This Sunday, December 2, marks the beginning of Advent—the season in the Church calendar devoted to recognizing our deep need for rescue and our anticipation for the in-breaking of our incarnate God. Here, Nicole Greenwald, Vice President of Brand & Enrollment, reflects on the disruption of incarnation, and on the Advent invitation to ponder consent, receptivity, belief, and asylum—even when it turns our world upside down and leaves us undone. You can sign up for our fifth annual Advent series, emailed every Sunday until Christmas, here.
This morning a friend posted a photo of a Christmas tree strapped to the roof of his car with his wife and children poking their gleeful faces out from the open windows. His caption read, the time of year when we all fall in love.
The next image on my feed was of a woman in anguish, cradling a baby as she ran from tear gas at the border. Tears filled my eyes as I allowed myself to begin to feel a mere ounce of her terror.
I can’t help but wrestle with the complexity of the season. It’s a time of anticipation, joy, and hope. Or so the songs go. Yes, and I believe there is more to the story.
I’ve been slowly reading and rereading Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth of Christ, and I have been so struck by how close this 2,000-year-old narrative is to the questions and struggles I’m witnessing in the world around me.
As we prepare to enter Advent, a liturgical season of anticipating the arrival of Jesus’ coming—what is there for us to receive, in this cultural moment?
Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, the angel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
She was greatly perplexed at what he said, and kept carefully considering what kind of greeting this was.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Listen carefully: you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and eminent and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob (Israel) forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end.”
Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin and have no intimacy with any man?” Then the angel replied to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you [like a cloud]; for that reason the holy (pure, sinless) Child shall be called the Son of God.
And listen, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For with God nothing [is or ever] shall be impossible.” Then Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel left her.
Luke 1:26-38, AMP
How bizarre is this story? Mary, a teenage girl, a virgin, is asked to bear a child—God’s son. I’m struck by the boldness of this request. Luke says that Mary was “perplexed” and “afraid.” I can only imagine!
I’m struck by Gabriel, sent by God to ask Mary to bear this Holy child. How do I hold this in my mind and body and spirit as I process our collective struggle with consent?
When I let myself draw near to Mary’s experience I feel such vulnerability in her consent—she made a choice to receive even though it might ruin her. She allows herself to be undone, for the sake of something beyond comprehension.
“Mary allows herself to be undone, for the sake of something beyond comprehension.”
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by [the power of] the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her [promised] husband, being a just and righteous man and not wanting to expose her publicly to shame, planned to send her away and divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a Son, and you shall name Him Jesus (The Lord is salvation), for He will save His people from their sins.” All this happened in order to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet [Isaiah]: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and give birth to a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel”—which, when translated, means, “God with us.”
Then Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and he took Mary [to his home] as his wife, but he kept her a virgin until she had given birth to a Son [her firstborn child]; and he named Him Jesus (The Lord is salvation).
Matthew 1:18-25, AMP
Again, how bizarre is this story?! Two teenagers, yet to be married, navigating pregnancy. I can only imagine the whispers, questions, judgement, and shame. Do you think people believed Mary’s story? I am doubtful.
And yet, Joseph chose to believe Mary. He chose to receive Mary as his wife. He chose to honor her body. And he chose to adopt Jesus as his son. Let’s sit with this for a moment.
How do I hold this in my mind and body and spirit as I sit with women and men who have been assaulted or abused, yet not believed? As I witness protestors in our streets and at our nation’s Capitol shouting, “Believe women”?
What does God’s choice to enter the world in this way teach us about consent? About receptivity? About belief?
Now when they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod intends to search for the Child in order to destroy Him.”
So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet [Hosea]: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Jesus, son of God, was part of two caravans in his earliest days. The first in utero, when Mary was at full term in her pregnancy, to be counted in the census. The second, when Jesus was likely still a baby, as his parents fled a brutal ruler.
I have been following Paolo Mendoza’s work over the past month. She has brought profoundly heart-breaking humanity to the stories of the thousands of women, men, and children walking in a caravan through Central America seeking asylum. As I’ve witnessed their fierce determination and sheer desperation compelling them to walk thousands of miles, I can’t help but connect their experiences to that of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. These stories, these faces undo me.
I feel that we tend to focus on the “cuteness” of Jesus’ birth in our Nativity scenes and Christmas pageants. Holding this ancient narrative with the present struggle of our southern neighbors, I’m reexperiencing the dark, desperate, terrifying reality of Jesus’ coming.
Allowing Myself to Be Undone
Jesus was born in a barn, to teenage parents experiencing displacement, in a country governed by a vengeful ruler, forced to flee for any hope of survival. This is the way God chose for his son to come into the world.
It’s not safe.
It’s full of uncertainty and fear.
It’s life at the margins.
Advent invites us to radical hospitality—the son of God born to asylum seekers in a barn. How startling. How bizarre.
I believe the Advent narrative is an invitation to be undone by the broken world that God chose to break into and indwell. If we believe that Emmanuel is still God with us, if we believe each of us bear the image of God within us, will we receive the Christ child anew, embodied in the least of these today? Will we receive this invitation to consent, to believe, to receive, to protect, to honor—even when the impulse is to deny, reject, defend, and kill?
May we hold the complexity of this season with integrity and courage. May we be reminded that God is with us and that we belong to each other. May we continue to welcome our incarnate God, even when it turns our world upside down. May we know love and may we resist evil.
All through Advent, we will continue exploring our individual and collective responses to the in-breaking of God in the midst of our traumatized world. You can sign up for our fifth annual Advent series, emailed every Sunday until Christmas, here.