The angel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
One of the great spiritual writers of our time, Richard Rohr, believes that there are at least two major tasks in every human life: the first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or outward identity; the second is to find the contents that the container is meant to hold.
We live in a culture that encourages us to fixate on the parts of ourselves that others can see, what are sometimes called the three A’s: appearance, accomplishments, and what we accumulate. There’s nothing inherently bad with any of these things. We need containers; with care, they can beautifully reflect our true self. But all too often we confuse our containers with what they are meant to hold. I know that I do.
This Sunday we begin Advent, a short season in the Christian calendar intended to help us prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, consider the cosmic implications of our faith, and experience the grace of God making possible what we cannot.
Yet even in the church, most of our Christmas preparations focus on what we might call Christmas containers, all that we do on the outside to make Christmas happen. We need those containers, or at least some of them, or there would be no celebration. But when we confuse our Christmas containers for what the containers are meant to hold, we risk missing the true gifts of this holy time. What a loss, for us and for our world.
That’s one reason why we need Advent. For this is a season of longing. We see the world as it is and long for the world that could be–where families need not flee for their lives, where poverty and war are no more; where no one need grieve the loss of one taken too soon. We see our loved ones struggle and we long to make their lives easier and more joyful, to watch their dreams fulfilled. We consider our lives and long for what we could be, our true selves, free from anxiety, guilt or pain.
So much of what we long for lies beyond our reach. Sometimes we rail against our limitations; others times we live as graciously as we can in that space between our longings and our lives. Yet when we allow those longings to surface, we realize that no matter how hard we try to keep our expectations in check, hope is never far from us.
And thank God for that. Because then we are open to what God alone can do, what God is doing, where God’s grace prevails.
As best you can, then, tend to your heart this Advent. As best you can, seek out a place in this world where Jesus needs you and go to be his hands and feet. As best you can, try to fashion your Christmas container–and that of your life–to Jesus’ way of love. Such an offering would be worthy of the One who comes heralding the amazing truth that nothing is impossible for God.
A curriculum for Advent published by the Presiding Bishop’s office and written by two diocesan clergy, the Rev. Becky Zartman and the Rev. Jenifer Gamber.