Harrowing Of Hell
December 19, 2021

The Visitation, the Magnificat

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

Good morning. My name is Susan Pitchford, and I am Epiphany’s “Off-site Anchorite.” It’s a deliberately absurd title, but essentially I’m here to support the spiritual formation of members of the parish. If you’d like to know more, let’s talk.

Advent is the time when we’re supposed to be waiting in quiet expectation, right? I have this picture of myself sitting in front of a beautiful Advent wreath, with a far-off, contemplative gaze. The truth is, until my recent retirement from the UW, Advent for me has been a time of final exams, getting grades in, and prepping for the next quarter which begins before the Christmas goose is even cold.

Most years my Advent wreath has been surrounded by stacks of books and papers, and I would fantasize about how once I retired, I’d be able at last to be in sync with the Church year, and observe a peaceful, holy Advent. And this year—true confession—things have been so crazy that I haven’t set up my Advent wreath at all. What I’ve got is a poinsettia we bought at Lowes, and this year, it’ll have to be enough.

It’s a paradox: just as the “most wonderful time of the year” is a sad, painful time for some people, this time when the Church calls us to quiet reflection is also the craziest season of the year. The Church begins looking toward Christmas at Advent I, but Secular Christmas begins at roughly Halloween, and continues through Christmas Day, when we’re just getting started. Because most of us celebrate both Secular and Sacred Christmas, we’re thrown into this paradox of having crazy-making expectations to fulfill while at the same time we’re supposed to be engaging in peaceful reflection.

This is just me, right? Nobody else relates?

Doyt has been talking to us a lot lately about ambiguity, and paradox, living serenely and with equanimity in those uncomfortable spaces where our rational minds really want resolution. Peaceful reflection vs. chaos and confusion. And when we start hearing about a pregnant virgin? By then we have both feet planted in the territory of ambiguity and paradox.

It took me a long time to figure out Advent. I mean, Lent is pretty easy to understand, right?: a penitential time when we travel with Jesus toward the Cross, and do some spiritual tidying up so we can be reasonably decent company for him on the way. Well, there are probably better ways to summarize the point of Lent, but when we’re called on Ash Wednesday to “the observance of a holy Lent,” we hear what that involves: “prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s holy word.”

So Lent is relatively straightforward, but what about Advent? Our Advent readings have spoken of the first coming of the Lord, of his final return at the end of history, of John the Baptist calling us to “prepare the way,” and of Mary’s being chosen as the one through whom God will come to be Immanuel: “with us.” There are some recognizable themes in there, for sure, and just as with Lent, they’re meant to prepare us for an important feast day and a season of rejoicing. But those themes didn’t seem—to me, at least—to hang together in the way that the themes of Lent did.

And then one year, it all seemed to make sense. Advent is the season that honors our longing: whether we’re longing for justice, for Dr. King’s “Beloved Community,” or longing for the pandemic to be over, longing to be reconciled with a loved one from whom we’re estranged, or reunited with one we’ve lost to death. We may be longing to be both fully known and fully loved. I think all of us long for that; it’s so basic to being human.

Also basic to being human, so profound that it gets deeply buried in many of us, is the longing to see God face-to-face. As the psalmist put it:

One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord…” Ps 27:4

We long, not just for beautiful things, but for Beauty itself. When we long to see the end of lies and injustice, at some level we’re longing for Truth itself. And when we treasure our connections to other people—or suffer when they’re broken—we’re longing for Love itself.

God is love, as John’s letter tells us: the Source from which all loves flow. As Teresa of Avila said, “There is only one love.” So ultimately, all our loves can be traced back to that Divine Source, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. All our loves, all our passions, all our hopes, all our longings, are ultimately the longing to return, like salmon, to the place from which we came. And Advent honors that longing.

But Advent is also about how our longings are not necessarily fulfilled in the ways we expect. We have two mothers in today’s Gospel, Mary and Elizabeth, two women whose babies’ arrivals were prophesied—so these are important babies. But it’s striking how unexpected the timing of these births is: one arrived so late that everyone had basically given up, and the other so early that there was potential for pretty serious scandal. God’s timing is definitely not ours.

