The quiet wonder of Advent

Today looked like a quiet corner for reading,
simple objects for gentle inspiration,
and the sweet brightness of color in winter.

Reading Nook



Julian of Norwich says that

The soul must perform two duties:
the first is to always wonder and be surprised.
The second is to endure,
always taking pleasure in God.

This season, I pray that your Advent souls
may find wonder in the small, ordinary spaces of life;
may be present enough to each day to notice surprise after surprise;
may be strong in the face of sorrow, confusion, and darkness;
and may continue to soak up the pleasure of being loved by God.




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Imagining the Annunciation

The stories of Advent and Christmas can get so familiar that it’s hard for us to hear them with fresh ears, to receive them with fresh hearts. This season, I encourage you to spend some time re-imagining age-old characters to see what you uncover at this stage in your life.

Although it isn’t actually in the lectionary until the fourth week of Advent, I’d like to share some reflections on the story of the annunciation, the appearance of the angel to Mary.

Tanner "The Annunciation"

“The Annunciation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner



Who knows what she was doing the moment the announcement came.
Perhaps kneeling at the river, washing in hand;
perhaps kneading the dough to prepare for dinner;
perhaps drifting in and out of fitful sleep.
But Mary, full already with grace, is told she will have to carry more.
She will have to carry God itself — what a heavy load! — as we all do.
Mary, too young and unprepared, can stammer only questions,
caught as she is, in that moment:
dropping the clothes with a small splash into the water;
clutching hard the wooden handle of the spoon;
rubbing the sleep anxiously from her eyes and temples.
She is visited, perhaps, at the most inopportune and embarrassing of moments,
suddenly at her most human,
interrupted at her most embodied,
and told that she is one body no longer — but two.

She imagines she can feel already
the swelling of her belly, the shifting of her hips,
(how can any body be big enough to house the soul of God?)
She imagines she can see already, the dreams of her life
careening off course,
a detour, of course;
a diversion; an announcement; an invitation, or —
a demand. It’s hard to tell.
Can she say no to this?
After all, when the Divine says “Greetings,
You will be overshadowed!” whose knees don’t knock?
Perhaps generations of women before her
(also stammeringly young and unprepared)
stopped here, at this point,
went no further than the inevitable question:
But — ?
How can this be?
Disbelief is so often the most we can manage.
Our small human frames already too frail to hold,
can hardly be made to bear the weight of light incarnate.

And so God waits, yearning for the yes
that only one young girl can give.
How is it so that Love needs permission just to be born,
just to be carried into being on a slippery river of blood?
This isn’t an easy fairy tale after all,
but the pulsing breath of lifelines tying together,
God’s and ours, inextricably.
Perhaps this is the moment for which all of eternity has held its breath.
Perhaps this is only one point on an ever expanding circle of possibility.
Perhaps this is just the delusional dream of one yes-speaking girl.

And so that girl, perplexed and pondering, goes on with her life,
picking up her washing and rinsing it off,
brushing her hands on the hem of her skirt,
curling her knees up to her chest and trying again to sleep.
The moment has to end eventually, and another day must dawn after it.
But, perhaps, from here, every moment is entirely different.
Perhaps the circle will yield to an even-wider width.
Perhaps inside her all that grace is making space for something new
to come into the world at the very precise moment
it’s supposed to.

I am in debt to my lovely community of friends at Bethany House of Prayer for inspiring many of these ideas during our Advent reflections together this morning. Many thanks for that deep well!

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What is most deeply true

Lagging in the middle

Any runner will tell you: it’s a mental sport.

You train hard to be in good shape, but even the most fit runner knows that it’s easy to get psyched out — not just by competition, but by yourself.

When I run, I’m always strongest at the beginning at the end. It’s the middle of my run, no matter the distance, that lags the most.

I start to worry that I don’t have what it takes to keep up my pace. I calculate and re-calculate split times in my head, trying to figure out what benchmarks I need to be hitting.

And all that anxiety and self-doubt slows me down.

That’s the irony. It helps to stay focused, but it doesn’t help to fret.

Don’t listen to your head

My brother, also a runner, sometimes does time trials with me. He stands at the finish line, watch in hand, and encourages me to hit my goals as I come around for each lap. Sometimes he’ll even run a few of those middle laps, the lagging ones, right behind me to keep me on pace.

“Listen to your body,” he tells me, “not your head.”

And I do.

Underneath the mental chatter about whether or not I can keep this up for another 10 minutes is the quiet, steady truth of what my body is really capable of. I often find that my mind has been telling me I can’t maintain a pace that actually feels fine for my body.

When I stop checking in with my fear and start checking in with my capacity, something inside me settles down. Those are the times I’m able to run more smoothly and easily.

The truest love story

I think often about how our spiritual lives follow the same pattern: when we get caught up in stories of self-doubt, we often slow ourselves down. We can cover over what is most deeply true about us: that we are created, redeemed, whole, and beautiful.

That we are, each of us, children of God. That we are immeasurably and abundantly loved.

That we have been given a spirit of power, not fear. That we are set free.

So, if you find yourself lagging in the middle, distracted by stories your mind is telling you about whether or not you have what it takes to keep going: stop checking in with your fear, and start checking in with your capacity.

Don’t listen to your head. Listen instead to the ever-present truth:

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:37-39)

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