In this hemisphere, when nights grow longer and days grow shorter, we make our own light. We string bright bulbs along rooflines. We carry in wood and kindling to build little bonfires in our fireplaces. We find things that shimmer and set them to shining.
For most of her adult life, on gloomy days, my mother has set out candles great and small, placing them strategically around the house to bring cheer. She learned this from a Danish piano teacher in college. Leave it to the Scandinavians to spark a bit of joy when the world outside is hibernating.
People of faith are drawn to the light, too, right now. Not the kind we ourselves control with matches or the flick of a light switch. Instead, this month, as a people, we move slowly toward the enduring light of God, listening first to the prophets of old, then Mary, then the shepherds who run through the night, called into Bethlehem by angel song.
Each of these disparate voices prepares us to find sacred light, the kind we receive rather than manufacture, the kind we find shining from a tiny child in a manger place in the depth of winter.
You and I have made the journey toward this holy, humble light countless times. And gathered on the eve of his birth, we have welcomed his light into ourselves and then silently passed it along, flame to waiting wick, flame to waiting wick, until at last all who have gathered have received and shared it.
Year after year, we enter a story we have come to know by heart.
What might it have been like to be alive as the story was unfolding, as God’s timing intersected with just the right people and just the right circumstances? What might it have felt to be there just as everything was taking place?
Think about Mary, so young and impossibly poor, living on the edge of obscurity in Nazareth. How might it have felt to be one day minding your own business and the next day perched on the edge of profound change? Change not just for Mary but the whole human family—all because of God’s liberating love?
Imagine the confusion at first. The disbelief. And then, a light going on inside, a light that would spark a yes of the highest order, a yes to be the “Theotokos,” the God-bearer.
Surely being able to say yes to God would cause great shudders of joy, bright elation rising all the way from your sandaled feet, up your strong legs, and out through your mouth, words flying off your tongue and into the waiting air.
“My soul magnifies the Lord.” My soul. My soul magnifies the Lord.
Mary’s song rises from her depths. As she sings, Mary grasps not simply what God is doing or will do but paradoxically what God has already done.
With the child she now carries, mercy has already come, the proud have already been scattered, the powerful have already been dethroned, the hungry have been fed, and the rich have been sent away empty.
The world around Mary doesn’t know this. It can’t. Prophets like Mary perceive what the rest of us are not yet able to see.
And in Mary’s case, as she ponders the great turnaround the child in her has accomplished just by taking form, it’s clear that the light of God’s ancient promise to Abraham has always been burning; it’s always been alive within God’s heart.
This promise never flickered or failed; it was never forgotten or misplaced. God’s promise did not need to be revived, restored, rekindled. God did not need reminding. The promise Mary recalls in her song is one that had been burning from generation to generation to generation.
Touching this truth, feeling it form and feed the new life within her, Mary can’t help but sing her joy, her elation, her ecstasy. She sings without inhibition, without reservation. She sings as the prophets before her have sung, full-throated and without hesitation.
But this is no solo for the centuries. As she sings, Mary invites us to sing out too, to sing whatever we sense God is doing in and through us.
Like Jesus’ mother, we too can tip our heads back and let our unique song flow out when, as with Mary, God’s flame of love and liberation touches our soul’s wick. Like Mary, we can sing whenever God’s light sets our hearts and lives to burning.
When words come, when joy erupts, shyness takes a backseat. Forget what you learned from your family or your community about not drawing undue attention to yourself. Forget what your denomination might have suggested–that you are one of the frozen chosen.
Whatever song of joy God gives a person to sing is not just for the singer alone. Or for only a select few. It’s a song meant, as Mary’s was, for the whole human family.
Don’t believe me? Let the poet Mary Oliver sidle up with her wise encouragement.
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed.”
“Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely, you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.” (Don’t Hesitate)
The third Sunday of Advent invites each of us to enter into God’s joy at whatever light has broken through, whatever warmth has found us in a season that can chill us to the bone.
Do we find joy, or does it find us? I’ll leave that to you to ponder.
Wherever you land on that question, know this: what Mary sang wasn’t for that day alone. What she sang is always true. God’s aim, now and always, is to set loose a true and lasting revolution of love.
It’s just that sometimes the revolution, the turnaround, the reordering of which Mary sings, the liberation into love that God’s gracious activity unleashes doesn’t flood the world like a torrent after a heavy rain. It doesn’t come sweeping down like an avalanche after heavy snows. It doesn’t rise on the horizon blazing like the noonday sun.
Advent’s deep wisdom is that God’s revolutionary love is ever unfolding, unfurling, unwinding. Not exploding on the scene as we might expect from an action movie. Not high beams striking our unguarded eyes as we round a dark bend at midnight.
When he is born, Jesus creeps quietly into our night. Yes, he is a living, breathing revolution, but when he comes, he is small and vulnerable and will need time to grow. It was the same with his church, too. There were handfuls of followers at first, not stadiums spontaneously packed with adoring fans.
The one whose birth we await, the one who is the source of our joy, the one whose perpetual aim is to turn things upside down doesn’t come in a grand explosion of color and noise and drama.
Instead, he comes to us, to our waiting hearts, intending a turning that will set our lives right. A tyrant is a tyrant, after all, whether he is perched on a throne a million miles away or whether he’s in the marketplace convincing us that we need more, or better, or different. A tyrant is a tyrant whether he is a Herod or whether he is sitting on your shoulder telling you things about yourself that simply are not true.
The story of Christ’s coming to us, when its spark hits the embers of our hearts, the story of Christ’s coming gives rise to something we ourselves can’t create so much as we receive.
And so, as our poet encourages, “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate… Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
Let us pray: Gracious God, be with us in this season of growing darkness. If joy and light elude us, then let us trust where we are, trust that your seed is growing, even if it has not yet found its way into the light. For all life, light and dark, warmth and chill, all life carries your presence, your power, and your promise. Amen.