Advent. The dictionary says that it means “the coming” or “arrival” especially of something very important. For Christians, it is that liturgical period that encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas. It is that time of the year when, as Christians, we are to slow down, reflect, and prepare ourselves for Christmas and the arrival of our Savior. It’s our time of waiting. Patient but active waiting.
I can remember waiting on things as a kid and I bet you can as well. Waiting for a birthday to finally get here. Waiting on the long car ride to Grandmom’s house to finally be over. Waiting for a friend to come over. Even waiting on cinnamon rolls to finally be ready to eat.
Waiting doesn’t come easy for most of us. And, in this day of microwaves, text messages, and instant grits, we aren’t asked to do much of it. In some ways, that’s a shame. Waiting develops in us a sense of anticipation, of excitement, of what’s to come. Sometimes the anticipation grows so intense that the event itself fails to measure up. But more often, waiting and anticipating simply helps us prepare for the occasion and helps us to enjoy the occasion when it finally arrives.
But for many of us, the advent season is a season not of preparation and anticipation but of stress. Stress of final exams before Christmas break. The stress of mobs of shoppers at Black Friday sales. The stress of decorating for Christmas — how to get it all done and how to determine when not enough becomes too much. The stress of travel — to grandmom’s house, to and from college, or to another relative’s house. Financial stress. So much shopping to be done and so little money available to pay for it all. And the stress of families. Dividing time between mom’s house, dad’s house and putting up with siblings and step siblings.
Some of these things almost cause paradoxical feelings — excited about the holidays, but stressed out over everything that needs to be done; sentimental about family traditions, but feelings of resentment that we have to be with family when really we’d rather just hang out with our friends; happy about being with our friends, yet somewhat lonely that we may be separated from a boyfriend, girlfriend or just good friend from college. Or maybe we feel like we’re supposed to be happy because we’re around so many of our close family and friends when, in fact, we can’t stop thinking about the child or parent or grandparent that we lost to illness or accident this time last year. And then there’s the conflicting media message. A message of love and peace and joy yet also a message of materialism, crowded malls and rogue crowds rushing the aisle at Walmart.
Advent should be like a pregame ritual. That time when we stop what we’re doing and start to focus. We start to focus and concentrate on the big game — what’s to come — the important stuff. That’s what advent should be about. Generally it’s anything but. It’s hard to focus on the important stuff when everything else is stressing us out. Jesus’ good friend Martha knows just what we’re talking about. Luke 10:38-42:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her house to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
So here’s Jesus. Traveling with his disciples. Doing the vital work of ministry. And now he needs a place to stay. A place to get something to eat and to lay his head and get some much needed sleep so he can carry on with his vital mission. And Martha steps up. Jesus is in need and she answers the call. She shows hospitality and initiative and an appreciation for the work that needs to be done. Despite short notice, she invites Jesus in. But there’s lots to be done. The beds have to be made up. Dinner needs to be fixed. The place is a wreck. So Martha gets to it. She runs upstairs and makes up the beds. On her way down the stairs, she sees her sister, Mary, sitting around chatting. Looking calm and relaxed, like she doesn’t have a care in the world. Martha glances over at her sister and scowls, but Mary doesn’t notice. She’s laughing. And enjoying the stories Jesus is telling. So Martha heads to the kitchen. She starts to clean the dishes. Loudly. Banging plates into bowls and clanging knifes against forks, she works away, convinced that Mary will get the noisy hint and eventually join her in the kitchen, but Mary never does. Martha stews. “This is her house, too. Why am I always the one doing the dishes? She knows that Jesus has been on the road all day and needs to be fed, why isn’t she in here helping me get things ready?” Dishes cleaned, Martha heads back into the living room. There’s Mary. Sitting at Jesus’ feet looking up at him, clinging to his every word. “I’d love to sit and listen to what Jesus has to say too. But no one’s going to hear what the man has to say if we don’t get some food in him soon. And she’s just sitting there. Assuming I’ll take care of it all. In typical Mary fashion.” Martha heads back into the kitchen and begins to prepare dinner. And continues to stew. Eventually Martha reaches the boiling point well before the water does. Finally she just can’t take it anymore. She marches into the living room and confronts both Mary and Jesus. “Tell her to help me!” she yells at Jesus. “Tell her this stuff has to be done. Tell her this stuff is important and she needs to stop chatting and start helping!”
