When my wife was pregnant with our son, she received the gift of a Willow Tree ® Figurine called “Cherish.” It features a pregnant woman holding her growing belly with joy and hopeful expectation. We put it on our shelf and looked at it joyfully as my wife’s belly grew along with our hopes (and anxiety) about what was going to change in our lives.
We liked this figurine so well (and commented on it often enough) that my parents gave us the first pieces of the Nativity Set from Willow Tree ® that next year, and added pieces each subsequent year until we had them all. (The Wise Men that first moved across our living room came from this set.) A tradition in my wife’s home growing up (and maybe it is a tradition in your home too) is to keep the baby Jesus out of the manger until Christmas comes. As a family activity, they would gather around the Nativity Set after church and place the newborn Jesus in his bed of hay. Now that we had a Nativity Set , we thought we could do the same. Yet there was one problem – in our new set; Mary is holding the baby Jesus, and there was no manger…Hmmm.
With some faithful creativity we came up with an idea. “Cherish” would become “Expectant Mary” through Advent. When the kids came home after church Christmas Eve they would make the exchange – and “Expectant Mary” would become “Mother Mary” holding her child, as Joseph, the Shepherds, Wise Men and animals all gathered around to behold him with similar loving eyes. One year we added a pine cone to serve as a manger to complete the scene.
Last year we received the gift of an angel. It is not a Willow Tree ® piece, but I like her – she has stars along with big wings and a gown. I staged the picture for this reflection to remind me of Gabriel’s visit, announcing the news that she would be expecting, and I wonder what she expected. By now you know that our Nativity Sets are playful and full of movement (our angel has spent most of Advent beside the shepherds). Perhaps that is why my daughter calls all these characters “Activity” (rather than Nativity) Sets. Perhaps that is why her parents don’t correct her.
As the days draw closer to Christmas, I wonder what I should expect of this child amidst all the activity, and I am drawn in to wonder what he expects of me, his church, the people I love, and a world in crisis. Mary’s response to such news is what Christians have called “the Magnificat” for centuries. It is a song of praise for what God has done, what God will do, and what God is doing in and through his people. In these closing days of Advent I invite you to consider what changes as “Expectant Mary” gives way to “Mother Mary.” As God’s Son enters our world “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (or a pine cone in our case), I invite you to contemplate your own expectations, and consider what God, and you, might do about them. What “Activity” might the Nativity inspire from all of us?
To aid those contemplations I offer two texts you may wish to meditate on in prayer –
Peace to you as the day draws near,
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus – Charles Wesley – 1707-1788
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005], #254)
Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art,
dear desire of every nation, joy of ev’ry longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a king;
Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit raise us to thy eternal throne.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)