The First Sunday of Advent
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
If I were Liturgical Czar of the Episcopal Church, I would decree that we would change some of the gospel readings assigned for this time of year by easing up a little on the apocalypse. Most of you probably don’t keep track, but every year, four Sundays in a row, from mid-November through mid-December, and then again in mid-January, we’ve got earthquakes and famines, crumbling kingdoms, valleys lifted up and mountains made low, foreboding and repentance, and chaff burned in the unquenchable fire! Happy Advent!
The world is ending, Jesus is coming again, and you’d better beware! I am convinced that our lectionary inspired some Episcopalian to write the popular Christmas song:
You better watch out; he’s making a list; he’s gonna find out!
Santa Claus is coming to town.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there’s something else going on, as we begin the season of Advent today. In case we forget, there’s a very pregnant woman off in the corner - Mary of Nazareth. By the action of the Holy Spirit, she’s been filled, literally, with divine life. So today I’d like to redirect the spotlight to the miracle of pregnancy, but more specifically, to the miracle of being pregnant with God’s life, as Mary was.
Now we men will never understand what pregnancy is like. But many of us get to experience it second-hand. From a short distance, we know about morning sickness, backaches, and craving for pickles and ice cream. And we are there during the unimaginable pain of birth. Mary, yes, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Our Lord, went through all of this with Joseph by her side.
But there’s something else, a mystery at work in every pregnancy. What is going on in there? How can a person grow inside a person? Who will it be? What will happen in their lifetime? How will our lives change?
Mary and Joseph, like every couple, probably felt all these things. It was a wondrous time of unknowing. Something was growing inside a hidden place, slowly being shaped into something that would take on a life of its own. By themselves, they couldn’t make this shaping take place, and neither could they control the outcome.
There is a way in which this story, and more broadly, every pregnancy, can help us see how sometimes the miracle of God’s new life grows in us and gives birth: the conception, the interminable waiting, our ignorance of what is taking place inside all those months, and the surprising outcome.
What really happens during that kind of spiritual pregnancy, and more to the point, how do we cooperate faithfully with the action of grace?
Many models of change and new beginnings assume that we know where we’re going. We create a plan, we march step by step through that plan, and we arrive at our destination. We are asked, rhetorically, How can you get there if you don’t know where you’re going? Or as Yogi Berra put it,"You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."
But I’ve found that some of the times of change, perhaps the most important ones, happen differently. It often begins with the realization that for several months we’ve been in a time of instability, where things are shifting. Something needs to be different, but we don’t know exactly what or how. It’s not a comfortable feeling.
Then, having realized this, we want the instability to resolve itself right away. But it doesn’t. Things remain uncomfortable, where all we’ve got is the sense that things need to change, but no idea how to affect it. We imagine possible solutions as if trying on different clothes in the changing room, but nothing fits, nothing looks good on us. We may even yield to the impulse to force a resolution. But that doesn’t work either.
And so we pray for guidance. I believe that God hears and responds to our prayers. Whether we feel it or not, the Holy Spirit comes upon us and conceives something in us, deep in the womb of our souls. Then begins a time of spiritual pregnancy. At this point, the work of faith is to trust that God has responded to our prayer, that divine conception has happened, and to patiently wait.
But it isn’t a passive waiting, as if we could just put it on the shelf, forget about it, and then come back to see if it’s grown. Think again of a pregnant woman, of Mary. She is active in her waiting. She gives herself intentionally, prayerfully, to the growth that she knows is taking place in the womb, even before she is showing. She stays healthy, and remains attentive and responsive.
So it is with spiritual pregnancy: we remain attentive to the signs of growth, we nurse it along. We talk to friends and spiritual guides, we read, we search. We respond to signs that appear along the way. But we don’t force it along. We can’t.
And when the time of spiritual gestation is fulfilled, something good comes into being. But it’s not usually not what we thought it would be, any more than a new child is predictable. I have learned that now. For me, a long, uncomfortable time of unknowing and waiting inevitably gives way to new creativity, fresh energy, possibilities I couldn’t have seen ahead of time. God is faithful, and surprising.
Two and a half years ago, 6 months prior to the long sabbatical I took, I was already in a quandary. The sabbatical plans I had made had evaporated, and I was left with an unplanned 7 months stretching out before me, as if I were on a ship about to enter the equatorial doldrums. On one level, I was happy, for there was a sense of call. It felt as if something important but indefinable had been conceived. On another level, I was terrified. With nothing to do, would I become nothing?
So I made little plans of what to do with my time, and carried some of them out, but the real work of the sabbatical was learning to come to terms with daily life without a purpose. I had talked about the sacredness of the ordinary for years, but there I was, in it, and I didn’t know if God would deliver.
What happened over that year - what is in fact still happening - is probably related to aging: a very gradual dying of the ego - the restless impulse to make a life, to produce and improve, to move on towards the next better thing.
With the ego out of the way, the present opens itself in its own graceful way. I found out that I don’t always have to chase after life. If I let it, it rises up to meet me. It’s along the lines of what the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, found out after his stroke. 40 years prior, he had written a book called Be Here Now. But it wasn’t until he lived with the paralyzing effects of a stroke that he really knew what “being here now” was.
I’ve seen this spiritual pregnancy and birth happen again and again in our parish community. It begins with dissatisfaction, or a sense of call, or an unexpected event. We pray, God responds, and a conception takes place. This gives way to discernment, which takes a long time. Things move slowly below the surface, spreading from person to person in the community. Something is growing among us, but we can’t see it. Eventually it births itself, surprising us all. This happened with a change in clergy leadership one year ago. It is happening with the Who is My Neighbor? process. And it will happen again and again.
I wonder if you, too, have had - or right now are in the midst of - a spiritual pregnancy. If so, I offer you this, in closing, from Teilhard de Chardin, the Roman Catholic priest and mystic of the last century.
Let [this something new in you] grow. Let [it] shape [itself] without undue haste. Do not try to force [it] as though you could be today
what time - that is to say, grace and circumstances - acting on your own good will will make you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new Spirit gradually forming in you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. Above all, trust in the slow work of God.