We associate Advent with the lighting of candles; with prophetic and apocalyptic readings about the past and present and future comings of Christ; with an orientation to the Light who arises in every darkness. But unlike Catholics, in the Lutheran tradition in which I was raised, we ritually remember Jesus’ mother Mary mostly when telling the story of Christmas night itself.
I first noticed this years ago, when a nun gave me a copy of a Pax Christi Advent guide that connected the Advent journey with a journey through pregnancy. What better analogy could there be for the time of waiting and preparation for the Christ? Although Lutherans do sing Mary’s Magnificat during Advent and Lent, why do we so rarely lift up images of pregnancy as prime symbol for Advent?
Perhaps a pregnant Mary’s absence from the Lutheran Advent liturgy is an overreaction to the ubiquitous presence of Mary in the Catholic liturgical calendar, which honors Mary’s birth, annunciation, presence at the cross, even her death.
Perhaps Lutherans worry that a female image for Advent’s spiritual journey won’t connect as universally as the imagery of light shining in darkness (although there are more than enough male images and references abounding in worship).
Still, Paul used childbirth as a metaphor for God’s redemptive work for all creatures: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23).
And Luther himself wrote a commentary on Mary’s song we call the Magnificat, drawing lessons for all Christians from Mary’s experience of God “seeing her in the depths”—making something significant out of one who is nothing in the eyes of the world.
Mary models faith for all of us by saying “yes’ to God’s request that she bear God’s own child into the world, and then praises God for raising the lowly and bringing down the mighty—reversing the ordinary associations of power with those of high status.
After Mary’s “yes” comes a season of waiting. To meditate on Mary’s pregnancy as a time of waiting and preparation amplifies how much our own bearing of Christ (in our own lives this year) demands our thoughtful attention to whatever we can do now to welcome Christ, and then to wait with hope—for what will undoubtedly turn out to be something other than we had planned.
As Mary found—Mary, who feared her own son crazy when his ministry began—bearing a Child of God means having our own expectations shift as we watch the Spirit guide, in ways beyond we can imagine, what we helped to nurture.
Even childless women like myself can be fed and challenged by Advent meditations about Mary and about pregnancy as a journey that reorganizes our priorities, turning us towards the surprise of an unexpected birth at Bethlehem, an unexpected cross in Jerusalem, and the unexpected ways that Christ in the Spirit comes to us now and tomorrow.