The glad song Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel functions like a lighted magnifying glass. It illumines, making possible the discernment of something that was there all the time, but difficult to see without aid. Mary sings of the whole new order of things that God is creating all around us, one in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich, who have unwisely filled up on so much that does not satisfy, are emptied so that they can have their real hungers met at last.
Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “The human spirit is incapable of ridding itself of an abiding sense of homelessness.” It is as if we never feel quite at home anywhere but are always seeking that sweet place. We yearn for the day when the distance between time and eternity will be finally and fully bridged; until then, we understand exile.
The Lebanese Presbyterian community is faithfully lighting candles on an Advent wreath this Sunday—and waiting. Disillusionment and desperation are growing all around them in Beirut, but, as Pastor Joseph Kassab says, “We have no choice here but to hope in a better future.” Then he adds: “Unfortunately, we don’t control it.”
How odd that the most hopeful season of the Christian calendar begins in the midst of darkness! When we light the first candle on the Advent wreath, it will not be a second too soon. This Advent I feel an urgent need for the light that comes from God, and I do not think I am the only one.
It’s my favorite time of year—though I never heard the word Advent until my mother brought home an Advent calendar one year. Presbyterians didn’t observe Advent in western Pennsylvania in those days. I learned about it from the brightly decorated calendar with its tiny paper doors, one for each December day until Christmas.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians puts me in mind of the annual ritual of Christmas letters and how much I enjoy receiving them, though I have to admit that sometimes the correspondence can veer off into the stratosphere of braggadocio. You know the type.
My favorite Christmas book is The Donkey’s Dream, which is about the journey Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem. Meant for young children, Barbara Helen Berger’s story is a brilliant and subtle work of theology. Or perhaps antitheology, as it allows simple images to tell us more than words can convey about what the incarnation signifies.
"Mercy” is the one expletive my grandmother Norris allowed herself, the all-purpose exclamation for times when she was too awestruck, befuddled or exasperated to say anything else. During the '60s, I considered her “Mercy” to be amusing and even charming, but also embarrassingly anachronistic. Now that I am older, however, "Mercy" seems a fine word for moments when other words fail.
It is hard to believe what we hear, that we are a blessed people, standing in God’s favor. Hard to believe that God will bring righteousness to our world, as mysteriously and yet naturally as a seed sprouts and grows out of the earth. We know it is foolish to put stock in such promises, when we have devastated God’s creation with war and willful misuse.
The most prophetic thing that Thomas Merton ever did was to say to a drugstore clerk who asked him which brand of toothpaste he preferred, “I don’t care.” Intrigued by the clerk’s response, Merton wrote, “He almost dropped dead. I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest. . . . And they all have a secret ingredient.” He concluded that “the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”