Full of Darkness and Hope: An Advent Reflection
Luke 1: 46-56
John starts his Gospel by telling us that the “light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” It seems to me that, in part, Advent represents a time in the church in which we reflect upon darkness. This, of course, rarely happens. Our American sensibilities are much too eager to dismiss the pain, grief, and hard work that come with naming the darkness. We would much rather equate the Advent season with shopping, decorating, Christmas parties, and attending charity events. This has been how we prepare for the coming light that dispels darkness, not by naming the darkness, but by ignoring it.
Darkness, however, doesn’t retract through neglect. And there remain times when darkness is so pervasive that it can no longer be ignored. The end of 2015 feels like such a moment. We are inundated by stories of violence and terrorism, racism and fear. Whether terror attacks in Paris or stories of police brutality against black bodies, darkness retains a palpable presence. For many of us, a struggle emerges as we wade through the weeks of Hope and Peace during the Advent season. It just feels like a time full of darkness and lacking in hope.
Mary the Mother of Jesus also lived in a time full of darkness and lacking in hope. The people of Israel had for centuries been praying for the long awaited and hoped-for Messiah. And during that wait, Palestine was occupied by one empire after another until finally Rome moved into the neighborhood. The period before Christ could easily be described as tumultuous for the Jewish people. Rome marched through the land, burning whole cities, and putting to death anyone who would resist. General Varus in 4BC crucified up to 2000 Jewish rebels who picked up arms against Rome. Herod ordered the building of great hellenistic cities, like Sepphoris, just a few miles from Nazareth. He used an exploited workforce of day laborers, carpenters, and farmers to support his building projects. And in the middle of this story, we find a humble girl by the name of Mary.
Angels interrupt the story of conquest and empire building in the most peculiar way – by changing the life of a girl who would soon find herself singing revolutionary songs reminiscent of Hanna and Miriam; a song that resists violence and hopes for God’s new future. Mary, aligning herself with the people of Israel singing their way out of Egypt, declares God’s triumph and the overturning of the world’s abusive system. For some of us, we completely identify with Mary – poor, marginalized, and crying out against the violence around us. We long for the overturning of the old world – which places its faith in power politics and human progress – and the creation of the new world that God brings. But we can’t see it, and we’ve only known darkness, misery, and death for so long that we turn more toward despair than hope. We find ourselves longing to hear the words of the Lord to Moses, “I hear your cry and see your misery and have come to rescue you.” So when the Angel appears to Mary, her response is pure joy; amazement that at long last God is keeping God’s promise of rescue and renewal. With the advent of the Coming One, that which is broken will be made right, nations will not train for war anymore, and the hungry will receive their fill.
For many of us, we need this song today – the promise that God hears and God acts. Mary proclaims a new future for those whose future is bleak and unbearable. It seems the very singing of The Magnificat gives birth to the newness of the nonviolent Kingdom of God.
But for others of us, we sit puzzled at Mary’s words. We don’t identify at all with Mary’s experience of oppression. If we were to place ourselves into this song, we don’t line up with the humble or hungry, but rather with the rich and well-fed. We might even balk at the idea that God would lift up the poor and send the rich away empty. Hope for the well-fed and laughing is cheap, easily won, expected. But for the poor and grieving? Hope is incredibly hard to come by. Hopefully, for those who are well-fed now, the darkness of this world deeply disturbs us in a way that we do not miss it when God hears and God acts. And here lies the the difficulty of having already received our fill (as Jesus puts it in Luke 6); it is harder for us to dislodge our hope in the systems that have given us our fill. For many of us, our hope rests with those places that maintain our present circumstance. Our hope is placed in ideas, concepts, things; like capitalism or socialism, like the Constitution or the military. We may place our hope in guns or human rights. But none of this is particularly Christian. Christian hope preaches something completely different. Our hope is in a person. Christians hope in the coming of Jesus Christ, in whom all good things find their end and through whom all things will be made well.
Mary sings a new future into existence for those whose future is bleak and unbearable. But what does this mean for those whose present is bearable, and maybe even marked by flourishing? Perhaps, for those of us who find ourselves well-fed, God is calling us to live a life on behalf of those who do not have riches, fullness, and laughter. Rather than reacting in fear of the other, we extend ourselves in solidarity and grace to those whose experience has been full of darkness – to a homeless man in the church parking lot, to refugee neighbors down the street, or to Black Lives Matter protesters. And we do this because this is what God did, who extended God’s self in the person and work of Jesus Christ, in solidarity with humanity, even to the point of death. During Advent, we highlight the story of incarnation, which is simply God’s embodied extension of grace to all of us who need God’s abundant life. Come, Lord Jesus.
Eric Paul is currently serving as a missionary-pastor on the Big Island of Hawaii, using his gift of teaching and commitment to community development to prepare the next generation of 'indigenous' leaders. Grieving the lost dream of being a full-time ski bum in Colorado, Eric copes by surfing 3-5 ft waves, eating 2 pound mangoes, and investing in the nearby community garden.