Fourth Sunday of Advent - LOVE

Beth Stovell, Dec 15, 2022, 9:52 PM
Beth Stovell National Theological Consultant

Make Me the Mother of Love

I'm thankful I was asked to write on the Advent week that celebrates Love. I love Advent in part because my husband Jon and I celebrate it each year with our kids Elena and Atticus. Atticus' birthday is Dec 16 (yes, we celebrated this week! Love you Atticus, you big 13 year old!). Most years we read Advent readings on either sides of Atticus's birthday and the kids open one more box in their advent calendars.

Advent is a season of waiting, a season of expectation. A time when we remember the spaces of darkness as we wait for the Light of the World to come. In our house, this blends with our Hanukkah celebration as each night of Hanukkah, we light the candles and remember God's ability to bring light in our darkness.

We sing the ancient Hanukkah prayers:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b-mitzvotav, v-tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who makes us holy through Your commandments, and commands us to light the Hanukkah lights.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu v-ki'y'manu v-higianu la-z'man ha-zeh.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

At Hanukkah, we thank God as King of the Universe for sustaining us with his light. One year, when Atticus was little, he said to me that he loved when his birthday was because his birthday is in "God's time." When I asked him to explain what he meant, he talked about waiting for Jesus to come and change everything!

Each Advent, I return to Mary's song. The Gospel of Luke shares with us a series of song-like prayers, including a song from Mary we call the "Magnificat" in Luke 1:46-55. This title comes from the Latin of her first words: "my soul praises." This is a song where Mary praises what God has done and what God will do in her life. I sometimes feel like Mary understands my life in a special way. I used to do musical theatre. Whether I'm sad or angry or when something amazing happens, my first instinct is to sing about it. This was Mary's instinct too!

Something amazing has happened to Mary: she has been chosen to carry Jesus inside her, she has been chosen to be the Mother of Love. The Greek Orthodox Church calls Mary the Theotokos, "the bearer of God," the one whose body bears the truest love in it. I have started thinking what would that be like to be the bearer of love.

Recently, God posed a unique challenge for me to wait in love. Sure, I can talk about love in the hard spaces, but God asked me to live this when my own life was filled with uncertainty. Last November 2021, Jon, the kids, and I visited the U.S. to see my parents in Texas and for me to speak at a conference. While my husband and kids were Canadian citizens, I was still a permanent resident of Canada. After a series of immigration issues, I was stuck in the U.S., unable to cross the border when my family flew back. I wasn't sure how to feel. The experience led to incredible tumult and pain in me. I found myself asking: who am I? Can I call myself Canadian when the country won't let me in, but can I call myself American when that country doesn't feel like home any more? Where is my home? Am I wanted? Am I enough?

But I could hear the Holy Spirit's voice say, "Watch in the waiting, I've got something for you in this."

God's love wanted to meet me in the unexpected, God's love wanted to meet me in the struggle, God's love wanted to meet me in the fear.

Mary's first response to God's request was fear, but then she responded: "May everything you have said about me come true." Her prayer was "Let it come." So in my waiting, I prayed, "Let it come, Lord," and God surprised me with the amazing time of love with both my parents in Austin, Texas and Jon's dad, step mom, step brother and step sister in the Niagara area of Ontario. God opened up doors for unexpected healing for our family in surprising ways.

God also reminded me that my little experience of vulnerability in immigration is multiplied many times by others who may not speak English as their first language, who may not know when they can be close to their kids again. God asked me to remember them and pray for them. When my renewed Permanent Residency card and then my other PR letter didn't come when I needed them, God reminded me of why immigration officers might be so busy. He showed me a mother seeking asylum from a country where she and her children might be abused or die. He reminded me that I'm only a small part of this big system where others around me are vulnerable, afraid, unsafe. God asked me to hold them in my hearts, to bear in my body the weight of love for them through remembering them.

We speak of Mary's humility and her love, but in Mary's prayer we see how this humility and this love was not shown in weakness, but as strength and bravery. What would a strong and brave humility look like for each of us this Advent, this Christmas?

