Reflections During Advent, Part IV
Luke 1:35a, 37–38. The angel said to her…. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Here is a confession. Back in October, there came a moment in our national experience when everyone—and by “everyone” I mean people as unlikely as news anchors and as expected as church leaders—was talking about how we as Americans should pray in response to a particular thing that had happened. And so I tried to pray the “right” way, the Christian way, the way everybody said Jesus would have prayed. My prayer, however, felt thin and false. Figuratively speaking, even as I had fallen to my knees, I was crossing my fingers behind my back. How silly and insincere that must have looked to God, who knew full well what I truly wanted to happen. Once that insight registered with me (and relying on precedent set by the Psalmist in some of those “impolite” verses we don’t read in church), I minced no words with God. I started my prayer anew, giving full voice to my vitriolic, despairing, and angry desire for revenge and retribution.
What happened next was that, again figuratively speaking, God took me into those great, warm, godly arms, held me the way a grandmother holds a tantrum-throwing toddler close to her body, and let me flail about, shout my imprecations, and sob. Once I grew exhausted and quiet, still holding me close, God whispered into my ear, “I know you are upset. I understand why. But let me handle this my way, okay?” Well—okay. Let it be with me according to your word.
Today is the last Sunday of Advent in a December that, for most of us, has differed radically from past Decembers. We have not been in our churches for the lighting of Advent wreaths or the singing of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Perhaps we ordered gifts online rather than shopping in person, and mailed presents rather than delivering them ourselves. We may have foregone an annual tradition of attending a Christmas concert, play, or ballet. Perhaps we are not decorating a tree. “Why bother,” we may think, “with no neighbors dropping by?” Perhaps there will be empty chairs at our tables this year, either because of social distancing or because a loved one is no longer with us in this world. Christmas is often a lonely season, especially when our lives do not compare favorably with images on Christmas cards or in our memories. Collectively, this may be the loneliest season we Americans have had in decades.
And maybe that’s okay. Maybe that empowers us to re-imagine Christmas, and our relationship to it, and to make it somehow new. But it’s also okay to feel our feelings, whatever they are, and to tell them to God, speaking honestly about our grief, our frustrations, our losses, our desires. The angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.” That makes my headstrong toddler self want to bellow, “Oh yeah? So why doesn’t God fix things”? Meaning, “Why doesn’t God fix things the way I want them fixed? Why doesn’t God make our world more civil and just? And quiet storms, and put out forest fires? Why doesn’t God give me back the people I love?” Those are some of my desires. I ask God those questions a lot.
In Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “Naming things is part of the creative impulse. Naming the deep desires of our heart is a good thing, even if those desires are never satisfied.” The honest naming of our deep desires reminds us who we are —and who we can yet become. Perhaps once we have named them, and maybe let some of them go, we can begin imagining new ways God can work in us, new ways in which we can be made new.