In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor writes “All human beings vigorously resist grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
If O’Connor is correct, then one of our biggest challenges this Advent is whether or not we really want the love that we long for. Big love is often difficult to let in. My wife, who is an Episcopal priest, recently marked the 20th anniversary of her ordination. Not one to want a fuss made over her, she wanted to observe this day by presiding at her parish’s Wednesday evening service. Normally, about six people show up for this service. I decided to invite some people from St. Timothy’s, the parish in which she was ordained and served for nine years, to surprise her at this service. And surprised she was. During the service I pre-empted her homily and gave one of my own, which referred to the impact she has had on other people as a steward of God’s Word and sacraments. As she was sitting in the front row facing me, I could sense her discomfort with all this love, and when at the end of my homily I looked at her and said “We love you,” she stood up to make sure I was done.
I then said, “You want me to sit down and shut up, don’t you!”
“Yes!” she replied.
When we are overwhelmed with love, we find it hard to sit there and receive it. In part, we find it hard to sit there because different experiences in our lives have led us to believe that we aren't worthy of such love. I also have a hunch that part of the difficulty has to do with our resistance to living with the kind of freedom such love offers us. You see, if I really live each day believing that the One who said to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased (Mk. 1:11), is also saying this to me; and if I really live each day believing that “nothing…will be able to separate us from the love of God" (Rom 8:39); and if I really live believing that I have been created in God’s image and likeness, I would have to let go of all the ways I habitually try to justify my existence through other means. Letting go of such long held behaviors is painful. And, of course, if I am going to accept such big love, that love will insist that I love others—even the most unworthy—as generously as I have been loved, never an easy task.
When Mary was informed by a divine messenger that she would be the recipient of overwhelming love, initially she had the same reaction we do “How can this be?” The messenger then explained that nothing is impossible for God. Maybe our resistance to grace this Advent won’t be the end of the story come Christmas.