, to wait expectantly. And they became part of the In-breaking of God for the salvation of the world and the blessing of all humanity.
When God surprisingly shows up in our lives, may we let go of whatever keeps us from saying “may it be so.”
[i] The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions,2013), p. 836
About the author:
Bobby Gross has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Vice President for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in Gainesville (FL), Miami (FL), New York City, and now Atlanta. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in American Studies and English Literature and did additional studies in theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bobby served on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) for six years. Bobby is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. He has also contributed chapters to three other books, including Faith on the Edge (InterVarsity Press) and Signs of Hope in the City (Judson). Bobby has experience in preaching, teaching, and training on a range of subjects including leadership development, vocational stewardship, and spiritual formation. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.