Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Making room for the unexpected: The deep yearning of the Advent season

December 2, 2002
Frank T. Griswold

Advent is a season of powerlessness in which we are invited to set aside the various ways we seek to reassure ourselves that we are in control of our lives and are, therefore, invulnerable to all the uncertainties which constitute life as it is actually lived. Advent is a season in which we get in touch with the deep yearning, the heartache, the soul hunger that emerges when we are stripped of our defenses and obliged to admit that the permanencies upon which we had erected our security are shifting sand rather than rock. Unless one confronts the deep yearning within, the Christmas feast is null and void because the answers it provides are not fitted to the storybook nostalgia which characterizes so much of the season and creates expectations of a “perfect Christmas” that are seldom realized. The plaintive cry of “O come, O come Emmanuel” and the solemn melody that accompanies it bear witness to that deep yearning which spans the centuries of battle murder and sudden death. And the cry, “bind in one the hearts of all man-kind; bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thy-self our King of Peace,” is that much more urgent and reflective of our own inner reality.

Had Mary been defended against the unexpected, the unsettling and unknown, she would never have been able to say, “Yes” to Gabriel’s shattering announcement that she would become the vehicle of God’s embodiment and therefore Theotokos: God-bearer. Life as she had known it and what seemed to be its predictable course – a wedding, a family and the daily and seasonal rhythms of Nazareth – were turned upside down and thrown into confusion. The crooked ways of God overtook human logic, and if it had not been for another angelic intervention, Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, might well have cancelled the wedding.

What was it within Mary that had moved her to say, “Yes?” I think it was her radical availability to God’s desire, and her deep yearning to be one with that desire, whatever it might cost and wherever it might take her. Her prayer, which was her people’s prayer for the consolation of Israel, was a passionate invitation for God to act, to come among his people with an outstretched arm and to set them free from foreign domination and to restore their fortunes. Little did Mary realize how deeply her people’s yearning would take root in her, or what wildness on the part of God it would open to her.

Advent, therefore, is more than a season: it is a stance, a way of being. It has to do with entering into the deep yearnings of the human heart for mercy and peace, for justice and love. It has to do with making the hunger of the hungry, the nakedness of the naked, the disease of the diseased our own. And having made them our own, we bring them before the heart of God whose compassion embraces the universe. In so doing, we place ourselves at risk, and open ourselves to the possibility that we will be caught up into our prayer and become part of its fulfillment.

Such was the case with Mary. The fortunes of her people, which were identified with a better time yet to come, suddenly became a matter of now and her own willingness to say yes. So it is with us. Often our prayer, which if it is authentic involves the Spirit praying within us, takes us beyond the safety of our petitions and lands us squarely in the midst of the very thing we are praying about. At such moments we find ourselves, as Mary did, deeply troubled and taken well beyond a place of comfort. If we can stammer, “Yes” God can do the rest by transfiguring our limitations and weakness with God’s own strength. In this way, God in Christ is able to extend the work of Incarnation – the embodiment of God’s compassion – in and through us. Such is our Advent yearning; such is our Advent hope.

May we not shrink back from the deep yearnings the Advent season sets before us in these uncertain times. And may our prayer, in union with that of our sister Mary, draw us into the deep desire of God for our wellbeing and for that of the world he came among us to heal and to save.

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA