In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
So Thanksgiving is behind us and we are now looking toward Christmas--toward Mary and Joseph and Bethlehem and shepherds and stars and wise men from the east. We are waiting and expecting Christmas.
In the church we call this time in our calendar, this season, ADVENT--advent means to wait with expectations. Expectations for what God is going to do on one night, with one baby--expectations for the arrival of God in the flesh. And we spend all month preparing for it; we spend all month waiting and expecting.
Advent is a season of expectations.
But for many of us, Advent’s religious expectations for our savior Jesus are wrapped up in other expectations. Many of us actually don’t spend most of this month before Christmas waiting in expectation of God’s redeeming light, but rather spend it waiting in expectation of family visiting, presents arriving, food being made, and perhaps, arguments being had.
This time between Thanksgiving and Christmas holds expectations about gifts, and visiting family, and negotiating boundaries with in-laws. It holds expectations about traveling and dinner parties and cookies and santa claus. This time between our American holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas is a time where we expect to have certain feelings--maybe nostalgic ones, or joyful ones, or my favorite, sentimental melancholy. We expect to feel what we felt in the Christmas from our childhood where we were shielded from the drama that we know as adults actually accompanies the gathering of family. Or maybe we expect to eat certain foods, such as pie or turkey or ham or stuffing and/or dressing depending on where you grew up. We wait during this month with palpable expectations.
But sometimes those expectations are not met, are interrupted, are disappointed--like the one time I went expecting mashed potatoes and gravy and was given beet salad instead--true story and quite traumatic--I will bring this up every single year so be ready.
The season of Advent is wrapped up in an absurd amount of expectations, many of which exhaust and frustrate us. Maybe we’re looking for a simpler gift giving experience. Are you waiting for a relationship to change this year? Ahhhh, the season of expectations, of waiting, the season of Advent--maybe not what the church calendar has in mind, but it’s there all the same.
But here, in this space and with our time together on Sundays during Advent this year we’re going to wrestle with these expectations, we’re going to wrestle with what it means to have a whole month dedicated to waiting with expectations--and what it means to have them interrupted or changed by God.
So we’re going to start our Advent trek this Sunday with the story of where it all began: Mary.
Mary probably had some expectations about her life. If she is from Nazareth--she probably expected to be poor her whole life. As a woman in the first century Roman empire she probably expected to have babies and be married and run a household. She probably expected to safely (perhaps) shift from her father’s household to her husband’s household when the marriage took place--Joseph, her betrothed, had a good reputation and would probably make a good husband. Mary might have expected to be intimidated and subjected to abuse by the Roman empire--physically, economically, maybe even religiously. Far from the mobility and opportunities that we enjoy now, Mary probably had a predictable future in front of her--I think this is why she paused, and pondered, and questioned the angel.
I imagine Mary had expectations, perhaps not exciting ones, but predictable ones.
And Joseph, her betrothed, certainly had expectations as well. Expectations that he would be married soon to a woman who had been with no one else. A woman of good rapport and virtue. A woman with whom he would start his family and build a household--we get more of his side of the story in the Gospel of Matthew than we do fromthe Luke passage we read today. He had a good reputation and high standing and I don’t think he expected to lose any of that anytime soon.
Both had predictable, understandable expectations about life, about family, and about the way things would go for them. They weren’t particularly elaborate or lofty expectations. Just normal expectations for two fairly normal people.
But just like those mashed potatoes turning into beet salad, Mary and Joseph’s expectations were interrupted. Luckily for them, it was God doing the interrupting, right? Listen again to what God’s messenger tells Mary: Mary, in your providential town, in your poverty, in your status as a woman, in your youth, and in your inexperience--you are going to give birth to a Son, his name is Jesus, and he is the Son of God. He is the one who is called Messiah. He is the one who will continue the line of David--Gloria! Silent Night! Angels we have heard on high! Bring in the drummer boy!
