Holy Expectancy: The Serene Gifts of Advent

Ellen Dionna
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 12/06/2015

Reading from Luke 1:26-38


This morning we begin the season of Advent—the time in which we live out the archetypal last weeks of Mary’s pregnancy, the last weeks of her gestation before birthing her infant son, her starfire-illumined Prince of Peace. 

Advent is usually celebrated as the time of anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah, with all the focus on the object of the awaited Savior. But I want to examine this morning what was required of Mary to bring the Holy Child into the world—indeed what is asked of every woman who awaits with expectancy her own holy child.  And, too, I want to glean from the experience of Mary the gifts of wisdom, the radiant truths of Holy Expectancy.  And I hope that considering these truths might deepen our own wonder and worship at this season of Light and Love.

Historically we can construct some things about Mary.  She was probably a young woman of 14-16 and was betrothed to Joseph, who was probably a decade or more older than she.  Betrothal is more binding than an engagement;  Mary would have been virtually wed to Joseph. This would have been a typical couple of the time in Jewish tradition, being a teen-aged mother was the norm.  We know Joseph and probably Mary as well, were descendants of King David of Israel.  As a young Jewish woman of the time she would have been devoutly reared in the faith—familiar with all the rituals and customs and expectations of a wife and mother in Jewish tradition and law.  She would light the Sabbath candles and separate the portion of challah, the Jewish bread.  She would have been able to own property and make domestic and public business decisions as women were respected thus under Jewish law—she in fact would have had a fairly liberated world view as a Jewish woman—and, perhaps most important for our purposes this morning, she would have understood her endowment with what in Jewish culture is called “binah”,  the innate intuitive wisdom exalted in women.  Binah is also associated with the gifts of contemplative awareness and spiritual insight.

We might imagine this morning, then, that Mary was brought up with the familial knowledge of her lineage and readiness to assume her spiritual role, as any young Jewish woman would be, but that through her qualities of Binah she had revealed herself to be extraordinary.  She might have expressed more interest in the qualities and content of spiritual life and been more intuitive and contemplative than her peers. Yes, our Archetypal Mary, would have had strength of character and spiritual and worldy grace which set her apart, which indeed, as Luke tells us, brought her God’s favor.

It is from these roots that Mary’s meaning for women all over the world has blossomed and flourished, among women and men of all faiths who cherish the Archetypal Mother. 

It is Mary’s spiritual essence that offers us the gifts of Holy Expectancy, of Advent.

Mary is heralded by the Archangel Gabriel with the words, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”  And we read that Mary is “greatly troubled”.  Not by the appearance of an angel, mind you, but by the words, “you are highly favored”!  Mary with her ample binah may already have been familiar with angels, hence her lack of astonishment with Gabriel, but she surely would have been familiar with the meanings implied with being highly favored by God.  In the Jewish prophetic tradition that favor was not only a sacred blessing, it always carries with it the understanding God is going to demand something of you—and that, for anyone who has truly answered The Call, is always a startling and terrifying thing!   Something prophet after prophet resists, time and time again when God comes knocking…but listen, not Mary!

And Gabriel’s message from God confirms this as he lays out the plan—her pregnancy, the baby’s gender and what she will name him, and indeed, what his destiny will be—Son of the Most High, who takes the throne of David and reigns over the house of Jacob….

If Mary was as wise and prescient as I believe her to have been, she would have known in her heart something of the eventual fate of this baby she was to deliver into a Roman occupied Nazareth.  Under their puppet King Herod, the Romans weren’t likely to share regency nor to tolerate a “commoner” who claimed to be, as did the Roman Emperors, a king chosen of God.

But Mary doesn’t turn away, doesn’t say, “No thanks, Gabe”—not even after she is told the “power of the Most High will overshadow you”.  No.  She instead says, “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said.”

Which brings us to Advent.  To what I believe are the essential gifts of Mary to a sacred season, this time of deepening dark before the return of our Celestial Savior of the northern hemisphere—the sunlight, and the birth of the babe who reminds us of our holiest humanity, Jeshua of Nazareth.

Mary, who did not say, No.  Mary whose faith and strength and graciousness led her to accept, and then to obey.

Acceptance.  The first sacred gift of the Season of Light.  Indeed, Reinhold Niebuhr in his most famous, beautiful prayer links serenity and acceptance.  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”   How much less contentious and abrasive our lives would be if we were able to practice the wisdom of acceptance.  First Mary has the humility to accept the blessing Gabriel brings, to step into the blessing, honoring herself and her God as she does.  Gabriel reassures her that she is worthy, and without dithering, false modesty Mary opens herself in acceptance.  She hears what is intended for her through God’s favor.  What Angels might be hovering in close attendance with spiritual illumination would we but greet each day in a posture of acceptance?!  Indeed, what, for you would a posture of acceptance look like?  We need to embody our spiritual work!  What for you, this day, would be a physical posture, not only an emotional or mental attitude of acceptance?  How tilt your head?  How hold your arms, your hands?  Loosely, my dear friends, loosely….  Acceptance does not clutch, nor does it cling.  Acceptance.  What would happen to all the tension in your neck and shoulders should you practice acceptance?  Whom in your life right now is a particular thorn in your side?  What situation have you been railing against in frustration and aggravation?  How might that shift were you to practice acceptance?  The acceptance of Mary.

