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The season of Advent begins this Sunday, and while this is a busy time of year within our wider culture, it can be an even busier time in the church world.
Not only do we have to deck our halls, bake sweet treats, attend concerts and wrap presents, but we also attempt to use these next four weeks to spiritually prepare for our coming Saviour. Over four Sundays we collectively wait and wonder in anticipation of the birth of Jesus.
There are many Advent devotional guides to assist in this process, both for congregations and for individuals. This year I am not using one specific guide; rather, I am relying on a person to guide me through advent – Mary.
While I wait and wonder in anticipation of Jesus, I will be drawing close to his mother, Mary in my meditations. Perhaps I am drawn to Mary this year because of my stage of life, or perhaps it’s my commitment to draw close to the women in the Bible. Either way, it is definitely part of a growing trend to retrieve some of what was discarded in the Reformation.
My own Presbyterian denomination, which has its roots in barren sanctuaries and the banning of all instruments, has slowly been retrieving some traditions and ancient rituals, recognizing that perhaps we have thrown out a bit too much of the bathwater.
The imposition of ashes is now a common way to start the season of Lent and more than one reformed church has put All Saints Day on its calendar. There is richness in these longstanding faith traditions, and so perhaps there is something to be gained from the retrieval of Mary.
Now, I’m not about to start praying Hail Mary, Full of Grace, but there are a few topics and resources that I will be using to help meditate with Mary.
Wombs and Bodies
God didn’t have to use a womb to create Jesus. God could have formed the second Adam out of the earth, just like God had done with the first Adam. Yet, God chose to use a womb, Mary’s womb.
The incarnation of Jesus, where God takes on human flesh, began the way all of our lives have begun, being knit together in a womb. Built cell by cell in the safety of Mary’s womb, Jesus’ embodiment began in a body. As I wait and wonder, what can I learn from Mary’s experience?
- God Speaks Through Wombs: Poems on God’s Unexpected Coming by Drew Jackson
- This book is a collection of poems exploring the first eight chapters of Luke. The poem in response to Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel is called ‘Theotokos (God Bearer)’ and begins:
From that side of town.
- Black Liturgies, Advent series by Cole Arthur Riley
- In her 2021 Advent series, the themes were The Dark, The Body, The Silence, The Wait. On December 1, 2021, the daily post posed the question: “How can the quiet darkness of Mary’s womb form us during Advent?”
Beyond the Idealized
The gospels appropriately omit the details of the more horrific parts of life. Most people of ancient times would have known the gory, violent parts of a crucifixion; it did not need to be documented in scripture.
While “and she gave birth” is an appropriate summary of the birth of Jesus, I am growing weary of only hearing about Mary’s idealized experience.
As the maternal mortality rate was sometimes as high as 50 percent for a teenage girl, the risks of childbirth would have been known, even if you are bearing God’s child.
During the holiday season, we only seem to bump into Mary in her angelic, idealized form in nativity scenes or Christmas songs (looking at you, ‘Mary Did You Know,’ the 1990s hit by Mark Lowry and Buddy Green).
As I wait and wonder this Advent season, what can I learn from a more realistic account of Mary’s experience?
- The Porter’s Gate, Advent Songs
- This album from 2021 goes beyond the idealized depiction of Mary. In particular, .Mary’s Lullaby (Black Haired Boy)’ provides a fuller picture of Mary’s experience, and is a more historically accurate depiction of what Jesus and Mary looked like.
- Scott Erickson: Honest Advent
- This Advent devotional, with corresponding art, lives up to its title of honesty. I will leave it to you to search his Instagram for the grittier representations, like Mary changing a diaper. However, it definitely brings Jesus’ embodiment to a tangible level.
The adversity, and the resilience that Mary met it with, is hinted at in scripture, but it is worth exploring further. She was an unwed, pregnant teenager. She also was a refugee, fleeing to another country for the safety of her family. Neither situation was desirable. As I wait and watch, what can I learn from Mary’s experience of oppression and injustice?
- Contemporary Iconography by Kelly Latimore
- Drawing on another ancient tradition, with a modern take, Kelly Latimore has created contemporary depictions of Mary which highlight the injustice she experienced, and which people still experience today.
- ‘La Sagrada Familia’ is an icon which portrays the Holy family’s flight to Egypt as a contemporary refugee family fleeing across the US/Mexico border.
- ‘Mother of God Protectress of the Oppressed’ shows Mary, holding Jesus, with both of them wrapped in an emergency warming blanket, standing behind a chain link fence.
Clearly these advent meditations will tread into extra-biblical territory, but tis the season for hagiography. Mary, guide me while I wait and watch this Advent season.
Are there any resources or conversation partners you have used to meditate with Mary?
Whatever way you are marking this Advent season, may you be filled with wonder as we all wait and watch for our coming Saviour.