(This homily was preached on November 26, 2016 at St. Hildegard Catholic Community. You can read the lectionary for this week here. There is also an abridged version of this homily posted on the Women’s Ordination Conference’s blog, where I will be writing weekly reflections throughout the Advent Season.)
I have been pregnant for 216 days. (But who’s counting?) I know this because I have an app on my phone that keeps track of this date for me, so that I always know exactly how many months, weeks and days this child has been growing inside me.
This same app tells me that we are exactly 64 days from January 29th, the baby’s due date. But of course, as anyone who has ever been pregnant will tell you, this second number is far less precise. Sure, in 64 days it will be January 29th, but there is no guarantee that my child won’t make their arrival on January 20th, or February 10th. I know people who gave birth ten or more weeks early, about as far along as I am now. So, not to alarm you but this baby could literally arrive at any moment! The author of my favorite pregnancy book assures me that (and this is a direct quote) “no one has ever been pregnant forever,” but that is really the only guarantee I have. One day, in 64 days or in 75 days or tomorrow, my whole life will change.
“Therefore, stay awake!” Jesus tells us, “For you do not know on which day your [Love] will come.”
This feeling of unpredictability is not my favorite part of pregnancy. I am someone who likes to stick to a schedule, who makes plans and backup plans, who tries to anticipate any possible outcome. But one thing that I’ve learned in the last 216 days is that no matter how many books I read or how detailed my birthing plan is there is so much beyond my control. I still won’t know the day or the hour. I’m preparing for the un-preparable.
And of course, things aren’t going to become any more predicable after I give birth. Parenthood is a giant journey into the unknown. No matter how many people offer advice, or how much I research, there is no way to adequately prepare for what’s on it’s way. I have no idea of knowing who this child will be, or what life has in store for them. I am getting ready to begin one of the most significant relationships of my life with a total stranger. How does one prepare for that?
Jesus tells us to stay awake and prepare because someday– any day now—he will arrive again like a thief in the night. However, while He’s very clear about our need to prepare, He’s rather vague about what we need to prepare for. He doesn’t give us too many details about what this second coming will look like, or what to expect. Like the author of my pregnancy book, Jesus seems content to tell us “a big change will happen someday, probably when you least expect it. No point in trying to guess too much about when or where it will be.”
How on earth can we adequately prepare for an event that we have so little information about? How can we set our schedules when we don’t know the day or the hour? How can we make a plan and a backup plan for any possible situation when we don’t know the first thing about what this life-altering change will look like?
The kind of preparation Jesus is asking of us seems to have less to do with my usual methods of preparation (gathering data, making lists, sticking to schedules) and more to do with staying alert and open to the unexpected. “Stay awake, keep watch,” Jesus tells us, “something is happening that you won’t want to miss.” This doesn’t mean simply trying to prepare for every possible scenario, it means coming to accept that we couldn’t possibly anticipate every possible scenario. It means coming to understand that whatever is going to happen is ten thousand times weirder and bigger and more wonderful than we could have ever imagined. It means accepting that we aren’t the ones in control, letting go of our pre-conceived notions and allowing ourselves to be surprised.
This reminder to stay awake, be open to mystery and allow myself to be surprised feels so important to me as I prepare for the birth of my first child. We all know stories of parents who were so confident that their child was going to be a doctor when she grew up, only to have her become a musician. Or parents who were certain they would have a daughter and then were shocked when they turned out to have a son. For me, a key part of preparing for motherhood means trying to gently let go of all the expectations I hold about who my child will be, so that I can fully appreciate the miracle of whoever they will grow into.
Scripture tells us that when God entered into humanity, God showed up in the most unexpected way: as a poor child in some forgotten corner of empire, born to a scared teenage girl who was far from home and who had only a barn for shelter. God took any expectations people had for how the Messiah should arrive (and any expectations Mary had about her birth plan!) and turned them on their heads, reminding us that God’s power is so much more weird and beautiful and unpredictable than anything we could have prepared for.
If you were expecting God to arrive as a king or a warrior it would have been easy to miss this small baby lying in a manger. The gospel is full of people who missed Jesus entirely because he so clearly didn’t fit in their box of what a savior was supposed to look like. People like Zacchariah, John the Baptist’s father and a learned priest, who responded to the Angel Gabriel’s announcement of John and Jesus’ birth with disbelief at the absurdity of it. The idea that his elderly wife could give birth to a prophet and that a virgin would give birth to the Messiah was simply too ridiculous to be believed.
In fact, the people who were best able to recognize the incarnation were people who didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what it should look like: shepherds and illiterate young girls who were willing to be surprised. People who took the time to notice the unexpected and didn’t let themselves get too bogged down with expectations about what glory and power and holiness should look like.
And so, Jesus is telling us, the next time that the Sacred decides to show up it will be in just as unexpected of a way. Christ will show up with all the drama of Noah’s flood. Or maybe quietly and quickly like a thief. Or maybe like a small and fragile baby. We don’t know what it will look like, we don’t know when. All we know is that it’s coming. Stay awake. Keep watch. Get ready to be surprised.