“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” — Isaiah 7: 10-16
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” — Matthew 1: 18-25
From the Depths
We have been on our Advent journey of waiting over these past few weeks, and along the way, we have been invited to quiet our hearts and minds and to make room for the holy that dwells within us. That sacred presence of which we have been assured is always deep within, but we do not always pay attention to the ways in which the presence of the divine offers us blessings and enables us to see what is holy in others. Our reading this morning from Isaiah speaks of the Lord giving a sign. Many of us may look for signs to help us know what to do, or we wish we could have our own personal angel who might visit us to let us know the “right” way to proceed. Uncertainty and impermanence are essential parts of being human, but there is something within us that yearns for certainty and order. In the chaos of our world in recent years, many of us have tried to make sense of so much that felt senseless and deeply concerning and I’m sure we’d all admit that it has not been easy. We may no longer feel confident in some of our long held beliefs or we may no longer trust in the goodness of others which is very sad.
This week we are called to remember that there is a Christ within each of us birthing wisdom and a deep knowing if we choose to listen with a contemplative heart. Advent is a time to seek out quiet so that we may hear the voice that brings peace by gently saying, as the angels said to Joseph, “do not be afraid.” Let us pray, O God of hope and promise, bring us your peace, quiet our hearts, help us not be afraid. May the coming birth of your child, Jesus, remind us that you appear to the most vulnerable and meek in the darkest of nights. O Come, Emmanuel. Amen.
I think we can all appreciate that the pace of our lives does not always allow for depth, does it? And by this I mean, that too often when we run into a friend or neighbor, we are often rushing, and we don’t really have time to share much about how our lives are really going, or to share our sorrow or worries. Or, perhaps we don’t trust that someone would stay and listen if we began to speak the truth about our lives. But it is in those very deep places in our souls that God whispers to us. And often it is from that same place that we call out to God. In Psalm 130, we hear these words… “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice!” Psalm 130:1-8 ESV.
We know that it is exactly in our deepest hearts that we carry our pain, our sorrow, our worries and fears. It is from that internal place that we may find ourselves off balance or struggling to find our foundation. It is also in our deepest hearts that we may feel love and great joy, isn’t it? And do we make space for those beautiful and life-giving feelings? Do we nurture them in the same way that we hold onto our fear or worry? But sometimes, in times of prayer or reflection, we are reassured of God’s love and comfort. We come to know this in our very souls.
Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus focuses on the unlikely occurrence of Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s reaction. In the ancient world, stories of important people often included remarkable or unusual birth stories. As one writer explains, “The “Christification” of Jesus begins in the depths, the dark, of the womb.” It is this image that informs our journey of encountering the sacred this week–the Sacred Knowing that comes when we tend to our depths. Even the pain that may come when we face what we keep hidden in the depths is part of the anointing of a more incarnational life.
As Richard Rohr writes, “God hides in the depths and is not seen as long as we stay on the surface of anything–even the depths of our sins” (page 111, The Universal Christ). Childbirth does not happen without pain. Our own rebirth with Christ may include some fear and dealing with difficult things. If we listen, we may also hear some of what Joseph heard in the midst of his own sorrow as he considered letting his beloved Mary go quietly. The angels said to him, “do not be afraid.” If we are not able to quiet our spirits, we may not come to know the blessings which await us until we dare to listen. Getting quiet for a little while can be a real gift.
The passage from Isaiah takes place in the midst of a complicated story, a story of political unrest, deception, and threats to national security. Ahaz has responsibility for the welfare of Judah and things are not going well, partly because of Ahaz’s own history of complicating things. The “sign” that Isaiah writes about that God gives in the midst of the confusion is simply this: “God is with us.” The sign is a child called Immanuel. Matthew’s Gospel outlines the lineage of Jesus and this reference to a scriptural sign being fulfilled is the way he explains the rest of his story about this Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) whose authority will be stronger than any political power.
There is a paradox when we speak of depth; it is both the place where our deepest yearnings or hurts reside and the place we go to uncover peace deep within our souls. I recall the Dali Llama using the image of the surface of a stormy sea to speak of all of the external events which press in upon us day to day, but he said, if you can go down deep below the surface, things are calm. The storm cannot reach you. And so it is with our efforts to dialogue with God. We need to dive deep to discover the quiet necessary for listening to the One who speaks to us.
How can sacred knowing help us unravel the knots and tangles we create in our own lives? How can the discernment that comes from exploring our own selves help us break free from cycles of unavoidable distress and surface level knowing so we can go down into the deep and dark and find God hiding in those depths, waiting for us? What sufferings have formed us in the depths and breadths of our own lives? What sufferings have we not faced in ourselves on our journey to the sacred knowing of our own selves?
This morning, we are invited once again to explore the depths of our very being as well as the depths of our relationship with our Creator to gain for ourselves a Sacred Knowing about what reigns in our lives. It is so important to take the time to be present to the quiet longings of our hearts and to dwell there long enough to prepare for the news that “God is with us.” Rohr writes, “Great love and great suffering bring us back to God. We cannot jump over this world, or its woundedness, and still try to love God. We must love God through, in, with and even because of this world.” (Universal Christ) As we await the birth of the Christ Child, may we walk in peace with the knowledge that we are deeply loved and held by the One who came to know us and all of the realities and brokenness of our world.
I’ll close with a prayer by Fr. Henri Nouwen,
Lord Jesus, You who may be found both in the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day, We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us. We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom. We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence. We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus”. Amen.
Henri J.M. Nouwen
Especially Relevant Reflections from Every Thing is Sacred
Reflection 20: Divine Depth
Reflection 21: Embodying Depth
Reflection 24: Embodiment
Reflection 37: Both… And…
Reflection 28: Contemplative Practice