2015 - Advent Reflection: Hope
Have you ever noticed that many of the most enduring children’s stories – The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Harry Potter – include some parts that are downright terrifying? Parts that you couldn’t really watch without your hands over your eyes till – admit it – you became a teenager?
I was thinking about this as we enter these days of the greatest “children’s story” ever told. Matthew begins the story this way: “Before she lived with Joseph, Mary was found with child.” An unmarried woman found with child walking the streets of 1st-century Bethlehem… hardly “Once upon a time….” In fact, Luke tells us of an earlier moment, in which Mary was “deeply troubled” when she received the news that she could be with child – very likely an understatement.
Joseph’s unsurprising first reaction to his betrothed’s news gives us a glimpse of how difficult the beginning of the Christmas story really was. Because even Joseph, who loved Mary, when he heard her news, was ready to leave. And Joseph needs a special message from an angel just to stay with Mary: “Do not be afraid.”
Probably none of us normally think of “the Christmas story” as one including risk or fear. We just want the wonder and magic of Christ’s arrival that makes all troubles disappear, the happy ending that we all know awaits us at the end of the story.
And all of these wonderful joys are in the Christmas story, of course. But the entirety of the Christmas story gets me thinking: am I ready to experience the risk that is an inherent and inescapable part of this joy?
The Christmas Gospels are clear about this: the most wonderful things in our lives don’t come without risk. To wit: I spent most of my first days of what became the greatest times of my life – at summer camp, away from home for college, as a teacher, as a new priest – nauseous!
Many of my friends who have had their 1st baby have sounded a similar chord. This new life was undoubtedly the greatest miracle of their lives… but it was also a time of some of the deepest fears of their lives – would I be a good mom, or a good dad? What will my baby’s life be like? A deep, deep sense of responsibility, and risk, and some feelings of inadequacy, and at the same time, unbelievable feelings of joy and vocation.
There is something deeply human about the Christmas story that unfolds in these coming days. Mary and Joseph, in the midst of being called to their vocation feel, mingled with all the joy and miracle, the weight of the risk.
And yet, their hesitancy is not the final word of the story. As Elizabeth proclaims in this Fourth Week of Advent’s Gospel: “Blessed are you who believed… what was spoken to you by the Lord!” The end of the Christmas story is “May it be done to me according to your will,” soon followed by, “My soul magnifies the Lord!” The end of the story is that, “When Joseph awoke, he took Mary into his home.” The end of the story is, “And they gave the child the name Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived,” when all felt like risk, and Mary and Joseph hardly up to the task. That’s the end of the story. Mary, “full of grace,” was, in fact, up to the task. Joseph awakes, and he too finds he has been given the grace to say “yes” to take up his great part in the great story.
What are the most joyful events in your life? Think about them this week. Whatever they are, I bet, if you look at them closely, they are also some of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life.
And, for some reason, you didn’t run away. Or maybe you hesitated, and you’re searching for a way to get back into the story. Whatever the case, the Christmas message is that the really great stories of our lives involve risk. And that it’s deeply human to feel afraid, or not good enough, or wanting to run away. But that it’s also part of being human, a person of faith and hope, that at some point, God gives us the grace we need to take up our role in the story. At some point, God enters our lives and helps us to take responsibility for the lives we are called to lead for others.
Advent is a time of waiting in hope for the arrival of this grace. Next week, Christmas will be upon us. And the greatest story we know will be told yet again. Let us pray, in these final Advent days, for the grace to enter as fully as we can into the wonder, and the risk, and all the joy, of this story.