Advent is a time of hope, of expectations, of anticipatory joy. But what do we do when hopes are dashed? It’s a question on all of our minds right now, with this new variant causing the pandemic to worsen and our plans for a normal Christmas to go up in smoke. What is the Christian response to disappointment and despair?
Mary’s story has a lot to teach us, I believe. So I want to recap it in the vernacular. Picture her as a young woman today, engaged and excited to be thinking about her future wedding to Joseph. Maybe she’s bought the dress already, and chosen the bridesmaids. A lovely white wedding is not far off in her future, and she’s counting down the days.
But then she finds she’s pregnant, and the way it happens is totally inexplicable. She has to abandon her dreams of the perfect wedding, and instead she has to find the courage to tell Joseph that a baby’s on the way and it’s not his.
Maybe there can be a baby shower instead of a bridal shower. Should she let her girlfriends know about this pregnancy? Or maybe just her older cousin Elizabeth? Elizabeth is so kind and understanding, maybe it would be OK to tell her. So she does: she takes the Greyhound bus to Elizabeth’s town, and they have a really good visit. Elizabeth doesn’t even seem that surprised. Maybe it’s going to be alright after all.
Then she gets home again and has to tell Joseph, and after a few sleepless nights for him, wrestling with this news, he wraps his head around it and says he loves her and he’ll be there for her. He even starts to make a cradle in his workshop, and Mary starts knitting little baby clothes and a warm blanket.
But there’s more trouble ahead. Just when she’s about ready to have that baby shower Joseph tells her they’ve got to go to his hometown to register for a census. And guess what? The baby starts to arrive as soon as they’ve got there, and there’s nowhere to stay. So much for Mary’s dreams of a home birth with her mother and sisters around to help, and that cradle all ready to receive the baby. She ends up giving birth in an animal shed, with a terrified Joe trying to help, and the poor baby gets put in a feeding trough to sleep.
We know how the story goes from there: Mary and Joseph can’t go home afterwards, because the despotic King Herod is on the rampage, so they become refugees and end up in Egypt. It’s a long time before the little family are able to return safely to their home.
So much for Mary’s hopes and dreams. They are constantly dashed, and she has to face different, difficult circumstances.
What do we do when hope is crushed by disappointment? Where is God when our dreams for a good future turn to dust?
Hope turned to despair is woven through the Christian story, whether it’s Mary in the spotlight, or John the Baptist who ends up beheaded, or Jesus crucified, or the disciples and friends of Jesus who are shattered and horrified by his death, after hoping he’d be the one to free God’s people.
What do we do when the road we thought we were on turns out to be a dead end, or leads in the wrong direction? The writer Wendell Berry, in his poem called Our Real Work, says this:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
I believe that these times we’re in call us to our real work: these times of pandemic; these times of ecological crisis; these times of reckoning with our past; these times of global inequities and massive numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, displaced persons…. How we respond is our real work.
Mary’s story shows a person whose life was disrupted again and again, from the day she conceived her child to the day she held Jesus’ dead body on her lap. Holiness and faith do not protect us from dashed hopes and tragedy.
And that brings us to our real work, which is the work of letting go of what we thought the future would or should be, and instead being fully present in this unwanted reality, whatever it is: a broken marriage, a frightening diagnosis, a cancelled family reunion, a lost job…. Fill in the blank: we all know what it is to have a dream shattered and hope turn to despair.
At the beginning of Mary’s story, when the angel told her she was going to conceive, and she doubtless had all kinds of questions, her ultimate response was simply, “Let it be.” Let it be so.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote some pretty good lyrics based on that: When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
The wisdom of letting be is that it allows us to make space for God’s ever-present grace to flow, right in that situation. As long as we’re denying it or fighting it or running away from it, we’re not present to God. Jonah found that out when he tried to run away from God’s call on his life. Paul found it out when he was determined he knew best and these Christians had to be stamped out. They both had to be stopped in their tracks: Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and Paul (Saul) was blinded and fell off his horse. And then the real journey began.
These are difficult times. Each one of us has things we’re upset about, disappointed by, perhaps even feeling despair about. Let it be. Let it be what it is and start from there, for that is the real work. And it’s where we meet God.
We have a lot to deal with, and many of us are emotionally exhausted and spiritually depleted. Let it be. “God is here, we are loved, it is enough.” It’s not up to us to fix everything or be perfect. Our real work, our real journey, is to be here now, with everything that’s happening, and be present - present to what is, and present to God in the messy midst of it. Our faith won’t save us from suffering. but it will shine a light on the path ahead, even if it’s just one step forwards at a time.
It’s Mary’s trust that moves me. Despite all the disruptions and dashed hopes she experienced, she stayed open to God’s power working through her. And she gave birth to the Word of God, the power and grace of God, the Love of God.
The Australian writer and cartoonist Michael Leunig writes:
Love is born when hope is dead and in the most unlikely place
Love is born: Love is always born.
So let it be. Amen.