I speak to you in the name of the Son of the young holy mother who waited with joyful anticipation for the birth of the Christ child. May the words in my mouth and the meditation of my heart acceptable in your sight oh God my redeemer.
As were the others, I was asked to reflect on where I see the incarnation in the world, how I anticipate the coming of the holy Christ-child in a bed of straw, in a stinky old barn on the outskirts of town, born to a young woman of no status or means because there was no room at the inn, no place with those who were well prepared, properly housed, warm and surrounded by the basic necessities of human life. Those who perhaps, more than this little travelling family, would be seen as having a place to belong in society.
So I went to google – the source of answers to modern day questions – and looked up the meaning of the word incarnation. And here is what I found: incarnation is a noun, it is a person/place or thing who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or abstract quality. It is the embodiment, personification, exemplification, type, epitome; manifestation, bodily form or avatar.
That last one had me imagining a blue coloured little baby Jesus in the manger… so I decided to look for a more Christian-y interpretation of this word and put together a few ideas and this is what I got: the doctrine of the incarnation tells the story of the mystery of Jesus: preexistent, divine, and the underlying reality and substance of the Trinity, who takes on human body and nature, being made flesh and conceived in the womb of the God-bearer Mary. This celestial enigma Jesus Christ is some how fully God and fully human, both natures inexplicably joined. He becomes just like us, he comes into this world as a vulnerable, dependant little baby, needing love and care and belonging; and yet somehow this tiny helpless baby will bring about God’s kingdom.
We have some pretty beautiful imagery coming from our scripture readings on this the third Sunday of Advent- which once again thanks to google – I learned is Gaudete Sunday. Pope Francis said that this third Sunday in Advent is known as the “Sunday of joy,” and that instead of fretting about “all they still haven’t” done to prepare for Christmas, people should “think of all the good things life has given you.” Essentially saying that we should take this time to reflect. And isn’t reflection part of what waiting, anticipating, hoping, and preparing for Christmas is for? Isn’t that what the season of Advent season is supposed to be about?
We are waiting.
We are waiting on the burgeoning belly of a poor uneducated young woman who said a simple yes to God. Who in her faith- filled response, her willingness to accept a journey into the unknown, calls us to say yes to the journey of our lives and the anticipation of new life that comes with the season.
And for me and so many others who have been watching and on the front lines of the fentanyl crisis in the DTES, and throughout our fair city.
We too are waiting.
We are waiting for our province, our city and our health authority to respond to and react to the needs of its citizens, the ones who find themselves with no room left for them at the inn, who are found in the back alleys, who are living with deep and overwhelming pain in all the ways one could imagine.
We hear from the scriptures today voices calling us to hope in our despair. When we can not see yet the seed that is growing, the preparation of our lives for the future birthing of God’s dreams within us.
From Isaiah we hear “….the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…. “.
That sounds kind of impossible… and even more impossible when Isaiah says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy…..” And “The ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Images of hope where there is pain and suffering?
Images of abundance where there is drought?
Images of those who were sad and sighing coming with singing and everlasting joy and gladness…? Seems like things are not as they should be.
These joyous images are what we hear while we are waiting.
Visions of hopeful anticipation:
of the end of suffering,
of justice and redemption,
of healing and restoration
of abundance and joy.
And aren’t these the very themes that we feel in Advent; in the wake of a blossoming young mother, soon to give birth to all our hopes and dreams personified, the one who bears the vessel of salvation from our pain, suffering and sighing?
We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.” And Luci Shaw comments, “With such motivation, we can wait as we sense God is indeed with us, and at work within us, as he was with Mary as the child within her grew.”
In preparation for this holy celebration of Jesus birthday – as we affectionately call it in my house, today’s readings invite us to reflect on the source of this joy in the midst of all the struggles of our lives and the sufferings of our world.
The contemporary Jesuit, David Hollenbach says, “The God who is with us—Emmanuel—is a God who is in the very midst of the brokenness, injustice, and sinfulness of our world. God is at work at the heart of the messy scene of our lives, not somewhere else where everything is perfectly healthy, peaceful, and just. Christian joy, then, does not have to wait until the messiness is gone or even all the sinfulness removed. We can rejoice now, here, for Emmanuel is with us, here, now. We can also have the confidence to pray that God’s love will become more visible, healing all wounds and overcoming all injustices. We can have the faith to say Come Emmanuel—come more fully among us, till every tear is wiped way and joy is complete. Let us make that prayer together at Christ’s table now, where we imperfect people are invited to rejoice.”
