As we experience this season of Advent, the metaphor of a journey stands out to me. I think about the different journeys, both geographical and interior, that the Gospels describe even before Jesus arrives. Zechariah journeys from distrust and silence into belief and joyful proclamation. Mary travels to visit Elizabeth, who, like Mary, undergoes the deep internal changes of pregnancy and the slow transition into motherhood. Joseph dreams. Mary ponders. Eventually, they both travel to Bethlehem, until finally they find rest and she gives birth. Jesus’ birth is itself an event that prompts the crossing of fields and towns by shepherds and Magi alike.
Whereas the spirit of Lent is penitential, Advent has a gentler way of getting us ready for the Lord. A friend once described it as a time when God tenderly breaks through all of our defenses. Advent is a time of slow surrender to the Lord.
My family and I enjoy hiking, and for longer trips, I like clearly marked trails. A compass and a good map are handy, too. But our Advent journeys are much more like going “off road.” In Advent, God is inviting us to explore the interior forest of our own hearts with God: places that are light, and shadowy and dark spots, sweet smelling pine beds and thorny thickets. It’s a season to deepen intimacy with the Lord by allowing him to walk with us into all of our interior spaces.
Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah all had to travel in new and different directions than planned. Even after Jesus’ birth, Mary turns over and ponders in her heart many remarks, from people who proclaim that they are ready to meet their maker now that they have seen her child, and another who speaks of the sword that will pierce her heart. The unfolding of God’s promise continues to be messy and complicated, but Mary walks closely with the Lord the whole way.
How? Mary listened, both to the angel and to the inner promptings of her own heart. Listening requires space and silence. It’s in silence that we can better hear God speak. Mary also had faith. In Greek, the term for faith is pistis, a word that also means trust. But trusting unmapped paths can feel uncertain and even scary. Advent is a time to deepen our trust in God, to lead us through the mud and muck as well as field and flower. In all of it, God comes to be with us, mercifully.