So we hope, and we long, and we cry out with the saints in heaven, “How long, O Lord?” And then we wait, with eyes and hearts wide open, knowing that the God who is with us (Emmanuel) may come to us in a form we aren’t expecting: a lost job, a diagnosis, a family member’s mental illness, our own broken hearts. A pandemic that gathers new steam just as we think we’re rounding a corner—again. A divine birth that turns you into a refugee? How long, O Lord?

But Mary’s song is a promise that our longing and our seemingly endless waiting will finally bring us to justice and joy:

“He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary is a strong woman—a prophet—and her song is a strong, prophetic word for the world. Her prophecy tells of a Kingdom in which the small people crushed beneath the wheel of the prevailing political-economic system mattered then, and they matter today. To the people among us who struggle to make ends meet, to play a game that seems to be completely rigged against them, who are left behind when society “moves on” and concludes that “the economy is recovering” when they know they aren’t—to them Mary says, “God sees you. You are not forgotten, and the day of justice will come.”

“He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

So that’s Good News, right? Well, it’s good news as long as you’re the hungry being filled with the good things, and not the rich being sent away empty. Do you ever hear that and wonder which of those you are—the rich or the hungry? For me this is kind of ambiguous, and that ambiguity makes me more than a little bit nervous. I mean, I was born to upper middle class parents, I’m white, a US citizen, educated and have just had the luxury of retiring early from a professional career. By American standards, I’m at least solidly middle class. By global standards, I’m ridiculously wealthy. So…is God going to send me away empty?

But I know that I am also hungry in many ways. Survivor of trauma, survivor of cancer, survivor of a whole lot of things, probably like most of you. But most profoundly, I know what it is to have my sense of self, of my right to occupy my little space on the planet, completely shattered, and for God to have to rebuild it from the ground up. So yeah…hungry hardly begins to describe it.

Rich? Hungry? These are the kinds of ambiguities that Doyt keeps bringing us back to, that we need to learn to live with in equanimity. What if I am both the rich and the hungry? What if there are things in me that God has to send away empty before I have room in my heart to be filled with good things—especially with God’s own life, and self?

Now, I don’t want to spiritualize away the concrete meaning of Mary’s song: the literally, economically poor are dear to God’s heart, and those of us who have plenty will be judged by our generosity to them, or the lack of it—both individually and as a society. But I think it’s also possible to read the “hungry” as those who are not self-sufficient in any of a number of ways, those who are needy, who are longing. Like pregnant virgins, we really don’t understand what’s going on, and can only trust that God will make sense of it in time. Because it’s in that trust that we find the “peace that surpasses understanding,” the peace that makes no sense.

Maybe a good spiritual discipline for this time would be to reflect on those places in our lives where we’re full, where God might need to do some emptying out, and those places where we are hungry, and hoping to be filled. Then place all of it before God with our longing to be whole, to be complete, to live in this time of waiting with equanimity.

Mary’s song tells us that God is also longing: longing to scoop out what’s overstuffed in us, and fill in what’s empty and hungry. And the ambiguity, the paradox, is that while we wait and cry “How long, O Lord?” God is already Emmanuel: “With Us.”

Christmas is close. The Word is about to be spoken into the world. Jesus is the Word God speaks that says everything about who God is and what God is like. Rowan Williams has said that we, too, made in God’s image, are words spoken into the world. We, too, bear witness to who God is, and what God is like.

And what God is like is seemingly ambiguous, and paradoxical: the God-man? The Lord who washes his servants’ feet? The king who reigns from a cross?

Pregnant virgins, kings on crosses, disciples who are rich in some ways, but hungry—really hungry—in others. God delights in all of this seeming contradiction and inconsistency, all the ambiguity and paradox, if for no other reason than this: it brings us to the end of our own resources, our own sense of control, of mastery of the situation, our own fullness. It brings us to the hunger within us, to the need for, and trust in, the Savior who is about to be born.

It’s not always easy living in that space. And Advent honors that uneasiness, and our faithful determination to stay there as long as it takes, until we finally “behold the beauty of the Lord,” and find in that very beauty the satisfaction of all our longing, and our most transcendent joy.