Perhaps we think “lucky Mary.” What a great interruption, a godly one, one full of joy and cinnamon smells of Christmas. She’s giving birth to Jesus! Her expectations weren’t met, they were exceeded! That’s what it means when God doesn’t meet our expectations, right? God gives us something better--how many times have you heard this? You are disappointed, but don’t worry, God has something better in store.
Yikes! Maybe true, but rarely helpful in those moments when you find yourself asking “Why?” or “What now?”
I hate to make this a downer, but God’s interruption of Mary’s expectations didn’t make things easier or necessarily better for her. We know that Mary would face the shame and stigma of being pregnant before her wedding day. We know that Mary now has to walk to a town very far away while 9 months pregnant. She gives birth in a cave. After Jesus is born, she becomes a refugee in Egypt because of a crazy tyrant trying to kill her son, and then later her son is killed by that same government. Yes, we get presents and shepherd figurines and the best food on Christmas, but Mary, Mary had it rough, despite (even because of) God’s interrupting her expectations.
Having our expectations (at the holidays or elsewhere) interrupted, unmet, changed, or set aside is rough. When we are waiting for one thing, but get another, it is hard. It was hard for Mary and it is hard for us. Should we be flexible about our expectations? Sure. Should we not have expectations? Probably not possible.
Even when it was God interrupting Mary’s expectations, it was ambiguous at best. So now what?
Maybe in our confusion we should pray? And as so many of our catholic brothers and sisters do, we should pray to Mary. We could take up that approach with the classic prayer, “Hail Mary, full of a crazy life and unmet expectations…”
But that isn’t how that prayer REALLY goes.
If any of you know the actual prayer I just butchered, it doesn’t say “hail Mary, full of a crazy life or resentfulness or unmet expectations.” It says “hail Mary, full of grace.”
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
From Mary’s life as we know it, and as the angel Gabriel and God knows her, we don’t sense a life of unmet expectations or an attitude of resentfulness, rather we watch through Mary’s story a life of grace.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
And not the grace in the sense of forgiveness--too often we limit the meaning of grace to just mean forgiveness. But the grace in this prayer and in Mary’s life is a grace of God’s favor, God’s lovingkindness, God benevolence and God’s power of good and love and favor for those whom God created simply because God desires it--without expectations! Imagine that. That grace--that affection for us--is what Mary’s life is full of, despite the circumstances around her, despite God’s or Mary’s or Joseph’s expectations.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
We see in Mary’s life that grace and God’s favor doesn’t work in the tabulations of expectations. Grace questions them, disrupts them, places them onto the path of God’s kingdom and will. Grace isn’t limited by Mary’s age or poverty or subjectivity to the Roman Empire. Grace is not easily satisfied that Mary and Joseph could have, maybe even expected to live, a quiet life. Grace is more powerful and has more important work to do.
Hail Mary, full of GRACE.
Maybe what we can gather from Mary’s story is not that our expectations don’t exist. We have expectations about our lives, our jobs, our families, our vocations, our church communities, even Christmas Eve and 8lb 5oz baby Jesus. Mary, in her pausing, her pondering, her questioning, shows us that she too has expectations--real ones.
But maybe what her story shows us is that grace, God’s grace and favor, is stronger and more powerful than our expectations, and that while even God’s interruptions of our expectations may seem ambiguous and risky, it is always a good thing, perhaps a thing above our pay grade as I’m sure Mary was thinking at the time, but it is a good thing.
It’s a good thing that grace is so powerful, so strong and relentless and free from expectations, because it is exactly what made Mary, Mary--that a young woman could birth God’s child in the midst of a world with so many unmet and disappointed expectations.
Hail Mary, full of grace--even in your belly.
So as we enter this season of expectant waiting, of Advent, of waiting for God’s grace to enter the world, let’s remember Mary--how her life was interrupted, her expectations re-arranged, her story far different from the one she thought she would tell, and let’s remember that she was full of grace, full of God’s favor, and that her life and story ended up being one that has changed us all. God’s grace is stronger than our expectations. Amen.