(all lessons from the season come from Wilda C. Gafney’s Year W Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church)
In the grand story of God and God’s people, a story told and retold, passed down, and finally written down by God’s people, Hagar did not seem to be one of God’s people. She was Egyptian, a foreigner, an outsider, a slave, and a concubine.
And yet God’s hope for the world is expressed in and through her, because all people are God’s people. God’s hope for God’s people takes root in her womb and is delivered of her enslaved and oppressed body. Hagar becomes the first woman in the grand story to be granted an annunciation, a divine announcement of favor and blessing.
If it is a remarkable thing—and it is—that in this grand story written by men the Holy One speaks to a woman, it is all the more remarkable that this woman is a foreigner and a slave who has been both used and abused by God’s chosen ones. More than that, Hagar becomes the first person in the grand story—the first person of any gender, nation, or status—to name the Holy One, calling the Wellspring of Life the God Who Sees. And if there was any doubt that the God who sees also hears, the Faithful One tells Hagar to name the son she will bear Ishmael, which means “God hears.”
In the grand story of God and God’s people, Hagar’s encounter with the Holy is not an aberration. Time and again God will bless God’s people and love the world through the oppressed, the enslaved, the subordinately gendered, the outsider, the powerless, and the scorned. Time and again the Inscrutable and Unpredictable God will midwife an entirely inconceivable future in the most implausible fashion through the most unlikely people.
It happens again and again and again—and yet sometimes we fail to see the Growing Forest of Hope and Promise for all the dead and fallen trees that lie around us.
And that is just one reason I am so grateful—not only for Advent but also for a new and different set of scripture lessons for this season, drawn from the Year W Lectionary compiled by the priest, professor and Black woman Wilda Gafney. While Gafney is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and can debate the translation of specific words and phrases with the best of them, she also wants to draw our attention to the big picture of God’s ever-present, always-engaged and active love for the world. She believes that the grand story our scriptures tell is meant not only for scholars and Bible nerds, but also—and especially—for plain old regular people.
And so for the liturgical season of Advent, she has dispensed with traditional apocalyptic texts and given us stories and themes we can all relate to and understand. Because, let’s face it, most of us don’t live our lives according to liturgical seasons or with in the shadow of ancient prophecies or inscrutable sayings.
But we do live lives of longing and waiting and watching, expectation and preparation, which is, after all, what the season of Advent is about. It’s just that in the crush of the day to day, we often lose touch with those innate and universal conditions.
Meantime, we live out the realities of too much to do and too little time, of to-do lists and obligations, work and finances, of growing children and aging parents, loneliness and all the gifts and challenges of relationship, of confusion and depression, growing children and aging parents, of anxiety and sleep deprivation, frustration and exhaustion, illness and decline, failed marriages and absent friends, laughter and joy, love and loss, grief and despair.
And sometimes in all the immeasurable gifts and challenges of this life, the simple joys, precious love, and unfailing beauty get lost or buried or forgotten.
Oh, we are not legally enslaved. We may have no first-hand experience of racial or gender or economic oppression. It may be that we have never been left out or discriminated against because of who we are or whom we love. We may even think have everyone and everything we need.
And then Advent comes along or—if we’re not the liturgical type,—the promise of the wonder and joy of Christmas. And we feel a familiar ache in our hearts.
We may chalk it up to nostalgia. We may write it off as little more than stress or sentimentality.
But I’m going to go out on a limb here: I’m going to say that the ache we feel, the sense of longing that surfaces when we sing a favorite carol or hang a special ornament on the tree has less to do with Christmas itself than with the essence of our humanity.
I’m going to go still further and say that this essence is a built-in yearning for our Creator; the Holy One who created us in love, for love. This is the Love who created us in goodness for wholeness; the God of hope and promise whose loving commitment to us is so long and wide and deep and high, whose longing for us and our joy is so absolute, that the Cosmic Christ emptied himself and, taking the form of a slave, was born in human likeness. And that humanity—which is to say physical weakness, vulnerability to all that is harmful, and the potential for divinity—meant being born in poverty as the child of a young, unmarried woman living under the oppression of both patriarchy and Roman occupation.
It is a grand, hard-to-believe story: that God is always and forever with us. That the Holy One is forever and always intervening in human history through people at the bottom and on the margins of unjust systems of power. That the Creator of All cares about us enough to become one of us. That the God Who Pays Attention hears our prayers. And that this Life-giving Presence and Intervening Love is always and forever coming ‘round again.
It is a grand, hard-to-believe story, and it may also be the truest thing there is.
God knows that in these days when so much has changed and so little is certain, when the ground keeps shifting, racism continues to kill, the coronavirus keeps mutating, and Covid-19 cases are again on the rise, we all need to know that some things will never change. We all need to be able to trust that there is something—someone—who will always be true.
In these times when we are so aware of all that is all that is unjust, divisive, threatening, and heartbreaking, we need to know that we are not alone in wanting things to be different and working to make them so. And we need the courage and the spiritual wherewithal to live in hope, as if we believe—no matter what the present circumstances—that God’s peace and justice are on the way, that even in the darkest night the dawn is coming, that even when so much seems to be changing or even ending, a new and better time is being born.
“How can this be?” the young girl Mary asked the angel Gabriel after he told her she would bear a son named Jesus. In that moment, Mary was most likely thinking of biology, but soon she would also be wondering about the angel’s portrayal of a never-ending rule and an upside-down future.
“Wait. What?” she said. “How can this be?”
Nothing Gabriel had said had made any sense to her, but then the angel added, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
It was this hope that sustained a poor, unmarried girl from the hills of Galilee. And it is this hope in God and God’s grand, hard-to-believe story that, if we let it, will sustain us.
And so we watch and wait, trusting in this one true thing: that God’s love is always with us, and always coming again. And so we prepare our hearts for a coming we can barely imagine, trusting that this hope will not disappoint us.