Martha is sure that equity is on her side. Jesus is all about fairness and anyone can see that it’s not fair that she has to do all the work, while Mary just hangs out and chats. Martha is looking forward to Jesus putting Mary in her place. Martha smiles, looks at Jesus and waits for him to speak. And he does: “Martha, Martha”, he says. “You are worried and upset about so many things. You have more than you can possibly do. But only one thing is really needed. Mary has found it and it will not be taken away from her.”
“Are you kidding me? Are you freaking kidding me?”, Martha fumes to herself. “I have worked non stop since the second you walked in to this house. A house, by the way, that I share with Mary. That’s right. She lives here with me. Rent free I might add. We both live here together. You wouldn’t know it since I do all the work and she does virtually nothing. Oh, wait. She does some things around here. Like she sits around and chats with house guests. You know, the life of the party. Laugh a minute. She puts everyone at ease and everyone thinks she’s just a laugh riot. Oh she’s a laugh riot, all right. And meanwhile, I spend all freaking day in the kitchen so she can enjoy her role as a social butterfly. I don’t get it Jesus. I don’t get it.”
Some of us are Mary’s. Some of us are Martha’s. I tend to be the Mary type, but I don’t mean that in a good way. I like to socialize. I’m not afraid to sit around and chat. Even if, or I should say, especially if, there’s work to be done. I’m the guy that keeps chatting with the guests when everyone else, particularly my wife, is frantically trying to get everything ready. Speaking of my wife, she’s the Martha type — and I mean that in the most favorable way. My wife is the one that gets the job done. She’s not going to have company come and see the house a wreck. She’s going to make sure it’s clean. Everyone is going to get a good meal, even if dinner is on short notice. She’s not afraid to work hard and she’ll do just that if it’s needed. She’ll stress until it’s done, and she may scowl at those who aren’t helping out, but she’ll get it done.
Mary’s like me like to point to this story and claim victory. Score one for the social butterflys. Screw the preparations, let’s just have a party. That’s probably not Jesus’ message. But Jesus does seem to be telling us that we need to stop worrying so much and doing so much. That we need to see what’s really, really important and tend to it but let the rest slide. Here, he seems to come down on the side of Mary simply enjoying his presence and against Martha’s frantic activity to make everything perfect. Jesus does seem to come down on the side of more “just being” and less “just doing.”
As I’ve said, generally speaking, I’m the Mary type. But not always. I may be more of a Martha in my spiritual life. I stay busy. But I rarely take the time to simply be in the presence of Jesus. My prayer life is, at times, woeful. I don’t take time to be reflective. I don’t immerse myself in scripture. Church attendance is spotty. I am more apt to squirm in the quiet presence of God than I am to sit still and simply listen. I’d rather be doing something. Like teaching Sunday School. Or serving as an Elder. Or serving on a church committee (or three). Or volunteering at several non profits or raising money for a number of worthy causes. I serve God with my busyness. I convince myself that these things have to be done and I set about doing them. I work hard at it. It takes up a lot of my time. It keeps me pretty well worn out. Which is why I just don’t have a lot of time for prayer, or quiet reflection, or church on sunday. It’s why I just don’t have time to simply sit at the feet of Jesus Christ and listen attentively to him when he visits my house … like Mary.
So this natural born Mary is more like a spiritual Martha. Forsaking the presence of Jesus for the busy work of his ministry. Is the busy work necessary? Of course it is. But is it more important than Jesus himself. Of course not.
Some of us are Mary’s. Some of us are Martha’s. Some of us are a little of both. We need to keep things in perspective. We need to remember that the goal of our work is to be in the presence of Jesus. If the work itself keeps us from that place, we might be doing too much of the right kind of things. It might be time to slow down, get things in perspective and spend some time at the feet of the One who is to come.
Your Turn: So what stresses you out? How do you regain perspective? Let us know.