February 27, 2017 / Praxis
Zen Hess wants Christians to resist individualism and transience with a rooted theology of place.
November 29, 2011
This essay is adapted from one published in J. Alexander Sider and Isaac S. Villegas, Presence: Giving and Receiving God (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 22–27. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com.
Advent is a season of waiting, of being drawn into the spiritual discipline of anticipation. Our spiritual director is Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one in whom we see revealed the patience of God. Mary waits for the Messiah, and in doing so she invites us into a way of life that welcomes the gospel through a posture of waiting.
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It was a few weeks before my sixteenth birthday. I came home from soccer practice one evening and my mom asked me what I wanted to do for a party; your sixteenth birthday is a big deal, after all. “Well, mom,” I said with a smile on my face, “I’ve always wanted a surprise birthday party.” I thought I was making a joke since it doesn’t make much sense to suggest that someone throw you a surprise party. Obviously, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if I knew about it.
But my mom took me at my word. “OK, let’s plan a surprise birthday party.” She was completely serious. We sat at the kitchen table; she pulled out her calendar and checked some dates. Then, she grabbed a notepad and asked me who I wanted to invite.
When the day came my mom told me to go out for a couple hours with my sister so we wouldn’t be around when the guests arrived—we wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. I drove to a coffee shop, hung out with my sister, and came back two hours later. We parked in the driveway and walked up to the front door. As I opened the door, everyone yelled out, “Surprise!” I did my best to look shocked. Little did they know that I had planned everything.
This kind of waiting is the opposite of Advent waiting. I knew the party was coming. I knew the day and the hour. I even knew who would be there and what we were going to eat. Everything happened according to plan. I knew what I was waiting for.
That is not the case for Mary in our story from Luke’s gospel. The angel Gabriel shows up out of the blue and completely surprises Mary. The Greek word Luke uses to describe her reaction means something like “profoundly unsettled, agitated, disturbed, or terrified.” In other words, she is completely freaked out. And we can’t blame her—angels aren’t cuddly creatures with glowing halos who play the harp all day. No, angels are terrifying and powerful, wielding swords and ready to smite the enemies of God. It’s not necessarily a good thing to be visited by an angel. They can bring good news or bad news, and Mary is not sure what the appearance of this angel means. That’s why Gabriel’s word of reassurance is so important. He says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30, NRSV). Don’t be afraid, Mary, I won’t strike you dead.
All this is to say: Mary doesn’t wait for Advent in the same way that I waited for my sixteenth birthday party. I knew what was coming when I opened the front door. But Mary—she had no clue of what was coming. She was caught off guard and terrified, trembling and confused. Mary had no idea that she was supposed to be waiting for something. Advent just happened, without warning, like a thief in the night.
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When I was three years old, my mom was pregnant with my sister, Cynthia. The way my parents prepared me for Cynthia’s birth was to tell me that from my mom’s belly would appear a friend for me. I was excited. Now I would have a friend to play with and I wouldn’t even have to leave my house.
When my mom and dad brought my sister back from the hospital, they put her in a crib and I went to work getting ready for hours of endless play. I brought out all of my Hot Wheels and lined up the little cars along the edge of the crib. I was prepared for my new friend to play with me. But nothing happened. She just lay there. She wouldn’t respond to my attempts at friendship. Completely rude! So I took my cars and went across the street to my friend Matt’s house.
Obviously, I didn’t understand my parents’ announcement, nor did I understand how to prepare for Cynthia’s arrival. Now that is Advent. As a church we are waiting for something that we don’t know how to receive, a guest for whom we know not how to prepare, a savior who arrives in the most unexpected place: the womb of a young, poor, unprepared, and terrified girl. Mary doesn’t believe the news at first. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” she asks (v. 35). Mary makes a good point. She knows her biology: sex comes first. Gabriel’s announcement is absurd.
Furthermore, the Messiah isn’t supposed to come from her belly. Not her. She comes from the wrong side of town—that slum called Nazareth—and everyone knows that nothing good comes from Nazareth. It is one of those dumps that doesn’t even make the history books. Mary exemplifies insignificance and weakness. She is a replaceable part in the machine, from a village of disposable people.
But that’s exactly the sort of place where God shows up. That’s where the Messiah comes from, where salvation is born, where good news begins.
* * *
As hard as we may try, we don’t know how to prepare for God to show up. God happens in ways that we least expect and at times when we feel most unprepared. During Advent we are all like I was at the age of three, waiting to welcome my sister but not knowing how to prepare. Yet, despite my failed attempts at understanding what was going on, she came anyway.
That’s the way God works: Jesus comes anyway, despite our bumbling about or lack of preparations. Jesus comes anyway—and that’s called grace. Jesus comes even if we don’t think we are ready. Jesus comes anyway, even if we don’t think it makes any sense, even if we doubt. Jesus comes anyway, even if we are terrified, even if we can’t muster up the courage to believe.
After all, Mary doesn’t believe at first: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She doubts that Gabriel’s news can really come true in her life. She isn’t ready. She has not met the prerequisites for this news to become reality. But the messenger from God doesn’t ask for Mary’s permission—which, I think, is one of the more scandalous details of this story. The angel doesn’t ask, “Will you do this, Mary?” No, Gabriel simply announces this wonderful and terrifying news: this will happen.
