AN INDELIBLE IMAGE: two pregnant women, one of them just beginning to show, the other round and heavy, who is startled when her infant leaps in her womb. It's a joyful scene, both everyday and extraordinary. For Elizabeth's child, we are told, recognizes that Mary bears the Savior long promised to Israel. Mary is, as Elizabeth suddenly exclaims—no doubt after being kicked hard by John—the mother of the Lord. It usually takes a good kick for us to recognize that God is in our midst.
Yet for all its gentle comedy and joy, this scene strikes a solemn note. For we, the hearers of this story, know that these two, like all pregnant women, are destined to give birth to human beings who will one day die. This is the heroism of motherhood. We also know that their children are destined for martyrdom, and that Mary will witness her son's agonizing death on the cross. Like any one of us, Jesus is subject to pain and suffering. He will face his own mortality in the garden of Gethsemane.
In some churches, during Advent, pillars are decorated with wreaths that resemble a crown of thorns. I love the way this causes me to remember that, in this life, true joy is never perfect, but comes admixed with pain and suffering. Whatever God has brought us into this world to do, we cannot do it without sacrifice. The traditional Advent wreath, of course, is plump with greenery and promise. In The Dance With God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson wonders if its origins lie in the ancient European custom of marking the winter solstice by removing the wheels from farm carts and wagons. Stripped of all utility, the wheels were then brought indoors and decorated: color and candles to celebrate light in the dark of winter, and to remind the sun to return.
Today, as in all of Advent, we are asked to set mere use and purpose aside, and fathom the depths of existence. Dawn emerges out of night, and the first cry of life comes from the pain of childbirth. Only through the Cross is our new life revealed. Only out of the hard ground of winter can new life come.
Today, in the Song of Solomon, we hear the words of God's beloved, who would love us as well: "For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth." This is the voice that John responded to from inside his mother's womb, and the voice that calls to us, weak as we are, imperfect, and wracked with the pain of sin and death. Still, God calls to us, saying, "Let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely."
O radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.