Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:26-38
We celebrate, as a culture, those who burn the candle at both ends — the devoted teacher who brings the essays home each night to grade, the young associate who works 80-hour weeks to make partner, the parents who selflessly donate their time to the PTA and little league and church activities. We brag about how busy we are. We pride ourselves on the minimal amount of sleep we require to sustain our lovely light.
I watched a personal make-over show this week and the man they were working with is husband and father of six, working two jobs, living in a small house. He gets up at 6 a.m., the time he has to be ready to be out the door to work is only a matter of minutes. He gets home around 5, helps feed and get the children ready for bed. Then gets ready for his second job stocking shelves in a warehouse store. Home at 4 a.m. and up at 6 – just 2 hours later – to start again. My response was that you can’t really make over this person without making over his schedule. There is absolutely no time in there for self-care, which could be called survival care, in this case. As the show concluded, I simply hoped that he had received enough confidence to change his life. His needs to go much deeper than an up-to-date style and a brighter home.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s short poem says it succinctly:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
[“First Fig,” pub 1920.]
So, today, in the midst of one of the busiest seasons of the year, advent, the time of waiting for what is beginning, challenges us to prepare a space. Will we be open and ready for what is beginning? Will we be able to see it? Receive it? All our tasks – what are they for? Do they prepare a space? A space for what? What is it you seek in the center of this very full life?
I wonder how first-century Mary would have answered these questions. How much different was this girl’s village life from what we have today? Everyone had a lot to do, just to get through each day. Just one example – clothing. It started by shearing the sheep, then spinning the wool – we understand that the people of Israel even spun wool from their packs as they were wandering in the desert. Then came the weaving, dying, blocking, and so much more! Not to mention doing laundry at the river or lake. There was no refrigeration, so everything was dried, preserved in oil or vinegar or honey, or it was fresh. There was gathering to do every day. Everyone had tasks to perform.
And we know from archeology that it wasn’t all work. There were also games for children and adults. There were synagogues in most of the villages. The people would gather on sabbath to read and talk about the Torah. About 3% of the population of Palestine were clergy, priests and Levites, so most villages would have religious leaders in their circle. Even the common people and certainly the tradespeople tried to keep the law in their daily life. [“The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” Ted Olson, Christian History, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-59/life-times-of-jesus-of-nazareth-christian-history.html]
Mary’s life was almost certainly lived measured by sabbath – a whole day taken to remember who you are, the people beloved of God. The people called to rest, reflection, breathing – at least once a week. Mary lived a life which was punctuated by space, holy space. She knew the story of her people, stripped of all they knew in Egypt and thrust into a hard desert life. Away from their brick labor, there they had space to die and be reborn. Space to catch fire and become light.
When the angel came to Mary, she had to make space for the gift she was to receive. She must have known that this was not an easy gift to receive. But the stories of her people had steeped her in the understanding that God’s gifts are often inscrutable, challenging and good – all at the same time. The angel sent her to Elizabeth for support, another who had to make space in her life for a gift which would not be easy.
Mary was still preparing a space when we see her arriving in Bethlehem. Her belly full of the child, all she wanted was a room in which to rest. But the guest rooms were all full. So they went around to the animal shelter and prepared a space among them. The animals knew about keeping warm. They knew about giving birth. They could prepare a space for this girl when she needed it. And they did. It was not the space imagined for the birth of a holy one. But then again, maybe it is exactly what Isaiah imagined, when he talked about the Kingdom being a place where all creatures would gather in peace, no longer driven by their voracious natures, and a little child will lead them.
It is easy to think that the stable was not the right place. That it was not ready for Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child. But maybe it was exactly the place prepared for this child. A place at home among earth’s creatures. Probably a bit smelly and dirty by American standards, but the stable was part of the family home, often attached, so that heat could be shared. Maybe the stable was exactly the place prepared for the one who would bring all creatures, all cultures, all peoples and animals and plants, into one wholeness, all created by the same God, one creation.
As our lives become more and more full, we are threatened to be strangled by our stuff. It didn’t take much for Mary and Joseph to prepare a space. Just open, welcoming hearts were enough.
How can we prepare a space in our limited time, in our limited energy, in our full, beautiful lives?
Rabbi Brian asked a young mom, seeking some spiritual practice to bring to her family, “So how much time do you have give to spiritual practice?” She said: “None! Life’s schedule is full!” Rabbi Brian said, “Great! So let’s start there.” Then he asked another question which opened doors for our discussion: “What do you already do, which you could shape into a spiritual practice?” Then we took off in a conversation about how meal times can be times for spiritual practice, even just once a week. We can tell our stories, listen to each other, wonder what God has been doing in our lives today, or we can bless each other by telling each other what we are proud of in them.
He was guiding us in preparing a space for the holy one to be born, and to begin to breathe in us, to make real divine love.
I am trying to figure out how to prepare a space in my life this advent, preparing a space for the light to be ignited in me, around me, in my world. Maybe you are too. And I am finding it difficult. I know when I get to busy, I can expect to get sick. My body will force me to slow down. My mother-in-law, raising eight rambunctious children, used to check herself into the hospital periodically to get some rest and vitamin B treatments.
Do we have to get sick? What else can we try? Let’s stay close to the Rabbi’s question: “What do you already do, which you could shape into a spiritual practice?” Are there places in our schedules when we could elbow a little space, simply to wonder about where is the holy one right now? What is the Spirit doing now?
As followers of Jesus, we want to be like the light of the star, guiding others to the presence of God. But even light takes space. Listen to this poem by Judy Sorum Brown, which puts it so well: “Fire.”
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
When we are able to build
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.
We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
simply because the space is there,
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.