Waiting for joy and justice
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. The lectionary gives the option to read the song of Mary, the Magnificat, in place of the Psalm. The text sounds forth an ancient vision of God’s dream of a world restored to justice — given voice by a young, pregnant Jewish teenager. Mary’s song (below) is in the form of a Canticle from the Book of Common Prayer.
The traditional theme for this Sunday is joy, a welcome relief to the stark texts that lead into the darkening of the northern hemisphere and the deep waiting of Advent.
Joy shows up in this week’s musing — even if it is still vaguely elusive — in tandem with the ambiguities of waiting. What does it mean to wait for God’s presence to come into the world?
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
The Song of Mary: Magnificat
(Canticle 15, Book of Common Prayer)
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen
Last week, in response to these Advent posts, a reader said, “I’m sick of waiting. It has been so long and the Kingdom feels as far away as ever — justice doesn’t come. Nothing seems to get better.”
Advent is about waiting and justice. Advent asks us to wait and watch. Advent anticipates the certain arrival of God’s dream of mercy and justice. Waiting. Justice. Waiting.
On the third Sunday, Christians light a candle of joy. Today’s texts proclaim the “everlasting joy” that God promises — water in the desert, songs rising in Zion, the mighty cast down, and all people sated and satisfied in a garden of abundance. The words of Isaiah and Mary lift the heart. Their vision of justice enlarges our faith and hope for a world made right. Delight attends deliverance; exultation accompanies liberation. For a brief moment, the veil between this age and the age to come thins. Joy makes itself known, deeply and truly, here and now.
Then we remember. Never in human history has the gap between the rich and poor been so great. We live in the shadow of climate disaster and nuclear threat. Bigotry, injustice, and violence mark these days. Autocracy, oligarchy, and authoritarianism undermine fragile democracy and human rights. Isaiah’s vision and Mary’s song are beautiful, yes. We long for the joy of justice, even thirst for it. But are we deluding ourselves? Is it just a glorious impossible dream to help us humans make it through a world that will never be anything but cruel and brutal?
Is all this waiting for the Kingdom a taunt?
The twinning of Isaiah and Mary is helpful — both reveal truths about Advent waiting.
Isaiah unfolds the majestic vision of God’s salvation, the time in which the whole earth will be made whole, healed from the wounds and rifts of hatred and violence. This time is in the future. God’s people wait — not passively but with courageous certainty that God keeps God’s promises. It takes active faith to trust in the fullness of such salvation. As the prophets make clear in other texts, that spiritual trust is Israel’s social covenant to care for widows, give to the poor, feed the hungry, and provide hospitality to strangers. The ultimate promise may be far off, but the faithful can act on its behalf here and now. Vision, promise, action.
Mary’s song is not a vision of the future. It is a celebration of the present. God has done these marvelous things. The Magnificat echoes with certainty. Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Liberation is accomplished.
The Bible has five songs of deliverance sung by women: Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 5), Judith (Judith 16), Hannah (1 Samuel), and Mary (Luke). Indeed, Mary’s song directly quotes from Hannah’s:
My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory. . .
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that these texts are part of a distinctive women’s tradition in Israel — performances that involved drum, dance, and song. To reimagine the Magnificat as Mary’s joyful performance of God’s victory over injustice puts a new twist on Advent waiting.
Too often, Mary is depicted as the patient mother awaiting the birth of her son, the passive bearer of God-with-us. But can we imagine Mary as Miriam? Drum in hand, dancing justice, and singing of divine deliverance: I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. Or Mary like Judith?
Strike up a song to my God with tambourines,
sing to the Lord with cymbals;
Improvise for him a new song,
exalt and acclaim his name.
For the Lord is a God who crushes wars;
he sets his encampment among his people;
he delivered me from the hands of my pursuers. . .
Joy and justice. There’s no passive waiting here. The dance brings the future hope into the celebratory present. Dancing dissolves the boundaries of time. The women of Israel drummed, danced, and sang the Kingdom into being.
Advent waiting isn’t really about waiting. In Isaiah, it is about seeing God’s vision, trusting God’s promise, and acting on its reality. The prophets insist that we practice the Kingdom’s justice in our own time.
For Mary, the months of birthing the Kingdom aren’t about quiet confinement. She invites us to join the dance of deliverance, the whirl of justice that has been the spiraling hope of God since the beginning.
Maybe if we are tired of waiting, it is because we don’t really understand waiting. Waiting isn’t about looking for miracles to fall from the sky. It isn’t about magic fixes. Waiting entails acting. Waiting beckons us to jubilation. Waiting isn’t quiescence. In the biblical tradition, it means looking clearly into the broken world and caring for what is wounded. It means facing down the powers of injustice with drum and dance. It means living the promises that God’s people trust with all their hearts.
Waiting is one of the most creative things we can do.
Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.
― Martin Luther King Jr.
kingdom of faith,
the seed waiting to be sown.
— Denise Levertov
Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes
And the heart consumes itself as if it would live,
Where children age before their time
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
CHRISTMAS IS WAITING TO BE BORN:
In you, in me, in all mankind.
— Howard Thurman
If there is nothing we can do right now but wait, then, as T. S. Eliot wrote, "the faith is in the waiting." If we can but wait, we may yet emerge from despair with the same understanding that Zen master Suzuki Roshi expressed: "Sometimes just to be alive is enough."
— Sharon Salzberg
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
— Langston Hughes
The word patience comes from the Latin verb patior, which means "to suffer." Waiting patiently is suffering through the present moment, tasting it to the full, and letting the seeds that are sown in the ground on which we stand grow into strong plants. Waiting patiently always means paying attention to what is happening right before our eyes and seeing there the first rays of God's glorious coming.
— Henri Nouwen
God's freedom does not lie in instant gratification. It lies in knowing how to wait, relative to each situation, and to lure the world toward the good, the true, the beautiful, the just. Our calling, too, is to wait in a spirit of love, when waiting is required, and then to act, when possible, to relieve the pain and create the love, for our sake and for God's sake.
— Jay McDaniel
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