And what is Mary’s response? She says something incredible. She’s terrified, completely surprised—this is the strangest news ever heard—and she says: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word” (v. 37). Mary surrenders control; she welcomes the mysterious workings of God. She embraces God’s plan for the world, even though she doesn’t know how it will turn out. It’s a risk. And she says yes to God.
* * *
Mary’s story is now our story. We are like Mary: we’ve heard the good news of the Messiah’s coming and we aren’t sure how this good news can take shape in our lives. Like Mary we have our excuses: how can this be since I have these things going on in my life—this commitment and that circumstance. Perhaps we’ll be ready next year. Once we figure out our lives, then we can start learning how to welcome what God is doing—once we finish school, once the rush at work settles down, once we fix that relationship, once we conquer this sin, once we find the right job, once we start a family, once we become more spiritual, once we find a place to call home, and so on.
But that’s not how God operates. God doesn’t wait until we think we are ready, because God knows that we always already have all that we need. That’s what grace means: God has already given us all that we need to welcome God’s new life. So God announces and waits with us.
Yes, God waits with us—that’s an important part of the good news. Advent is also about the way God waits with us. Advent shows us the patience of God. Think through the story of Mary. Pretend that you are God—which is usually a bad idea, but try it with me this one time. If you are God and you’re trying to save the world, nine months of gestation in a poor, young girl might seem like a bad idea. The situation in the world is quite desperate, yet God chooses a plan in which the savior waits around for more than half a year. The whole story seems like an irresponsible way to save the world—not simply because God waits, but because God waits in such a risky place.
After Gabriel’s visit, Mary doesn’t get to drive around in the protection of Benedict XVI’s bulletproof pope mobile, nor does she get President Obama’s secret service agents to make sure she makes it to the big day. Gabriel doesn’t even stick around or call for backup angels. In fact, the last line of our passage from Luke has an ominous ring to it: “Then the angel departed from her” (v. 55). The angel leaves! Now what? She bears the savior of the world in her body and she has to fend for herself in a land occupied by enemies!
Abandoned by God, yet God in her womb. Isn’t it so strange? In our waiting, God waits with us.
To have faith is to recognize that our waiting is a time of pregnancy. Mary teaches us how our waiting becomes the labor of the gospel in our lives. It’s not that God only comes to those who have faith. That’s not it at all. Our faith isn’t the permission God needs to get involved with us. God doesn’t wait for our faith or ask for permission. Instead, to have faith is to know that God waits with us. To have faith is to recognize that this laborious waiting is the coming of God. Our travail is the coming of God. We are overflowing with God, whether we believe it or not. God’s new life is always about to happen, even when it seems impossible.
We can believe this good news because our God creates new life from chaos. The waters of Mary’s womb echo the first chapters of the Bible, the very beginning of the Messiah’s story: “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gen. 1:2). The same Holy Spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation hovers over the waters of Mary’s womb. In the beginning, with God’s word formless chaos became the site of new life. And, here, at the beginning of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ, God forms life out of the waters of Mary’s womb.
This is also our story. We entered those same waters at our baptism. And when we emerged, we entered into God’s new life. But there’s more to baptism than that one event. “[A] Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever continued,” wrote Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. We are always submerged in the waters of chaos, and we are always being created anew. Thus, all of life is our baptism into new life. To borrow the words of William James, “We are tossed here and there, floating bubbles of foam on a stormy sea,” but God nevertheless forms new life from these waters. Our life is travail, the labor pains of new life—all of which is our baptism.
* * *
So where does Christ arrive? Where does Advent take place? Where does God’s new life happen? God comes to us in the mess and waits with us. And what exactly is God waiting for? God is waiting for us to pray with Mary, “Be it done to me according to your word.” Then we can begin to see how God is already at work transforming chaos into new life. God comes to us in the disorder of this world and gives us a chance to receive new life—profound life, mysterious life, re-created life, eternal life.
The trouble for us is that we have a hard time believing that the disarray of our lives can become the place where God’s new life happens. It seems impossible. That is why we must listen, with Mary, to Gabriel’s last words just before he abandons her. He says, “For nothing is impossible with God” (v. 37).
Christ is always coming to us, whether or not we think we are ready. Christ is always re-forming our lives into the kingdom of eternal love, whether we believe it or not. And so, in our travail, we pray the words of Mary: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.” That is the prayer of Advent, which takes a lifetime to learn.
All of life is birth. All of life is baptism. Behold, all things are made new.
 For Luther’s discussion of life as baptism, see The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, trans. Robert H. Fischer (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1958), 89. For the reference to James, see Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York, NY: Mentor, 1958), 408.
 I rely on two much better sermons by Rowan Williams: “Waiting on God,” and “Born of the Virgin Mary,” in Williams, A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1995).
Isaac S. Villegas
Isaac S. Villegas is the pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina. He serves on the executive board of Mennonite Church USA and on the governing council of the North Carolina Council of Churches.