Advent Reflections, Part 2: When Your Life Is Falling Apart

The film Invictus opened in theaters this weekend, and it is a powerful film that tells the story of how Nelson Mandela transformed his life’s most terrible moment into a moment of forgiveness and greatness for him and for his country. The cell which held Mandela for decades was an interruption, but it brought a new life to Mandela and his country that he never could have imagined as he sat there day after day thinking that his life was in shambles. But Mandela did not allow himself to succumb to fear but welcomed the conflict, sat calmly with it, and then embraced the moment as one full of possibility.

On this third week of Advent, the angel again appears to another character in the Lukan Advent story, and again this character asks a question that all of us ask at one time another: “How can this be?” (Luke 1:26-38) It is the question that comes when it appears your life is in ruins, that you have failed, or that God has destroyed your dreams.

Luke first tells us that the angel Gabriel came to a virgin named Mary and said to her, “’Greetings, most favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:29) Mary was just an ordinary young Jewish woman, about 12 years old, with ordinary dreams like getting married to a carpenter named Joseph. When you feel ordinary, you don’t expect to one day be talking to the angel Gabriel, especially if the angel tells you that God is about to do you a favor. At first she was perplexed by his announcement. Then she pondered its meaning. Those are terms that signal the beginning of a mysterious intrusion into an otherwise ordinary and routine life.

We all hate being interrupted. You are in the midst of a great conversation at dinner when one of the children cries out from the other room. You are in a hurry to leave the house for an appointment and the phone rings. You are on vacation and get an email from your secretary. Interruptions are never fun because they intrude on our expectations for the way things should be.

You know something is strange when these moments of holy intrusion begin happening. At work one day your boss calls to say that he needs to see you in his office about something very important. You hang up the phone, pondering what the meeting is about. A phone rings in the middle of the night. You wake up and a moment of dread comes over you as you stare at the phone before picking it up. A woman, recently married, wakes up one morning to find herself a little nauseous. A single woman’s phone calls and emails to the guy she is seeing suddenly go unacknowledged and unreturned. At first you ponder. You get perplexed. Something is about to happen that will change everything it seems. The thin veneer of the ordinary has been pierced by mystery. You often can tell when God is about to let some of the glory of heaven break into your life because things get unsettling and ponderous. Things may even seem like they are falling apart fast. But that often is just how God’s mystery begins.

Mary was no longer perplexed. She then was terrified. That’s often the second step in receiving God’s mysterious intervention in our lives. What is confusing is next terrifying. But Gabriel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call Him Jesus . . . .” And Mary said, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:30-31). To each of the characters in Luke’s birth story, the angel appears to their troubled hearts, and announces the four words that, for Luke, are the Good News of Christmas, “Do not be afraid.” God is doing something new in your life, He is present in your life, and you no longer have to be afraid. But our initial response is fear.

Most of the portraits we have of Mary depict her with a quiet serene smile, but that is not Luke’s picture of Mary. His Mary is troubled, perplexed and afraid. She has just realized that her life is out of control. And she asks, “How can this be?”

A change was forced upon you. A job was lost. A move had to be made. A relationship ended. A loved one died. You get a bad lab report from the doctor. You receive a job offer you were not expecting. You lay in bed that night staring at the ceiling asking God, “How can this be?” You can’t understand it, and you certainly can’t manage it. All you can do is receive it. If God did conceive this thing, then it is a holy favor that will save your life, as frightening as it all sounds. Even if God did not “conceive” the thing happening to you, God may use it for your salvation.

God doggedly pursues our lives, finding us in ordinary moments and calling us to something greater. He takes control of our lives, sends us to places we don’t want to go, gives us gifts that we don’t want, and takes away things to which we cling. That is certainly the way it happened to everyone in the birth narratives. Because it is the only way salvation is ever conceived.

The angel responds to Mary’s objections by telling her that the Holy Spirit has conceived this Child. When she hears that, it is then that Mary makes the greatest declaration of faith. “Here am I the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” This is the third step in receiving God’s intrusions in your life – choosing to embrace it. We move from being perplexed, to being terrified, to choosing to embrace the interruption as a grace from God. But we can only make it to the third step if we are convinced that God is involved.

I want to be clear that not every interruption in life is conceived by God. What we can know in such moments is that no intrusion is greater than our God. And whatever the loss, God can conceive hope in the midst of it. But you have to make a choice to see the tender birth of salvation in these interruptions.
Is this how God gets creative? Is this how God wants to save our lives? With such troubling intrusions? Absolutely. Central to the Advent message is the discovery that all of our lives have been interrupted by the birth of Jesus Christ among us. The advent of the Christ Child reveals that the whole word is more connected than we want it to be. In fact, the cosmos changed with that intrusion.

So let us not grow too sentimental this Advent about what is happening in the manger. The reason Christ was born among us was to change the world. The reason His arrival has interrupted your life is to call you to His sacred purpose so that in some small or large way you can participate in the salvation of the world.

You will have no choice but to experience some of the interruptions of your life. I certainly experienced my shared this year. Some of them I embraced, and others I fought. We all have that choice. But whether it is someone else’s fault, or your own, or a work of God, the only way forward is to welcome the intrusion. Quit analyzing why it has happened, who caused it, and how unwelcome it is. Not one interruption has ever been wasted on me. So don’t resist the interruption. Sit with it. Listen to it. Share it. Embrace it.

You do not have to fear. Nothing is impossible with The Lord. After Advent, you can know that God is with you. He is with you so that you can say, whatever the intrusion, God is greater still. You can say to God in those moments, “Here am I, the servant of The Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

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Comments
One Response to “Advent Reflections, Part 2: When Your Life Is Falling Apart”
  1. Terri Dorsey says:

    My sister and I were just talking about this–about the economic uncertainlly both of us face as entrepreneurs, and whether fear helps or henders. This is a wonderful blog.

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