Jesus seems to make it pretty clear in our reading of Matthew today that what we do- is what shows God’s kingdom in the world.
When John sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
By our actions- by what we do -that which is measurable and objective, by the unexpected places that God’s kingdom intersects with our world, we see the incarnation break through the darkness.
A crocus bursting into bloom in the desert, the prophet of whom there is “no one greater”, this young unknown woman carries the most valuable gift to the world.
And the world’s greatest spiritual leader is born in a dirty old barn. This tiny baby carries the hopes and dreams and redemption of the world.
This imagery is showing us to expect the incarnation, to look for the divine, to find God in the unexpected places, in the nooks and crannies, in the places where pain, suffering, dirt and drought are. But how can life be found in these places?
Where is life in the suffering of the homeless, the drug addicted, the mentally ill person living in our city?
James Arne Nestingen of Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary says it well, ”…we finally get to see the real muscle of Advent: the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, the dead, the poor, those who have been the victims of this age and its dreadful powers, are restored by the One whose goal it is to reclaim the whole creation. And the victims are joined by those who have not surrendered to death and its minions, who “take no offense” at this glorious restoration.
This hope propels Advent and is the drive of the church’s witness. In Christ, God has decided that things are not going to go on like this, the rich taking it out of the backs of the poor, the strong relying on the disadvantage of the weak or impaired to perpetuate their illusions of superiority. The new age has already begun in the One who is to come, the One who has already arrived and will yet come. So the balance will be restored: creation will become creation again, the forces of chaos being routed. The age of grace has dawned, the time in which all things will be made new.”
And these are the very places that I have personally found Christ incarnate. In my involvement and participation with and amongst my beloved neighbours in the Downtown Eastside, I have found the incarnation of the divine.
I have experienced the incarnation of Christ in the people that I work beside: doctors, nurses, police fire and paramedics, in mental health workers and social workers and pharmacists and peers: who have given so much of themselves, of their hearts and souls to those who are found on the outskirts of society- who have been told over and over again- there is no room for you- no room in the inn, no place with the rest of society.
I have experienced incarnation in the laughter of a people so broken by societies expectations and so harmed by systematic violence towards them, racism, able-ism, trans and homophobia, sexism and the list goes on. These people are able to find joy in the little things, int the small moments. The place where I see hope and beauty is in the honesty, the vulnerability, the very humanity that we all relate to in that tiny baby in a manger, and if we are very honest with ourselves that we see in the addict and the homeless, and those suffering from mental illness.
I am humbled and blessed by my work in the DTES amongst a population who have beaten seemingly insurmountable odds, who have found joy and pleasure in the little kindnesses that we can all share: a smile, a coffee, a friendly greeting, a little hug… a soulful gaze. Who despite everything, come to be supervised in their use of illicit substances because they have hope, because they want to live, because they know that these are safe places, where they belong, are loved and will be saved.
May we be inspired by this vision of hope. May we too, in our darkest moments, in our most vulnerable moments reach out to each other, to this little community of S. Brigid’s and be accepted by the love and care, however imperfect, that is available to each of us. And may we take the opportunity to love and care for each other, to save one another in love.
Theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is dependent on external conditions but joy- joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”
On this third Sunday of Advent, I encourage you to slow down, to create space for reflection, to remember the things you are grateful for, to to wait with hopeful anticipation for the joy of the season, and to look with intention and awareness at your surroundings, your workplace, your neighbourhood, your family, and keep your eyes open to the small places where you are surprised by beauty, where you can provide and receive kindness, where you can participate in justice and join with me in being overtaken by the mystery of the incarnation and the joy of anticipating our own transformation and that of the world.
As Bill McKibben so aptly said,”Advent (is) the time to listen for footsteps – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.”
And lastly, I would like to close with an Advent prayer by Walter Brueggemann.
In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses
who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its people
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes, to the edges of our fingertips.
We do not want our several worlds to end.
Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.