A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey ...
-- T.S. Eliot
"At your right hand stands the queen in gold from Ophir"
-- Psalm 45:9
We are often informed, in the liturgical year, that Advent (from the Latin) means coming. We then ask ourselves, rightly so, whose coming? The stock answer is that Christ has come (this is what Christmas is about), and Christ will come again. These answers seem to end the conversation and catechism for the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season. But, is there more that might be asked and answered? What does all this mean for us between the Christ who came, and the Christ who will come again?
Advent in the west, at least, takes place at a time of year when the light and sun is lessening. Darkness is ever present, and the night season encroaches on soil and soul. It is not as easy to bask in the long days of summer and the warmth of day star. It is much easier to take to the hills and delight in the human journey when fair weather and the light of the day stretches on much longer.
But, what happens when darkness and hard things come our way? What happens when the days in our lives lack the warmth and brightness of summer and the blue canopy seems cold and icy? How do we live the Divine life when darkness seems to dominate the day and light ever recedes?
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was asked a hard question by the angel Gabriel. Would she be willing to allow the Divine life to grow within her, and would she be willing to give birth to and nourish the young child Jesus? Needless to say, a Yes meant many a hardship and much pain. Mary was not naïve. She knew in the marrow of her bones and the depth of her heart what such a Yes might mean. She knew the pain and tragedy that could follow when a Yes was said. There is no doubt that it would have been much easier to say No.
Mary, to here credit, had the courage to say Yes to such an invitation. She allowed Jesus the Christ to grow within the womb of her body and soul. She felt the kicking, the interior growth, the actual life of Christ in her. She was often slighted and misunderstood, treated indifferently and marginalized for her Yes. She and Joseph were on the run from the Roman empire for many years. Mary was neither sentimental nor weak willed. She knew the hard price for saying Yes.
Mary is to be revered by the church as an icon for welcoming the Divine invitation. There was much letting go and many deaths Mary had to die for Christ to be born, grow in wisdom and mature. Advent, therefore, raises a simple question for us. What does it mean for Christ to be born, nourished and nurtured in the womb of our souls and bodies? What does such a birthing and coming look like in the steps we take each day on our human journey? The answers to such questions are not easy in an age in which many trot out a domesticated, sanitized and tamed faith.
Advent takes place at a time of year when dusk, night and dawn dominate much of the day. How do we say Yes to the birth and coming of Christ in such a season? It is much easier, of course, to have a form of Christianity that ignores hardship, suffering and pain. Such religious triumphalism is foreign to the deeper message of the faith journey and the meaning of Advent.
Mary is the Queen of Heaven for the simple reason that she had the courage to say Yes to God in a dark and hard season when night pressed in on her and her people. The saints and mystics of the church know, in the sinews and ligaments of their souls, that the deepest coming of Christ only takes place through dark nights and clouds of uncertainty and unknowing. Mary knew this, she opened herself to such hard places, and she clarified for us what the coming of Christ truly means for us in this Advent season.