Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’
Ours is not the first generation to ask questions of faith. Indeed, the entire Christian enterprise is built upon the witness of our spiritual forebears who dared to ask their questions in crucible moments when faced with consequential decisions.
Among the questions of faith I’ve received in response to my invitation in early November, two resonate with those we find in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, asked by those who felted summoned into a larger narrative:
How do you hear the Lord?
How do you know what He wants you to do rather than what your inner voice wants you to do?
As with all questions relating to the presence and power of God, we do well to be humble when contemplating how God speaks to us. Even in our most powerful spiritual encounters, hearing God’s voice is a subjective experience, prone to error.
At the same time, when we open ourselves to the mystery of divine communication, which is at the heart of prayer, there are certain or seemingly universal insights to guide us.
The first of these insights that I can speak of from personal experience is that the “voice” of God, if that’s the right word for it, is decidedly different from my own. Sometimes the message comes internally–an insight or thought or nudge to move in a certain direction. Just as often, I hear what seems to be the voice of God spoken through another person, or in the events of life.
That is clearly the case in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. The Lord speaks to the young girl Mary in the form of an angel–an outside messenger–with whom Mary feels perfectly free to engage in real conversation. She asks her question without fear. How can this be? What is impossible for Mary, the angel responds, is not impossible for God. A good reminder for us all.
And as we will hear in church this Sunday, the voice of God speaks to Joseph through a dream, suggesting that he do the exact opposite of what he had planned. Scripture doesn’t tell us how Joseph felt about the message from his dream; only that he changed course as a result of what he heard.
Then there is the story of the wise ones from the East who felt summoned by a star.
In each account, the message came from a source that those who received it experienced as beyond themselves–not their own voice, but another.
Again, humility is essential whenever we speak about God’s call. Yet we would be remiss to ignore or downplay the ways we sense the presence of God guiding and encouraging us through life. Like our spiritual ancestors who were brave enough to take faithful steps in response to the summons they received, we are our most alive when we walk by faith and see where the journey leads.
I was blessed to be among the EDOW clergy who gathered for an Advent Quiet Day this week. Our leader, the Rev. Martin Smith, asked us to ponder the question, “What does Christ want to be for me just now?” He suggested that we reflect on the Celtic hymn which reminds of us the various directions from which Christ’s help might come:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.1
The ways we hear and experience Christ vary according to our temperaments and circumstances. These holy days of Advent and Christmas help us be open to however Christ comes and whatever it is that Christ wants us to receive.
And while there may be something that Christ wants us to do, he comes first wanting us to receive the gift of his presence within, behind, before and beside us. We are the ones in whom He is pleased to dwell, to stand behind us as our strength, and walk beside us as our friend.
1Words attributed to St. Patrick.