I have a lovely virtual Advent calendar on my computer desktop, a thoughtful gift from my friend, Nancy. Its purpose is to mark the days of this season of waiting for Christmas to arrive.
Instead – proof of my miserable, fallen and disorganized state – as each day passes, I am seized not with joy and wonder but with panic. Instead of registering eleven days until O, Holy Night I look at the calendar and see only eleven days left to shop, wrap, send, hang ornaments and stockings and try to eradicate the unmistakable smell of cat pee where Dodger and Cody have thoughtfully marked the rooms where our holiday guests will be staying.
I was feeling decidedly overwhelmed last night and turned to the Gospel of Luke for inspiration. I realized, as I read, that Mary, mother of Jesus, wasn’t having all that great of an Advent season, herself back in the day.
Mary has always seemed a remote figure to me. Growing up Roman Catholic, my chief acquaintance with her was as an assigned lifeline in post-confessional penance. Instead of the expected Banishment to Hell for All Time, the priest would mercifully order me to say “Two ‘Our Fathers’ and three ‘Hail Marys'”, which I would mumble in the cold sweat of relief that that was over. Mary was less a person than a statue rendered in pinks and blues in churches, a face molded in perpetual serenity. Her expression suggested that she’d pretty much heard it all.
I saw a different side of Mary last night as I perused the first and second chapters of Luke. She was minding her own business, engaged to be married to Joseph, when the angel Gabriel dropped by and said in what might have seemed like that era’s version of an unsolicited sales call “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary’s reaction? Did she leap up in joy, thinking she’d won the lottery? No. Luke tells us that “she was greatly troubled” at Gabriel’s words. And for good reason. Mary soon had to deal with an ill-timed and unexplained pregnancy and then, late in her third trimester, no doubt replete with swollen ankles and heartburn, she and Joseph had to trudge off to Bethlehem for some bureaucratic nonsense about a census. To make matters worse, as Mary went into labor, the front desk clerk at the inn gave them the runaround and they ended up having to sleep in a stable.
No picnic for Mary, that first Advent season. She had been told by Gabriel, as we are, by Luke, to expect great things. Good news. But in the here and now, the day-to-day, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of God’s good plan, or, for some of us, to even lose sight of God altogether.
It would be easier to stay at the inn, wouldn’t it? There, we can gather around the fire, be comfortable and warm, sing some Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderlands and Ho Ho Ho’s and enjoy a social, secular holiday. There, we don’t have to talk about something as incomprehensible as a virgin birth or the idea that God – a God other than our gods of technology and science and political correctness – might have reached into our lives to bestow upon us the truest gift of Christmas.
Or we can step outside and walk that more solitary path to the manger like Mary did, wondering all the way, as she might have “What does this mean for me?”
Two of my favorite Christmas songs capture Mary in these moments:
Mary J. Blige singing Mary, Did You Know?:
And the beautiful Breath of Heaven sung by Amy Grant:
Eleven days to go. That’s a week and half to panic, try to pull together a holiday and strangle a few cats. And hopefully, also, to watch and wait and wonder and, as Mary did, treasure up all these things and ponder them in our hearts.