Americans are notorious for their holiday extravagance. Some theorists even suggest that holiday spending is a solid way to gauge the health or sluggishness of our nation’s economy. In related veins some see willingness to spend, spend, spend during the holidays as a sign of patriotism at most or civic loyalty at least. “Buy American this Christmas!” is heard now and again. Or we hear, “Support your local merchants this Christmas!”
Those of us who have been huddling around the Advent wreath this month have different ideas about extravagance, or at least we should. The hurry, hurry, hurry and spend, spend, spend of the holiday season has been replaced with the wait, wait, wait of Advent.
The audacity of Hope is where we began our Advent journey. We stood against the demands of immediate gratification that mark our society and said, instead, that we would wait for the coming of our Lord and that in so doing we might be reminded of the patience of God who is ever waiting for us to turn toward divine promises. Hope is a Christian virtue in the face of a demanding culture of “Now!”
On the second Sunday of Advent we struggled to find our dissident voices as we proclaimed the impertinence of Peace in a world that is increasingly committed to violence and war. We raised a simple flame to a purple candle as a protest against the darkness of our world at war. Peace is a Christian virtue in the face of a culture of conflict.
We blushed our way through the third Sunday of Advent, guided by that pink candle standing in stark contrast to the purple and white of the other candles. With rosy cheeks and a rose-colored candle we were reminded of the sheepishness of Joy. Joy is a Christian virtue, one that warms us with embarrassment, in the face of a culture of pride and self-assurance.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent the prophet Micah stirs our sense of Hope, Peace, and Joy and directs us toward Love. Micah gathers up the history of Judah and reminds us that “you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah … from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel” (Mic 5.2). Bethlehem is, of course, “the city of David” as Luke reminds us (Lk 2.4). By the time Micah wrote his words, now familiar, the legacy of David had become evidence that God had made an everlasting covenant with his people that a descendant of David always would rule God’s people. With delicious subtlety Micah nudges us: the name “David” literally means “the beloved one”; and David is the epitome of the shepherd of God’s people who “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (Mic 5.4).
On the fourth Sunday of Advent we cannot escape the confession that Love is the motivating force of God and the covenant. From David to Jesus–through David to Jesus–God is in the business of loving God’s people.
The image of God as King and Shepherd is the theme of the psalm this week. The psalmist makes it clear God alone has always been King and Shepherd. Read between the lines and find the confession that the earthly kings have failed to uphold the virtues of Hope and Peace and Joy. “The bread of tears” has made Israel “the scorn of our neighbors” (Ps 80.5, 6). The only hope is to be restored by God: “Let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Ps 80.3,7). Four candles now burn, giving us a subtle hint of the light of Love emanating from the face of God.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent the epistle is an exclamation point! Lacking the subtlety of the prophet and the psalm the writer of Hebrews shifts our attention away from Christ the King to Christ the Priest. That Love is the motivating force of God and the covenant is found in the words: “And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10.10).
Finally we come to the Gospel. On the fourth Sunday of Advent we follow the tracks of an expectant Mary as she seeks out her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who is growing heavy with her own child. Luke reports that Elizabeth went into seclusion after conceiving in her old age (see 2.24). Mary comes to the Judean countryside and spends the last three months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (see 2.56). Three months of waiting, three months of sharing the hope for their unborn sons, three months of the peace of seclusion away from whispers and glances from the curious, three months of joy born of comparing notes as their children grow in secret within them.
In Luke’s tender paragraphs we glimpse the subtlety of Love. First it is shared between old Elizabeth and Mary, still the maiden, and Elizabeth exclaims, “as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy” (2.43). The Love spills out in a song that spans generations of waiting souls:
“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 helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy
according to the promises he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (2.49-50, 54-55).
On the fourth Sunday of Advent we still wait. With Elizabeth and Mary, with David and Micah, even with old Abraham and Sarah we wait for the Love within us to be born into our world again.
Let the light of the Candle of Love light our way during these last hours of waiting.
It is the prophets, the psalms, the epistles, and the Gospel.
Richard F. Wilson is Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.