Big-picture gratitude (First Advent 2014)

Photo by Dani Simmonds
Photo by Dani Simmonds

The liturgical season of Advent is upon us once again.  It seems oddly appropriate that the first Sunday of Advent should follow directly after the celebration of Thanksgiving and the consumer madness of Black Friday.  Gratitude is certainly an appropriate way to enter a time of spiritual anticipation, of looking forward to the celebration of the Christ-child.  But for what are we grateful?

I have been reading again Mary’s Magnificat, the song of praise recorded for us near the beginning of Luke’s gospel:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
— Luke 1:46-55, NRSV

Try to imagine a barely pubescent young girl being visited by an angel, who announces that she has found favor with God — and because of this, she’s been chosen to become miraculously pregnant.  A strange blessing indeed.  Her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, with the child who will become John the Baptist.  But her joy is understandable: Elizabeth is already advanced in years, and has never given her husband Zechariah an heir.  Despite having lived a righteous life, she has had to endure the questions of why God hasn’t blessed her with a baby.  Her pregnancy is vindication; the child will take away her cultural and religious shame.

But Mary?  She is betrothed to Joseph the carpenter.  Her pregnancy is deeply problematic, as Matthew’s gospel makes clear.  And yet when she visits Elizabeth and receives her cousin’s blessing, Mary nearly bursts with praise and thanksgiving.  Why?

Her song repeatedly echoes the language and images of the Old Testament.  Yes, she is grateful for and amazed by the personal privilege of having been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.  But ultimately, it’s not about her or her own blessedness.  Mary’s gratitude embraces the big picture: she understands herself to have a part to play in a much grander drama, in which a God of might and mercy is actively at work fulfilling the ancient promises he made to his people.

During Advent, it’s appropriate to approach Christmas with anticipatory gratitude.  And, as Mary demonstrates, there’s nothing wrong with our being thankful for what God has done for us personally.  But we shouldn’t stop there.  We can expand our vision to take in the big picture of what God is doing to restore peace and justice to a fractured world — and to be grateful for whatever part we have been given to play.