Imagine this young woman accepting the delegation of carrying a child that clearly is going to bring not only the natural, universal change any infant brings to a new mother, but one who is preordained to be the Son of the Most High!  Pregnancy—any woman’s pregnancy is imbued with massive, inherent acceptance.  The acceptance of sharing her very body with a growing embryo!  A woman in her rational ego state may reject the fact of her pregnancy, may even take measures to end it, but the conditions of acceptance were always present, and the deep spiritual teachings therein.  At the time of Advent Mary has for more than eight months been growing her boychild out of acceptance. Acceptance requires the virtue of humility and fosters dignity and integrity. Own who you are without pride or false modesty—be authenticly self-and-other respectful.  We resist acceptance because we fear what might happen if we are not in control—if we are not running things or organizing things, or steering things.  Refusing to move into acceptance is fear-based entrenchment.  With her acceptance Mary steps into the fullness of her true self, opens herself to the Mystery, and allows the winds of the Divine to blow through her heart.  Any feelings of fear evaporate in her choice to move into the possibilities of encounter with her highest purpose through acceptance of Divine delegation.  Again, if you yourself step into acceptance, what inspiring, enlightening, delicious possibilities might emerge?...if you risked opening, chose acceptance?  I light this first candle of Advent for Mary’s teaching of Acceptance.

Obedience.  The second sacred gift of the Season of Light.  The thought of obedience might bring a cringing response—we are, after all, UU’s who revel in our rebellious questioning of authority.  Obedience.  In our story of Holy Expectancy Mary moves from acceptance into obedience.  She has listened and she acts.  The etymological root  of obedience is from the Latin, ob audire—“to listen to”.  Mary listens to Gabriel, Messenger from God, yes, and more importantly, she listens to her own wild heart.  Yes, that’s what I said, “wild”.  A heart so wild and audacious she is perfectly attuned to what God is asking of her—she listens perfectly!  Paradox profound!  Can there be any greater wildness than attuning one’s soul to the Divine!?—and living as naturally and simply and autonomously as one who knows absolutely who she is and what she has been born to do?  Obedience requires willingness, an allowing of some greater cosmic energy to move through you, guiding, nourishing, and transforming.  Like acceptance, willingness begins with openness and synergistically creates a spiritual state of surrender.  Indeed the decision to obey sources the action beyond the cusp of surrender, “Thy will be done”—yes, and show me, as Mary is shown, how might I serve?  Mary accepts, she steps into transformative willingness.  Mary steps outside her ego, her willfulness.  In her obedience she surrenders, willing to be used for greater purpose. 

Mary’s willingness is a portal to the wild surrender which looses any bonds of ego to its own designs.   Her deep binah consciousness aligns her wholly with her God’s dream of all she might become and the great sacrificial offering she will give to humanity. Spiritual surrender is a gateway to serenity, it brings divine union, a beatific merging with the Great Mystery.  Mary lives this!  Surrender is not passive submission!—there is no submission in this encounter, there is conscious sovereign surrender to Oneness, the embodying Divine Presence.  Mary is not subject in this union, nor ever after, she is always wildly and completely sovereign, and ever will be as  her archetypal role unfurls in the names by which we know her:  Queen of Heaven, Star of the Seas, Lady of Light, Lady of Mercy…and more….

Wildly sovereign in her big, wild heart as she steps with dignity and autonomy into obedience.  “I am the Lord’s servant.”  That is, I am one with the Divine Creative Source, in service.  “May it be to me as you have said.”  May the vision God holds for me be lived out within me….  She has listened to her heart, to the Angel, she makes the wild leap into her Beloved’s arms, leaps into believing wholly she is favored by him and will bear the Holy Child whom only that sovereign leap could have conceived.

What divine songs play in your heart?  What soundings from Source whisper in your dreams?  How are Angels surrounding you even now, trying to get your attention?  Indeed aching for you to just listen?! What Call might you obey that would answer God’s sweet longing for your life?  What sovereign leap might you make if you willingly open and surrender, and then obey?  Holy expectancy—the universe is waiting for you to manifest your sacred dream. 

I light the second candle of Advent for Obedience.

Obedience is active trust.  That sacred listening resulting in action is a natural flowering of discernment.  Mary’s leap is not reckless, not unconscious.  She carries within the chalice of her heart, through her Jewish faith and all its traditions, through the energy of binah, the flame of trust. Trust is the hallowed heart of surrender and Holy expectancy engages trust.  When held sacred, the act of conception and the months of gestation are shining affirmations of trust.  We know the world is a crazy and dangerous place—and it is also wondrously beautiful, amazing, and filled with more joy and love and honor than any logic would dictate.  And Mary’s world was that way, too.  And yet, we crazy, wild, dream-filled, impassioned humans create!  And create!  We surrender our rational egoic concerns when we surrender-- we are wounded and we get up and surrender again, and we create some more and we keep on trusting even though we feel terror-- we follow the yearning of our hearts to know!  To know…  And when ultimately we encounter the Unknowable?  We fall back on trust.  The Sun will turn again in its arc as the earth turns, and the days of long light will return.  Holy expectancy!  In the cold desert night, Mary and Joseph fled with their newborn infant Yeshua into Egypt—probably into Alexandria where the majority of Jews resided, where the great diaspora of Jewish culture greeted the great mysteries of Egypt.