First, Mary's love reminds us of our call to love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-7. While people sometimes treat this section of 1 Corinthians like it is about romantic love (hey, Jon and I used it at our wedding!), it is actually about how all of us love one another:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Mary's love "bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things, and endured all things." Mary's love was humble and didn't insist on her own way. She found the strength of God's love in the waiting. We know this from her song.

One of the ways that Mary bears love in her song is by remembering the past of her people. You see, her song does more than rejoice in God's miraculous love. It also remembers another mother from the distant past who also longed for a son. In her song of praise, Mary remembers the song of Hannah, Samuel's mother in 1 Samuel 2.

Hannah describes herself as God's servant as she prays for a son and dedicates the yet unborn son to God's service for his whole life. After Samuel's birth, Hannah dedicates him again to the Lord and sings a song of praise for what the Lord has done. This song of praise goes beyond a simple "thanks" for her son, but talks about the character of God. She praises this God who is able to undo the powerful, the mighty, the ones with "much" and raise up the ones with little, the poor, the broken, the barren (like herself). This God takes the weak and gives them strength.

Mary's song echoes with Hannah's song. Mary wasn't the one you'd choose as Jesus' mom if motherhood was chosen based on a resume. Mary was young, poor, living in a small town. She wasn't a mom who through her own achievements could give her son wealth, power, or status.

Before we get to Mary's song, let's backtrack a moment to where this song comes in Luke's story: let's set the scene. Mary has recently met an angel who tells her she will be the mother of Jesus. She's told, "He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!" Luke 1:32-33.

Mary responds with a song of praise and like Hannah before her so many years before (hundreds of years before), she speaks not only of what God has done for her, but how this shows the character of God:

Mary responded,
"Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever."

This is the God who notices someone like Mary, poor, on the margins, unseen, and raises her up as God's servant to do something great!

The rest of Mary's song continues with this picture of God's great reversal. God overturns the expectations of who should receive the "kingdom of God." Instead of the powerful, God gives his kingdom to the weak and the poor. God fills the hungry and overturns the structures of injustice that caused their hunger.

In Advent, I sit with Mary and with Hannah, waiting for God to come and do his great act of reversal. For God to make me a mother of love like Mary who sees the world through God's vision.

Mary has been an important figure in my life as I work with the Canadian Poverty Institute at Ambrose University, where I teach, and I think about child poverty. Mary's song speaks of God's love for the poor and his longing to undo the powers that have created the darkness in our world such as child poverty. When I look at the faces of children impacted by poverty, do I see Jesus? When I look at their mothers working hard to care for their children in a harsh world, do I see Mary, God's servant?

If I can see Mary and Jesus in the faces of those struggling around me, if I can believe that our God is a God who wants the hungry fed and injustice overturned, how will this reshape my Advent, reshape my Christmas, reshape my New Year?

For me it means buying Christmas presents in ways that benefit the poor and oppressed rather than only thinking about my own family's desires. Each year my family shops at places like More Than a Store, Epic's pop-up fair trade store with a collection of gifts from all over the world, helping those most in need.

What will this call to love the Other mean for your life? What does reversal look like? How will you welcome Jesus into the world this Advent season? How will you be a love-bearer this year? How will you be brave in your humility and your love?

I offer this poem as a way of responding to God by asking him to do this in you:

Make Me the Mother of Love
By: Beth Stovell

Make me the Mother of Love
Humble, handmaiden
Willing vessel

Like trees that bend
To the moving of your wind
Unseen yet felt
In each supple, green leaf
Let me bend to Your Spirit

Forming me into what
I am not and yet am becoming
A New Creation, speak the "Let there be"

Light in my darkness
Order in my chaos
Your Spirit hovering
Over my soul's deep

You, the partner of my loneliness
You, the unspeaking centre of my monologues

With each disclosure, you encompass more
You stretch me beyond my limits

To hold you
And make me new

So we pray, Lord God, for your love in the waiting, for your ability to do the great reversal of your kingdom. Show us how we might love this year as we celebrate your coming. Let your kingdom come this Christmas and New Year through us as your love-bearers!