Advent brings us into the company of those who knew something about venturing where there appears to be no road. I think of Mary in the moment of the Annunciation, as the archangel poses his astonishing invitation to become the mother of Christ. After Gabriel receives her stunning consent to walk a path no one has ever walked before, he gives Mary one point of orientation, one saving navigational clue that will help make the rest of her journey possible: he tells her of her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is pregnant in strange circumstances herself.
In this moment, his words are map enough for Mary. She sets out (with haste, Luke emphasizes), following the life-altering line that leads from the place of her annunciation to Elizabeth's home.
What Mary finds in her cousin's presence is not the rest of the map, exactly. What she finds is a blessing. Blessed are you among women, Elizabeth cries out in welcome and delight, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.... And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
When you do not have a map, a blessing is one of the best things to have. The lines of a blessing have the power to reorient and re-center us in the love of the God who is with us, even when we feel most lost.
With her response to Elizabeth's words, Mary bears witness to this power that a blessing holds. Letting loose with a song that will become known as the Magnificat, Mary tells of the God who has worked across the generations with mercy and grace. The song is concise but potent, weaving together vast strands of the history of the people of God. Mary's song itself recalls one offered by her foremother Hannah, recorded in the book of 1 Samuel; in the Magnificat's lines, Mary's story intertwines with Hannah's and with all who have said yes to traveling a road that does not come with clear instructions.
Advent is rich with such stories. As lost as we may sometimes feel, the season invites us to look at our paths in the light of the stories of those others who have gone before us. If we let them, those stories can shimmer up into the mysterious road of our own lives.
Palimpsest is the word that comes to mind for how those stories might live in us. The word's Greek roots tell of something that has been rubbed smooth again, typically describing a medieval manuscript whose text has been scraped or erased in order to write new lines on the pages of vellum or parchment. Oftentimes, traces of the earlier layer -- and sometimes multiple layers -- can still be seen, testifying to what has gone before, stubborn in remaining part of the manuscript's landscape.
Advent reminds us that no matter how mapless we may be, there is a way that lies beneath the way, an ancient road that becomes new for us as we search and stumble and question and rest and keep going. That ancient road is full of mystery; with all its layers and lines, it will never come quite clear. And so we travel it in the company of one another and of those who traveled before us, bearing the blessings that help us know we do not go alone.
- What inspires you to keep going when you don't know where to go?
- Do you have places, practices, or people you turn to when it's hard to see how your way is unfolding? What helps you stop and get your bearings?
- If you were to make a map of your life right now -- the shape and texture of this moment, this day -- what might it look like? How might it be to actually do this -- to trace the lines of a map with words or art or whatever tools you have at hand?
And blessed are you
who live in the layers,
who keep company
who look for the lines;
Where the Map begins by Jan Richardson