We are now well into the part of the year that gives us an enticing constellation of traveling
stories: Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, her journey to Bethlehem with Joseph, the arrival of the
shepherds, the road taken by the mysterious Magi – and those journeys away from
Bethlehem – made not in anticipation, as the first journeys are, but fear. We are also in the
part of the year when it’s easy to lose the focus of what is really important and so I thought
I’d take the opportunity to write something a bit different to help us stay in the Advent
groove for as long as possible! It doesn’t relate to the Bible readings for Sunday but I hope
it is helpful.
The landscape of Advent and Christmas is marked by routes traced by those who
responded to God’s invitation to set out. These routes make up a sort of map, one that
causes me to wonder what new path God might be prompting me to follow. And I find
myself thinking also about the ways this season invites us to see how the road moves in
Even as Advent draws our gaze toward a horizon, full of anticipation for the Christ who is
making HIS way toward us all over again, it also asks us to open our eyes to the story that
is playing out before us and within us even now – a story that challenges us to be more
than onlookers or bystanders to what is taking place. The Methodist Church theme of
‘There is Room’ implies that we are already involved.
This season calls us to engage with the tale that unfolds itself among us once again. We
may think the story is so familiar that it has nothing new to say, yet it has the power to alter
us as we enter it – and it enters us – anew. In the company of those who stories we hear in
these weeks, Advent invites us to consider the lay of our own land. It poses questions
about the geography of our own lives: What are the dreams, fears, and hopes that make
up our inner terrain? What inspires us to keep going, to move deeper into the landscape,
to venture into unfamiliar territory?
How do we stay open to the surprises the journey holds, the treasures that are hidden so
often in the dark? Where are our boundaries, and are they serving us well? Are there any
borders we need to cross? In the midst of how mapless our lives can seem, is there one
path this season might invite you to follow, one place where you might begin anew? The
journey might be outward to others or inward to your own heart and soul. We might also
think of others in our world who are on very uncertain journeys – not always hopeful ones
but, like those made by the Wise men and the Holy Family, instigated by fear.
I am keenly aware that, like, I suspect, so many others, I can feel fairly mapless some of
the time – rushing between one job and the next without time to put much order in place –
this is both terrible and wonderful because I do actually like to know where I am going and
suspect many others do too. I know how the absence of an obvious course can prompt a
sense of fear (I have to make the path up as I go) as well as a sense of adventure (I get to
make the path up as I go!). Some of that depends on what else is happening in life at the
time – there’s an irony in the fact the less sure we are about what’s going on around us the
more certain we like to be of the way.
Advent brings us into the company of those who knew something about venturing where
there appears to be no road. I think of Mary in the moment of the Annunciation, as the
archangel poses the astonishing invitation to become the mother of Christ. After Gabriel
receives Marys stunning consent to walk a path no one has ever walked before, he gives
her one point of orientation, one saving navigational clue that will help make the rest of her
journey possible: he tells her of her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant in strange
circumstances herself – she then has to work out what to do with information for herself!
In this moment, the Angel’s words are map enough for Mary. She sets out (with haste,
Luke emphasises), following the life-altering path that leads from the place of her
annunciation to Elizabeth’s home.
What Mary finds in her cousin’s presence is not the rest of the map, exactly. What she
finds is a blessing. Blessed are you among women, Elizabeth cries out in welcome and
delight, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…. And blessed is she who believed that there
would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
With her response to Elizabeth’s words, Mary bears witness to this power that a blessing
holds. Letting loose with a song that will become known as the Magnificat, Mary tells of the
God who has worked across the generations with mercy and grace. The song is concise
but potent, weaving together vast strands of the history of the people of God. Mary’s song
itself recalls one offered by her foremother Hannah, recorded in the book of 1 Samuel; in
the Magnificat’s lines, Mary’s story intertwines with Hannah’s and with all who have said
yes to travelling a road that does not come with clear instructions.
Advent is rich with such stories. As lost as we may sometimes feel, the season invites us
to look at our paths in the light of the stories of those others who have gone before us. If
we let them, those stories can shimmer up into the mysterious road of our own lives.
The word palinmpsest is one you might not know (I didn’t until it was brought to my
attention a few years ago!) – A palimpsest is a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a
book, from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused
for another document. In days when paper or parchment was very expensive it was often
reused for a different document or painting. It’s the word that comes to mind for how those
stories might live in us. I learned that the word’s Greek roots tell of something that has
been rubbed smooth again – often traces of the earlier layer – and sometimes multiple
layers – can still be seen, testifying to what has gone before, stubborn in remaining part of
the manuscript’s landscape and often telling us more about the author or painter.
Advent reminds us that no matter how mapless we may be, there is a way that lies
beneath the way, an ancient road that becomes new for us as we search and stumble and
question and rest and keep going. That ancient road is full of mystery; with all its layers
and lines, it will never come quite clear. And so we travel it in the company of one another
and of those who travelled before us, bearing the stories that help us know we do not go
alone. That’s part of what faith is about – reassuring us that however uncertain the path
ahead might be – however much we feel that we are not sure what the way forward is or,
indeed, what might be coming towards us – because of the Incarnation we are not alone.
Ruth Parry 7 December 2022