Towards the middle of her pregnancy, Mary goes to join her family in the seclusion of the hills in the countryside of Judah. Much like King David had taken the Ark of the Covenant into that same protective retreat in the hills for three months, so too does the Mother of Our Lord withdraw to nurture her child. She is the tabernacle, and during this period of advent silence, she pulls the veil tightly around herself as a sign of the holiness and majesty of the treasure contained within. Mary meets Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Both of these women are in the midst of miracles and they draw close to support each other and ponder the mystery that has entered their midst.
Advent is domestic. It’s a gathering up of the family, a time when we see distant relative and re-connect, and I know my mom is thrilled simply to have her three sons all under her roof again – she quickly gets over that feeling and remembers why she pushed us out of the nest in the first place – but for a moment, before we start fighting over board games and eating every single bit of food in the house, she’s happy. What do families do when we get together but share memories? Gather round the hearth with your egg nog or, in this parish, your rum with a splash of egg nog for the sake of appearances, and laugh and reminisce and play games. I always like to ask my older relatives to tell stories about their childhood and ancestors that I never got to meet. We all have our traditions we repeat every year. These are rituals with a vital purpose, that help us celebrate the family, the people who mean more to us than anything in the world.
Does anyone here like Little House on the Prairie? My family is obsessed with it. Little House is a beloved set of stories because of how they celebrate family and family memories and because of how amazing Michael Landon’s hair is. There’s an episode from the first season called “Christmas at Plum Creek,” and in it, they discover that the secret of Christmas is to follow the star all the way to Jesus, to share in his selfless love and to imitate him by making our lives a gift to others. The episode ends with them all gathered around the Christmas tree, looking at the star on the top and simply enjoying being near each other.
The Church is a family too. We are all very different people, but we have followed the star to the side of Jesus, and we are here together as brothers and sisters simply to be together in his presence. Like any family, we share memories. For weeks now we’ve been rehearsing the prophecies of the Old Testament about the coming of the Messiah. We’ve been seeing how they maintain their expectation and hope in the midst of suffering. We have been reading about the events in the life of Mary and Joseph as they prepare for Christmas, how the words of the angel Gabriel called them to reach out in faith and trust to follow the plan of God. At Christmas itself we will read the actual Christmas narrative about the birth of Christ, how he came into the world as part of a family, because family is at the heart of human existence, this is true of our natural families but even if you may be lacking in that it is equally true of our spiritual family.
When we rehearse our history as a Church, when we read the scriptures, we aren’t doing it so much as scholars or archaeologists so much as we are remembering our story. This is our history. We may not understand everything we read and may end up, like Mary, pondering these questions in our hearts. We may not understand every symbolic action or prayer in the Mass, which is a repository of shared ritual and history. Certainly there are times I read the scriptures and scratch my head, but that’s okay because the mystical Body of Christ is a reality that carries significance even if we don’t grasp it’s fullness yet. There is a fellowship of saints into which we are being drawn. We read and interpret these stories and prayers with their help. Our worship and our traditions and our stories are alive and vibrant, encompassing generations. As we reminisce about them they reveal their inner life.
Expectation is a state of being that flows through our whole personal and familial existence. In each of our lives, there are infinite ways in which we wait and hope, from very small things to very large and important things. Mary and Joseph wait for their son to be born. John the Baptist waited for the Savior to arrive. The prophets waited for deliverance. We wait to hear the result of a test at school, the result of a job interview, if a client is happy with our work. We wait for family to arrive from out of town, for a meeting with a friend. We wait for forgiveness, and linger before the Blessed Sacrament, and for answers to our prayers. In that waiting there is hope. We join in with our Church family in the great hope for the arrival of the Savior. We talk about it, and think about it, and anticipate it. As long as we wait and hope, we are fully alive, because we can measure ourselves by what we hope for. [Credit – this paragraph is a Pope Benedict XVI paraphrase]
This is why Advent is apocalyptic and deals not only with the arrival of Christ at Christmas but also his arrival in our hearts. Scripturally speaking, an apocalypse doesn’t mean stuff blowing up and the world becoming a nuclear wasteland. It means a lifting of the veil, Mary emerging from seclusion, a revelation of the true nature of the universe, a personal encounter with the God who lovingly crafted our souls, who is fearsome and exalted but nevertheless knows us intimately.
The stories we tell are a tugging at that veil, the glory of God exploding out of a dark stable, a finger pointing inward at your buried potential and reason for hope and expectation even if you don’t see how, in a billion years, God could think that you are so very important. Take comfort, you are a part of this family and in a family everyone, from the matriarch to the smallest child, is known and loved.