Giving over

Perspective: This star cluster (Messier 28) is 12 billion years old.
NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

I don't want to be "the adult" this Christmas season. I don't want to figure out the holiday menu two weeks in advance to cut down on supermarket trips or order gifts online with enough time budgeted for USPS delays or buy a real tree for the first time with a newly obstreperous toddler in the house. I just want to snap my fingers and have ... what, exactly? A "normal" Christmas? A handed-to-me Christmas? No Christmas at all?

For months I've been thinking about this December blog post and jotting down possible angles. My scribbled notes include:

  • Look at the Nativity though the lens of grief and fear—fleeing home, giving birth alone, losing the life they (Mary and Joseph) once knew
  • A list of what I'm grateful for
  • Am I actually a hopeful person?
  • We are allowed to grieve

I could write a post on each of these prompts, but as I look to the rapidly approaching end of the calendar year, I find I am too exhausted to explore them, at least not in an articulate way meant for shared reflection. It's the writing equivalent of my Christmas ennui; I know where I want to end up, but I have zero energy to invest in getting there.

One way I did attempt to fill my tank was to contribute a brief reflection to my church's parishioner-led Advent devotional calendar. (What can I say, I like writing about this liturgical season.) And as fortune would have it, I was assigned today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which shares the story of the Annunciation.

I have long been drawn to the Annunciation story, mainly because I like to rebel against the usual interpretation/conclusion that Mary said yes to God without a moment's hesitation and thus we should all be like Mary, meek and acquiescent.

Maybe the events of 2020 further primed me to be contrarian, but as I pondered the day's readings and prepared my reflection, I zeroed in on the use of two buts: "But she was greatly troubled at what was said..." and "But Mary said to the angel, How can this be ...?" On this repeated conjunction hinges real human doubt, a doubt onto which I threw myself with immediate understanding.

Here's what I ended up writing:

“When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side …”

Uncertainty, instability, disruption, fear … these ‘enemies’ have beset me throughout 2020. And now the last weekend of Advent asks me for the impossible: to say “yes” to God amid existential exhaustion.

Given my weariness, how will I find the strength to speak this simple but significant vow? Today’s two readings and psalm all include muscular words that suggest physical power, words like destroy, endure, stand firm, and rock. I can hear these words thundering through tents and pulpits, a call to arms for faithful listeners.

But that’s not the energy my ragged spirit needs right now, which is why I’m connecting more with Mary’s quiet defiance in the gospel reading. Hers is a subtle display of strength: But … but … She does not hide her doubt or questions, but instead engages the archangel in dialogue. In the end, with the soothing language of birth rather than conflict, Mary agrees to God’s offer, and the promise made to David is fulfilled.

Comparing these distinct approaches, I see a way to renew my Advent yes and my depleted hope. It’s not about giving in or giving up, but rather giving over to my questions, concerns, and doubts and holding a spirited conversation with God. For just as David learns that his definition of “house” is much smaller and more literal that God’s expansive vision, so might we learn in our pushing, fretting, and wondering that a life beyond our wildest imaginings is available to us—a life imbued with mystery and miracles. 

Giving over. That's where I've landed this Advent, this Christmas, this bleak midwinter mid-pandemic. I am going to keep asking God lots of questions and attempt to make it more of a conversation than it's been of late. I'm also going to treat myself with compassion, to permit my unpredictable waves of grief, but also to welcome the surprise joys and not begrudge them.

My son is very into a lovely picture book right now titled LIFE, written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, and it's a simple, peaceful meditation on life's beauties and challenges. The passage that most reliably catches in my throat goes like this:

Life is not always easy.

There will probably be a stretch of wilderness now and then.

But wilderness eventually ends.

And there is always a new road to take.

May we all come to the end of the wilderness soon, dear ones. May our new roads rise to meet us. May our hope renew and make our "yeses" stronger.

Prayer #363: O Antiphon for the Weary Soul

O Wanderer

O Scared One

O Root of Doubt

O Key Unlabeled

O Murky Dawn

O Lost of Nations

O how can I be anything to You except a hapless jumble, a human hodge-podge, a seeker chasing her own unfolding tale? What assurance do You draw from my wavering yes, and what glory do You spot in my flickering hope?

As I wait for You yet again, O Emmanuel, help me envision a relationship beyond my all-too-human scale. May I invite awe and seek breathlessness, so that the puny defenses I like to erect disintegrate in the face of Your mind-blowing love, and what rises instead exceeds even Your wildest dreams.