When it comes to cultural acceptance of Christian feasts and festivals, “holy days,” nothing comes close to Christmas. Despite the perennial concerns of a war on Christmas, Americans can’t quit Christmas. A 2019 Gallup poll reported that 93% of Americans—across religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines—celebrate Christmas.https://news.gallup.com/poll/272357/percentage-americans-celebrate-christmas.aspx In fact, a 2015 poll found that nearly half the respondents called Christmas their favorite holiday.
And what’s not to love? The gifts, the music, the traditions, the celebration…the gifts. We enjoy the immediacy of Christmas, which shouldn’t surprise us, given that we live in an on-demand world.
A world like that, one that delivers on-demand everything, needs Advent. Celebrated rightly, Advent offers a slow build to a cosmos-altering event. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the uncreated Son of God taking on flesh in humanity’s weakest form. But despite its name—the Latin adventus means “arrival”—the season of Advent is about waiting.
And no person in the New Testament better personifies this waiting than Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, who plays a principal role in the Christmas story.
02. I. Mary and Church Tradition
For Protestants, Mary emerges from shadows because we need her. As Timothy George put it succinctly in a 2013 article for First Things, “No Mary, no Christmas. No Christmas, no Christ. No Christ, no Christianity.”
But no such shadows exist in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Protestants may be more familiar with the place of Mary in Catholic tradition and teaching, but Mary also occupies an important place in Orthodox churches, where she is known as Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” In addition to Marian references in services and prayers throughout the year, three of the Twelve Great Feasts commemorate events in Mary’s life: her birth, the first great feast of the year, on September 8; her presentation in the Temple, on November 21; and her death—or “dormition,” from the Latin for “falling asleep”— on August 15, near the close of the Christian year. Though none of these events is referenced in Scripture, all spring from ancient tradition.
For Protestants, all this attention paid to another sinner saved by grace is unseemly. (Exploring that topic is beyond my scope here, but Timothy George’s essay provides some helpful light on the subject.) Instead, I want to suggest that Mary might be our best Advent guide. Joining her in the last stage of her journey can help prepare us to receive the great gift of the Incarnation.
03. II. Mary and the Advent Themes
Some churches adopted a 16th-century Lutheran practice of lighting candles arranged in an evergreen wreath. (Orthodox Christians who have adopted the practice add two candles for the longer season of the Nativity Fast.) Each of the four weeks of Advent recalls an important redemption theme: first, hope; then peace (or preparation), joy, and love. One tradition associates these virtues with story, with the weeks recalling the Prophets; Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem; the Shepherds; and the Angels. And Mary’s story gives us a perspective to view these events.
- The first week emphasizes hope, the Messianic hope given by God’s prophets. The promises of God in Genesis and Isaiah and Micah become foundations for Israel’s hope for a Messiah who will deliver them from bondage and bring God’s justice to bear in the world. Mary’s life also illustrates trust in these and other promises of God. The church’s early tradition holds that God promised Mary to a childless couple, Joachim and Anna.This event is observed in the Feast of the Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos on September 8. Also according to church tradition, Mary’s parents devoted her to Temple service, and she spent her early life in the Temple, “educated in the community of pious virgins, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, occupied with handiworks, perpetually in prayer, and growing up with love towards God.”A Monk of St. Tikhon Monastery. These Truths We Hold—The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon Seminary Press, 1986. Mary symbolizes Israel’s hope in flesh and blood, because hers is the womb that will bring the Messiah into the world.
Mary also arrives in Advent hoping in—and even bearing—God’s promise. She receives God’s announcement of a son from Gabriel (at the Annunciation, celebrated March 25). At Advent, it should be difficult to forget God’s first word to Mary: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” In case we miss it, he repeats it, “You have found favor with God.”
It should be just as difficult to forget Mary’s reply. Author Kathleen Norris notes that unlike Zechariah who seems to want more information from God, Mary responds to God’s promise with wonder—“How can this be?” When she arrives in Bethlehem, her wonder has likely become weariness. She is, as the King James Version puts it, “great with child.”
God’s favor on Mary takes a strange and difficult form: conception and pregnancy. It’s also a promise of uncertainty and hardship. After all, she’s a virgin and her pregnancy will suggest unfaithfulness to the community and her fiancé. Still, she receives and bears the promise with humility and willingness.
