There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.
We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in hopeful, loving actions. We heed the cries of the prophetic voices from long ago, we respond with courage to the cries of the prophetic poor in our own time.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.
- Isaiah 2:4
All of us have been told we are part of something. We have heard the decrees from the people with power and we know we must be enrolled. We’ve decided; we want our names to be associated with peacemaking, with justice, with charity and advocacy. We’ve gathered at polling places and we’ve filled out census forms. We’ve traveled across great distances to return to our roots, to be the people we were born to be. We are children of our ancestors and we are all one family.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
In partnership with the Spirit, traveling to connect to the stirring in their hearts: this is the ancient story and this is the story of the 14 Witness Against Torture activists who gathered in Cuba to fast and protest in solidarity with the men imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay Prison last month. They stood for something and aligned their names with the cries of the oppressed. They confronted a system of oppression. They proclaimed a truth in a town that had no room for them: We are all part of one human family; we all are deserving of the protection of our dignity and rights.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
We’ve all done risky things when we were vulnerable, just so we could be with the ones we love. Some of us have gone into the depth and despair of the deserts, hoping to save lives and bring aid. Many of us have companioned women through the pains of pregnancy, labor and delivery; some of us have carried children in the midst of dire circumstances. All of our mothers had to struggle to bring us into the world, had to abandon their fears and agonizing questions so they could push on with all their trust and love. Each of us must detach from particular desires and deal with what life gives us.
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Far and near, people keep watch at night: security guards, police officers, nannies, night nurses, maintenance workers, farm laborers and janitors. Many of those who keep watch are marginalized, poor, and struggling. Their work is not the glorified and glamorous; they are often the forgotten and hidden ones in our societies. They are the ones who care for the rest of us, who make sure that no one gets lost in the night. It is them to whom God appears, who are able to witness great miracles, who experience wonder and awe. The people on watch in the night are the ones God encourages with instructions to let go of fear, with good news and joy for the entire universe.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for behold,
I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.'
The signs that God is triumphant in our ordinary lives are simple; we can easily miss the truth if we are not paying attention. God’s peace comes in as little resurrections, as simple serenity found in normal circumstances: The person who once had a broken back now walks down the sidewalk; the child who was hit by a car is laughing with her friends. God’s glory reigns in peace offered from neighbor to stranger in the midst of chaos and confusion. Yes, God’s glory is available to all of us who recognize that love is the strongest force in the universe.
'For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.'
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'
All over the world, people have heard invitations from God in their lives and have been obedient. They have given up on selfishness and shallow dreams. Grace and love has moved them to margins, edges and brand new vantage points. Missionaries are making homes in new cultures and communities. The privileged and poor are giving up their comforts so they can serve where they are needed. This is the Franciscan sister riding her motorcycle through the jungle of Bolivia to care for infants. This is the priest in the remote village of Mexico hearing confessions. This is the Maryknoll missionary visiting the prisoner in Kenya. This is the teacher of non-violence in the midst of gang warfare in Chicago. When these instruments obey God’s voice and share what they have experienced and know, then many are amazed and transformed.
When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another,
'Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.'
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.
We all have encountered the unexplainable, we all have touched mystery by our living. We have crossed through liminal space and been influenced by the Great Mystery. In isolated monasteries and on city streets, we have reflected on the blessings of saying “Yes” to God’s mysterious ways. We have praised and glorified God for the wonder of discipleship and how we can only know one step at a time. We marvel at the joy of being part of a story that is bigger than us, that is beyond us, that remains amazingly mysterious to us.
And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.
This Advent, this Christmas, as well as in all the ordinary, regular days, we live this ancient story right out of our hearts. We celebrate and rejoice for we are people of the Incarnation. We are instruments of peace and joy, of hope and transformation. God’s story is our story. God’s story is in our heart.
Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us.'
Our heart is in God, and God is with us, while the stories we live beat with God’s love.
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]