For the past few years my wife and I have been trying to reimagine our celebration and observance of Christmas. The old liturgical word Advent (latin for "coming") has taken on special meaning b/c it has been a symbol to us that this season is about something deeply spiritual, deeply religious, and deeply transformative. I know that "Christmas" is obviously a religious term, but for most of my life that words has meant trees, ornaments, presents, over eating, and unfulfilled longings for snow. I do not mean to dismiss these memories, rituals, and experiences. They formed me. They imparted identity, relationship, and joy to me. The song Tender Tennessee Christmas is on my top 5 list of favorite Christmas songs b/c of the value I place on these experiences. So, I am not trying to leave one old thing behind to pick up a brand new thing. I am simply trying to add to/revise what I have known so that I can more deliberately enter into the longing, hope, and expectation that this season can inspire. I also want to learn how to practice Christmas/Advent in such a way that I enter into the socially subversive conspiratorial nature of Christ's original, continued, and final coming into our world (more on that in a later post).
So, in an attempt to focus my heart and energy on a longing for Jesus to come, I plan to offer a few reflections on a deliberate practice of Advent.
How many times have you only allowed God to do what fit within your expectations? And, then, He blows through them and show Himself to be something more, something other than who you'd made Him out to be.
How many times have you held with deep conviction and even defended with passionate intensity something that "the Bible plainly says"? And, then, God opened your eyes so that you could see that He is so much more than the confining doctrines in which we try to imprison Him.
How many times have you experienced another culture, another way of believing, another way of worshiping, another way of following that completely reoriented your view of Christianity? That which you thought was universal all of the sudden was revealed as one very narrow, limited, and culturally specific expression of faith.
For example... (I'm so embarrassed to say this, but here goes)
I use to think raising your hands in worship was showing off - just fake emotionalism. I use to think that God created the world in 6 literal 24 hours periods of time, and that real Bible-believing people saw it that way too. I use to think there was a very clear line between those who are saved and those who are not. I use to think allegiance to a nation-state did not conflict at all with faith in Jesus but was actually one and the same experience. I use to think that "the Bible says what it means and means what it says" so that if we all just opened it, read it for ourselves, and kept on open mind we'd all reach the same conclusions. I use to think the church was a building. I use to think issues of faith, sin, and the God were very black and white. I use to think doubt, anger, and questions directed at God was wrong. I use to think that Christians were supposed to be upset that prayer was removed from schools and the ten commandments were removed from court houses. I use to think that people had to be baptized in a very specific way if they wanted to really be saved. I use to think Catholicism was a different religion. I use to think evolution was completely false and to believe in it was to deny the Bible as true. I use to think that the sins in my life were small, under control and insignificant enough that I was allowed to be judgmental of others. I use to be much more convinced about the nature of hell. And the nature of heaven. I use to think that racism no longer existed, and that people just needed to get over it. I use to think real Christians avoided and ignored politics, economics, social ills, and national injustices. I use to think that the Bible did not in any way speak in conflict with itself - like a monologue rather than a dialogue. I use to think that minorities and the poor needed those like me in the majority culture to rescue them with our wealth and goodness.
But just as God speaks through donkeys, makes the blind see, and casts down the religious elite, I have been humbled over and over that my little way of seeing the world, God, truth, etc. are just that - my little way.
Okay, at this point you should be asking, "What in the world does this have to do with Advent?"
Good question. Let me point you to the story of a poor, no name, teenage Jewish girl from the backwoods of Galilee.
When God decided to break the silence, bring light into the darkness, and transform history by breaking into our world... when God decided to finally wake up and fulfill His promise to bring a Messiah to destroy evil and restore righteousness and justice, He sent Gabriel to a little girl named Mary and said, "You, a virgin, are going to be the mother of God Himself."
And when Scriptures most incredulous statement was declared to this virgin, backwoods nobody, she offers Scriptures most stunning prayer:
"I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be to me according to your word."
"But, Lord, I am incapable of this." (Moses)
"But, Lord, I am too young." (Jeremiah)
"But, Lord, I am a nobody. Find someone else." (Gideon)
"Hahahaha! This is ridiculous. I can't bear a child!" (Sarah / also see Zechariah)
"I am your servant. Do to me whatever you wish."
I find this tale harder to believe than just about any other fantastical tale you read in this Bible we carry around. Who says that? What unlearned little girl in first century Judea would have been capable of that?
That, I suppose, is why she was chosen. She had not boundaries for God could and could not do. She had to box of beliefs to keep God neatly contained within.
So, as I move into the season of Advent, I am reminded that I can only rightly experience the coming of Jesus when He gets to come on His terms in His way. There is a lot of junk inside my heart and mind set up to keep God in His place. If nothing else happens this season but I learn to be little bit more like Mary, to be obedient to God and not my systems for/beliefs about God, to accept whatever God sends my way like a maidservant, then I can say that I rightly observed Christmas this year.
Pray with me each day her very words, "I am the maidservant of the Lord. May it be to me according to your word."
Oh the transformation that would be brought in our lives and our world if we prayed/lived like Mary.