I asked for God to come get me, this Advent season. In my out-loud voice I asked that, in a slip-of-the-lip request to a prayer buddy. So I can be assured God is barreling down on me right now, like a logging truck on one of these North Carolina roads. I should just go ahead and pull over.
For the non-church-geeks, Advent is the month leading up to Christmas, punctuated by the four Sundays before Christmas Day. It was a new discovery for me, a dozen or so years ago, when I first began attending a church that observed the liturgical year. Mennonites of all people. So it was plain, simple liturgy, for the most part. Homespun and homemade, as focused on justice in this world in our time as on eternity in any next life.
Every Advent has felt a little different. Those first Advents, when I had been out of church for 20 years, felt personal, like Jesus was trying to get born in my own life … I was trying to find a faith I could stand even as the wounds of my Southern Baptist childhood were still closing. It was a messy, sometimes stinky process, kind of like when Jesus – in his grief and refusal to accept the unacceptable – hollered his friend Lazarus out of the tomb. But no one was hollering at me; there were just purple cloths and burning candles, that seemed more than color and light. Words of hope and joy, peace and love, embedded in prayers and music that rendered the words neither stale nor trite. I can still hear the drumbeat accompanying Comfort, Comfort O My People …
A few years later I was pastoring with women of color at the Church of Many Peoples, a new church with all the struggles that entails, planted in the midst of South Dallas, with the extra onus of trying to live into an anti-racist identity. Some of our people needed comforting in their affliction; some of us needed afflicting in our comfort; all of us needed the church to be more than it could be. Some Sundays had liturgy, and some had more of a twist-and-shout with God shining all through it. But every season at Many Peoples was a season of hope, and of knowing that we were living a hope realized, even in its incompleteness, recipients of gifts we would be forever unpacking.
After Many Peoples folded, and my gayness unfolded, I transited through a couple of other churches, UCC and Alliance of Baptists … new Advent traditions and music have enfolded me, providing comfort, challenge and the promise that at the very least the road continues and the journey unfolds.
Here in North Carolina I am struck by seasons so synchronous as to strike me as odd, having grown up in and lived in Texas most of my life, where the leaves are still falling when we are taking down Christmas lights.
Autumn’s glory has come and gone, exactly on time, and the dogwoods, maples and oaks grow more austere by the day. The pines grew brown goatees as last year’s needles were crowded out by a stealthy new season’s growth. Suddenly most of the pines dropped their brown needles, and the gravel of our driveway and the green of our yard were stippled with brown spikes, sparse as the hairs on an old man’s balding pate. As the brown needles fell, the pines seem to have come into their own spring, strikingly brilliant against the bare limbs of the deciduous trees below and behind. A few of the understory trees are holding onto yellow leaves; when I look out the window, it is to see horizontal swaths of green, gray and yellow color banded across the mullions.
A light that can only be described as wintry glints through the trees from the setting sun, as we sit on our back porch with a smoky little fire crackling in the chimenea, our dinner on the grill behind us. In the cooling evening, we can see our neighbor’s lights, and hear the roosters crowing good night.
These early, long nights make it easier to slide into an Advent frame of mind. Perhaps because my pregnancies grew over the long nights of winters, I associate this time with gestation, with the quiet creativity that is as much waiting as working. Pregnancy did not really feel like something I did; it was something that happened in me, and through me; almost like I was the tool of this life coming to be. Years later, I heard prayer described this way: prayer at its deepest is something God does through you.
Maybe that is part of what Advent signifies: that God is coming through us, each of us, into the world.
One of the first books of theology I ever read was Bonnie Miller McLemore’s Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma. I actually picked it up for the “work-family-dilemma” part (little did I know the theology stuff would end up kicking me the hardest). I was working for Price Waterhouse, a new manager, and then a new mother, and I felt like I was failing at everything. McLemore’s book introduced me to the notion of the good enough mother, and the good enough worker. It was the crack in the door of my life that the truth needed to start streaming in.
The point of bringing up that book, though, is because in it McLemore asked this question, which might have kicked down the door of my life if I had let it: in paraphrase, what if the central image of Christianity was not a man dying on a cross but a woman giving birth?
Just … let that sink in for a minute. Yeah, there’s lots that’s essentialist and can go wrong, like only identifying women in terms of being able to give birth. But let’s not get tied up in that. We don’t think that men can only die on crosses (obviously). So, let’s just stay with the image, and let it be yeast, starting ideas and questions and metaphors and other ways to frame our most central relationships.
If the central image of Christianity was a woman giving birth … well, what would it mean?
I’ll say one or two things. Maybe you will name a few more. (Please. I’d like to hear you.)
It would mean women became central. That could be good. For a change.
It would mean we would realize that Jesus is not the only one who gives of his very lifeblood that others may live.
And it would mean thinking about pregnancy … more, and maybe differently. A woman giving birth is preceded by a woman being pregnant. Pregnancy and Advent are alike in enough ways to consider Advent like a little pregnancy for all of us to go through together. As we are waiting for the Human One, we would be working to make the way for the One to come … the One who in turns makes the way for all of us. Which means we are all really making the way for all of us … if we keep Love central.
Pregnancy … so much happens under cover of flesh and in darkness, out of sight but not out of touch or out of mind. It was so clear to me that I was not in charge of what was happening; and yet I did not feel powerless or helpless. I felt an intimacy with mystery that went hand in hand with heartburn and growing girth and hormonal roller-coasters … physical and emotional and – when I let it – spiritual connection.
Advent becomes a way to revisit all of that, intentionally, learning from those memories and the way I feel them connecting to the seasons around me now. My life – in this season – feels pregnant with what is to come: next year’s work and worship and what I will try not to worry about, but just live into.
The days grow short. The light grow dim. The animals hunker down. The wind rises. The stars sharpen. I hear the intake of breath. A Story is about to begin … and hope spirals up in me, like tender fists and knees running along the inside of my belly. Mysterious … tangible … unseen … undeniable.
Advent is coming to get me … I wonder, how will Love come this year?