Binah--Mary knew the risks of birthing her Holy Child in Herod’s land. She did it anyway, on trust.  As she massaged her hands over her swollen belly and waited, she dreamed, she prayed, and she trusted. She surrendered her doubts, took the proffered hand of her Beloved and danced into his arms.  She lived in the sacred, intuitive state of holy expectancy.  The mists of waiting enfolded her and she dwelt in that lucent suspension we call trust.  Heavy in her ninth month she and Joseph set out for Bethlehem, the town of Joseph’s birth where the Emperor Augustus decreed he must return for a census, so they might be taxed.  Mary rode a donkey or walked, in her ninth month, 80 miles—imagine her courage and fortitude!  A teen-aged woman, apart from all her female relatives, facing a long labor in a strange town.  But she had binah, did Mary, and a powerful faith tradition, and trust….Perhaps only women who have experienced the weight and interminable waiting of the ninth month—the chronic stress on ligaments and muscles, the ache to find a comfortable position—and then the prospect of riding several days on a donkey?!  This Mary was no insipid, sentimental girl —this was one strong and powerful Mama!  So yes, imagine her courage and fortitude…ripe with binah.

Trust is imbued with the glow of optimism and of grace—it is the opposite side of the coin of surrender, for we only know the true depth of trust when we have given up all the strivings of ego and let go--when we have come to the edge of the cliff and leaped; when we have stopped all struggling to stay afloat and relinquished ourselves to the waters….trust gives us wings; we find we can breathe in the fathomless deep….

I light the third Advent candle for the luminous serenity of trust.

The poet, Rilke, says:   “You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born.  Fear not the strangeness you feel. The future must enter into you long before it happens.  Just wait for the birth, for the hour of new clarity.”

 Rilke understands the mystical cocooning of holy expectancy.                                                   

All the months of her pregnancy a woman hovers in the enchanted realm of imagination.  Modern technology can, if a woman chooses, reveal to her the gender of her babe, answering the big question after only a few weeks of expectancy.  This window to the womb wasn’t available when I was pregnant, and I’m not sure whether I would have lifted the curtains of knowing had it been.  Part of the magic and mystery of the long gestation itself was the not-knowing, the anticipation of the ultimate surprise.  Boy or girl??!!  But Mary, too, knew—that and more.  I have known many women who felt visited by angels during pregnancy, or the soul of the child they carried, who revealed to them the genderof their babe, and indeed the name they should endow.  Every woman births a holy child.  Every woman who waits nine long months, months of wonder and joy, of anxiety and discomfort, months of travail and trust, imagines.  The sanctity of these imaginings forges the invisible, indissoluble bonds of mothering.  What imaginings twined in Mary’s heart as she grew the baby Yeshua within her?  A woman’s intuition often shines with greatest clarity during pregnancy—what visions did Mary spin from the ethers?  How did she imagine she might mother the Son Most High?  Imagine what she would have been challenged to provide for this Child of Light, this precocious Emmanuel!  Surely in this season of Wonder, of Love and Light, it is imagination that gilds our days and spangles our nights.  For who among you does not become buoyed by the magic, the dream and the expectation shining in a Christmas child’s eyes?

Imagination is a precious, holy gem of longing, of the sweet, ineffable longing that accompanies times of waiting.  “Imagination,” said Einstein, “is more important than knowledge.”  Imagination is the link to all creation, indeed is the key to the realm of the Divine Source.  Quantum physicists tell us that imagined reality may be more real than what we know as ordinary reality.  With imagination we can shift the electromagnetic fields of inter and intracellular space.  Rilke’s imaging brings light, promise, and joy—brings us to that hour of new clarity.  Acceptance and surrender imbedded in long awaiting gift us with the space to imagine.    Imagination, then, is the wild, leaping flame of holy expectancy.

I light the fourth candle of Advent for Imagination: the dancing, iridescent flame of holy expectancy.

Acceptance, Obedience, Trust, and Imagination.  Take a chance—a leap of faith!  Next time you’re waiting for something, enduring the challenges to patience, make the expectancy holy!  Allow yourself to be more open to acceptance; listen to the voices of Angels or the still, small voice within and act!--follow its bidding; trust that you’ll be on the yellow brick road of the journey you’re meant to be travelling; and kindle and tend the fires of imagination.   No, my friends, the path of spirit is not easy, not without terrors and impediments, but these four gifts of Advent, these gifts of Mary’s grace, can bring Holy Light to your holidays, will truly bring serenity to your soul.  Amen. And as Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ devout Catholic grandmother said, “ amen—and a little woman, too.”   May it be so….