- Mary bears the promise all the way to Bethlehem, commemorated in the second week of Advent. The Bethlehem candle recalls not only the Holy Family’s arrival in Bethlehem, but also their preparations for Jesus’ birth. And though the emphasis is on peace, the circumstances—a long journey in the ninth month of pregnancy, no room but a stable, no crib but a manger—do not suggest peace! Still, Mary is the first person to experience God’s promised “peace on earth.” It’s suggested first in her submission to God’s will: ““Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, ESV). It ends with her accepting the circumstances in peace: “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7, ESV).
Mary will not always feel such peace. Some events in Jesus’ ministry suggest she felt some anxiety for him. At the wedding at Cana, for example, she urges Jesus to act. We do not know what prompts her nudge, but in response, Jesus manifests his glory by turning water into wine, “the first of his signs.” Another time, she arrives with Jesus’ brothers, perhaps to take him in hand. Jesus uses the opportunity to command obedience: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).
Despite these occasions, the church’s tradition suggests Mary took Jesus’ offer of peace (John 14:27) to heart. The third feast of the Theotokos, the Dormition, recalls that she left mortal life in this peace, “as if she had fallen into a sweet sleep.”These Truths We Hold. Her peace arises from her faith in her Son, because she is the first to hear and respond to the word of God in faith, faith from hearing (fides ex auditu). “Mary was a disciple before she was a mother,” Timothy George writes, “for had she not believed, she would not have conceived.” Advent invites us to travel with her in faith, and to experience the same peace as we know Jesus “born in us today.”
- Mary’s peace radiates outward from that stable in Bethlehem, resulting in great joy. The third week of Advent, beginning with Gaudete (“Rejoice!”) Sunday, captures the joy in the announcement to shepherds near Bethlehem. The angels bring “good news of great joy,” and Mary can see her own joy reflected in the shepherds who arrive “in haste” to witness God’s promised Savior in the flesh.
The good news comes not just to Mary, not just to Israel, but also to all the world. God fulfills in Jesus the words spoken through the prophet Zechariah, who says “those who are far off” will come to help build God’s temple (Zech. 6:15). Mary is the “house” of God during her pregnancy, and we become the “house” of God when we receive Jesus with the same humility and grace. So we rejoice with Mary and the shepherds because Jesus’ arrival promises us hope and peace, too. We are among “the people” to whom the angels proclaim good news.
- Week four, the Angels candle, brings love to center stage. Their message to the shepherds concludes with the Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). It is that last phrase, translated as “good will toward men” in the King James, that captures God’s love for humanity. Jesus is a tangible, human reminder that, far from abandoning sinful humanity, God has sent his love to us.
Consider Mary’s perspective on love, too, formed in part by her relationship with Joseph. He set aside his rights in obedience and submission to God. He had every right to divorce Mary for unfaithfulness, to shame her in the community to save face, and yet he yields to God’s love for him, Mary, and the world. God’s love for humanity drives out the fear Joseph likely felt, enabling his love for Mary.
Mary’s love for God and for her Son should be in our view, too. God’s love comes to us because “Our God, Jesus Christ, was carried in Mary’s womb.” Moreover, Mary, the “highly favored” one, becomes the primary giver of God’s love to his Son. As Timothy George puts it, “Mary was not merely the point of Christ’s entrance into the world—the channel through which he passes as water flows through a pipe. She was ever the mother who cared for the physical needs of Jesus the boy. She was the one who nursed him at her breast and who nurtured and taught him the ways of the Lord.” She does all this in love.
04. III. Conclusion
The final candle of most Advent wreaths is the white one in the center, the Christ candle. We light it on Christmas Eve, and it reminds us that the Light and Life of all humankind comes to us on that night. Until then, the whole world’s waiting stands personified in the story as a young lady, “great with child.”
No one has waited with more hope than the Virgin Mary. Advent invites us to join her in waiting, but we look with the perspective of Mary young and old. When she was a child, she waited for the birth of her Son. In old age, she waited to be reunited with him, to see him face to face. Like the young Mary, the church hopes to see Jesus born in us and in the lives of people we know and love. Like the aged Mary, we wait for the blessed reunion promised in Jesus’ second Advent.
“He will come again,” the Nicene Creed reminds us, “to judge the quick and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” We await the King of Glory, the Lord strong and mighty, armed with all the Advent virtues. For this reason, we might extend Advent all the way to Epiphany, because we look forward to a day when Jesus will appear and everything sad will come untrue. We look forward to that day, which is another way of saying we begin and end Advent in hope.