Once again, we’ve come to the last Sunday of Advent. Many gifts have now been bought, trees and homes decorated, baking underway… Many of us are, indeed, finding much joy in making up for the covid-induced bleakness of last year’s holiday season; though many also admit to a certain degree of a “fitness loss” when it comes to reintroducing ourselves to social life. And of course, many are still hesitant to plunge into every aspect of what used to be normal daily living, possibly for good reasons.
And still for others yet, the holidays are notoriously difficult, every single year. The things which overwhelm me by the end of Advent (and I start getting ready in October!) – these would be laughable to a family living in the shadow of loss, conflict, and poverty. It’s so easy to start complaining when things that should bring joy turn into chores. School concerts, though missed last year, do not feel any shorter this year. I recall a year when the Christmas tree collapsed – twice! - right on top of Lucas; another time when Sophie used up all my greeting cards right on the day I intended to mail them out… pine needles everywhere, intensified traffic, shards of broken glass, piles of tangerine peel, and chocolate high… I genuinely struggle with all these, but I don’t need to tell you how far my difficulties are from the reality of others.
As for the iconic image of Incarnation, the holy Mother and Child, that most glorious, quintessential image of Christmastide – what do you see in it, this year or every year? Do you see reconciliation between life’s past and present, ultimate harmony, new beginning, hope, peace, joy, and self-sacrificial love? Or do you see the poignancy of something that never came to fruition: life partner never found, children never conceived, lives cut short, promises failed. How might we bridge the gap between what was meant to be and what is? At this time of year, we hear so many messages that accentuate the discrepancy between the two, from the church and from the world. Isaiah promises us a desert blooming with crocuses and running with streams of life-giving water, and Micah – everlasting peace. Our culture, on the other hand, denies the existence of the desert altogether. In the Orthodox tradition, Mary herself is called “the joy of all who sorrow”. Paradoxical? Yes.
But, maybe therein lies the key to contentment. Maybe, it is from her that we learn that great sorrow opens the heart to greater compassion. In the Bible, each new turn in the history of Israel symbolizes a new “starting over” in our own relationships with God. At each of these turns, we find a woman in sorrow. We find all these women who could not become pregnant, plus the one who was not supposed to be pregnant, yet. But, miraculously, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Rachel – to Joseph, the wife of a certain Manoah – to Samson, Hannah – to Samuel, Elizabeth – to John who became known as the Baptist, and of course, Mary – to Jesus.
The conception of each child brought both much joy and trepidation. The older women must have worried about the burden that a pregnancy, a newborn, and then an active toddler, would create for an aging body; and, also whether they would live long enough to see the children through to adulthood and independence. In the repetition of their stories in Elizabeth, Mary found a sign that she could trust God in all that subsequently befell her as well – still but a child when it all began. She endured societal ostracism, strain on the relationship with Joseph, pain of delivery in the stables, and flight to a faraway country to save her child’s life. Eventually, as all parents do, all these women experienced the hardest thing: letting their sons go. Mary first saw this in the life of Hannah and her Samuel, for example; then, she caught a glimpse of this for herself when he stayed alone in the temple, and grieved not only at the foot of the cross, but yet again at the time of Ascension.
So maybe, a recipe for joy is more like a fruitcake rather than a pudding: the glimpses of the divine and moments of gratitude, of obvious happiness, are deeply embedded in the prevailing ordinaryness of the mundane, in fear, and worry, and sadness. Some years, there might not be as much candied fruit in that fruitcake as there’s at other times. But hopefully, there’s always at least some icing – some depth of the realization that much greater joy is found in giving than in receiving. Each one of these women gave their children to the world, for God’s purpose to be fulfilled in them, rather than receiving them from God for themselves. Maybe, this is how Mary has found the strength to journey with her son on his remarkable mission, and continued to find joy despite all that she endured. This is how in her quieter, “Let it be” became, “My soul rejoices.”
This is also what makes human commitments such a strong symbol of our relationship with God. The sacrament is most definitely not limited to the self-giving commitment of a parent towards a child, as many of us find fulfillment in the opposite - the love we have towards our own parents - but, also in partners, friends, or even the whole community. What’s common, however, is that these commitments involve the comingling of joy and sorrow. All unfold amidst, and despite, the difficulties of mundane life, its pain and suffering, and uncertainty of the future; all often begin in less than ideal circumstances; all end too soon, and all inevitably involve the “letting go” moment, such as when a child leaves the house, or a friend moves away, or a loved one dies. What or who are we holding on to right now? Is it God’s will or God’s gifts? What is true commitment and what is the desire for life to remain the same? Whatever it is that brings us sorrow or joy this Christmas season, let us encourage each other to “not be afraid" and “to proclaim the greatness of the Lord”. For we are all active participants in the Incarnation – in magnifying God’s Image within us, and projecting it into the world.