by Shane Stanford*
Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my Savior!” – Luke 1:46-47, Common English Bible
Mary faced an uncertain morning. Her world seemed irreparable and unredeemable. Just yesterday, everything was very different – simple, normal, common. However, within a matter of moments, everything changed. Nothing was certain. Nothing was the same. While others would point fingers at God to say how unfair the previous hours felt, Mary wrote a song. And, it was magnificent.
And, by the way, this is not the Mary you are probably thinking of.
This Mary worked in a shelter, feeding the hungry and bandaging the wounds. She is a mom, who just days ago ran the neighborhood carpool and tutored at her church's afterschool program. She had no idea that, on a rather ordinary day, her life would change.
Mary lives in Joplin, Missouri. Her home was miraculously not damaged by the EF-5 tornado that devastated her community on May 22. But, the house to the left and the one to the right of her home were completely destroyed.
Of the 16 people who lived in the three houses on Mary's cul-de-sac, 11 of them were injured. None died, but they all knew those who did. In the first moments after the storm, Mary stood in the center of what had been her life and felt like a stranger.
If anyone had the right to feel hopeless, it was Mary.
But, Mary is far from hopeless. She is sad at times. Who wouldn't be? And, like so many, she is stunned by the magnitude of her new reality. But, her spirit and faithfulness remind us that life is more than the sum of what we survive.
Advent is a season of incredible realities. In this wonderful time of the year, we dress our sanctuaries with garland, lights and beautiful decorations. We prepare our churches for the coming of Christmas. But, are we equally prepared for the coming of the Messiah?
There is a difference.
Christmas arrives with spectacular sensation. The Messiah, though, arrives quietly in a broken world, looking through the rubble and the storms. There are no decorations, no fanfare. There is not even room in the inn. Another Mary, many years ago, learned that.
It is easy to say we have hope when our world is bathed in carols and lights. It seems simple to offer gratitude when the world sings in one melody. But, when your world is gone, and the lights no longer shine and carols no longer sing, and still we talk of hope for each new day – that is expectation. That is Immanuel – God with us.
Both Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Joplin knew more about Immanuel than any scholar or theologian. Such expectation transformed the world. And, it still does. That is more than "holiday cheer." It is holy. It is Advent.
Advent is more than preparing for what comes next; it is knowing that, no matter what else comes, Christ is already there.
Mary from Nazareth knew this. Mary from Joplin knows it, too. Do we?
There are 106 occasions in Scripture where God encourages us to "be not afraid." Eleven of them happen with the announcement of the birth of the Messiah. From Joseph to Mary to Zechariah to the shepherds, sometimes "good news" unnerves us. Even good days can be scary.
But, do we hear the good news even then? Is the song for that day still magnificent?
Mary of Nazareth said "yes." So did Mary of Joplin. Do we?
Like a mosaic formed by broken pieces established into one beautiful image, our expectations possess our possibilities. Sure, at times, the pieces are made jagged and difficult to handle – by fear, broken hearts, wicked rulers and by even more ruthless storms. Yet, the beauty of any mosaic is that its real image is only appreciated once the whole image is formed in place.
Mary of Nazareth saw it. Mary of Joplin did, too. Do we?
In 1792, a small team of scientists unveiled the world's first hot air balloon. They launched it from a small village, where the inhabitants cheered as humanity first broke the bonds of earth.
Several miles away, in another small village, others looked to the sky, too. However, these villagers believed they were being attacked by ... well... something. And, so, they grabbed their pitchforks, rushed forward and "killed" the flying object.
Such is the nature of life – praised in one place and attacked in another.
Life is about perspective for the details, decisions and demons that blow our way. The key is whether our expectations sailing heavenward are something to celebrate or something to fear. The day is not just what you make of it; in Christ, it can become all you would expect of it – hopeful, thankful ... magnificent. Advent is the season for such things. Mary of Nazareth sang about it. Mary of Joplin did, too. Do we?
*The Rev. Shane Stanford is senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn. Author of nine books, he hosts a weekly radio program and travels across the nation sharing his story as an HIV+ hemophiliac. Learn more at www.shanestanford.com.