He Goes Out the Way He Came In
On Saturday, I had the privilege of attending an Advent Labyrinth walk at Transfiguration, where I learned a lot about labyrinth walking as well as the history of how we got ours. We listened to Dr. Mary Anne Reed, who worked with our rector emeritus Father Terry Roper to get the Chartres labyrinth, which lies immediately in front of the narthex in our church. The two of them, alongside spiritual director and parishioner Nancy Jagmin, offered reflections on the practice of walking a labyrinth and what it might mean for us. I had certainly gone through labyrinths before, but never with any intention. If you had asked me “have you truly walked a labyrinth?” I would probably have said no. I had only wandered a labyrinth, and only a few times. Frankly, I didn’t know how I felt about it. I loved long walks, but my long walks had destinations that were not simply feet away. So we’re just going to walk around in circles? I didn’t know what to think. As a part of the retreat, we were given a chance to walk the labyrinth in prayer with soothing music, but only after a few explanations.
First, you can’t walk it wrong. A perfectionist’s worst nightmare. If I can’t walk it wrong, I also can’t know if I’ve perfected it. This can’t be trusted. Second, it is not a maze. Then what it is? Third, a labyrinth is a two way street. You can greet people as they walk by or keep silent. You can pass someone if you need to. So it’s a prayerful I-35. Fourth, you are invited to stop anywhere along the labyrinth for prayer. Not a good practice on I-35. And lastly, you go out the way you came in.
As I walked the curves and longer arcs of the labyrinth I continued to hear something in my head—you go out the way you came in. In the mystery of Advent, we track the story of Jesus, but we do so very circuitously. We do not begin with a pregnant Mary, or even a pregnant Elizabeth. No, the story of Advent tells itself in a flashback. We begin near the end of the gospel of Luke, in chapter 22, hearing about the way the world will end, and the second advent that we await. We then move on to chapter 3, where for two weeks we will hear the exhortations of John. In Advent 4, we finally meet a pregnant Elizabeth, and listen to what we will later call the magnificat. In this labyrinthine path to the birth of God, we are not given carols or even heartwarming tales about the healing of those who followed Jesus. We are instead given a foretelling of the end days, a call for revolutionary repentance, the resounding “You brood of vipers!”, and a final proclamation by Mary that all that we find comfortable will be changed as the true ruler of our lives will take on his own life. As I told someone recently, I want to give you glad tidings and figgy pudding, but the gospel has offered me none of the sort.
The walk of the labyrinth is not always a calming experience, as you pass others, bump against them when you are focused on your path, or wonder why the person in front of you is taking so long. There is no guaranteed cadence unless you can walk it alone, and we know that life offers no such solitude. The act of going out the way you came in means taking on the reality that whatever challenges faced you on the way to the center will follow you on your way to the exit. When it comes to the life of Jesus, he goes out the way he came in. We neglect what the gospel is telling us if we believe his birth to be a calm, comforting experience. Mary and Joseph find themselves quite literally homeless, without a proper place to lay the Messiah. The Messiah’s birth was not calmly foretold either, as John the Baptist and even Mary herself knew that his life would muddy the waters of religion, challenge the normative practices of their society, and ruffle the feathers of those in power. We not only hear about this in the gospel texts for Advent, but we know it to be true, as we watch his life lead him to death. He comes into this world as prophets herald that all will change, and he goes out of this world so that the change we await can reach its fruition.
And now, in this Advent, we do not only await his coming, but also his going. We know that his life will create for us the very home that Mary created for him. We know that the space Mary made in her body modeled for Jesus how to love with his body, which he will give for the life of the world. Our hope is found in this truth—that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God, because we know that love will enter and change the world in eternal form. He will not enter the world in force, but he will enter the world in power, and he cannot be taken out of the world by any power for none are greater than he. The Advent we celebrate this season prepares us for the day when that love will gather us into the love on the other side of the veil. In his very flesh, in his very birth, in his very death, we will see power perfected, because we will witness as love takes form and is victorious over and over again. We may not see this victory with the naked eye, but we will see it with the eye of faith. We behold that love like we behold a child in a manger, a font of holy water, a paten of bread, a chalice of wine.
The gift of Advent is that we will be given someone to walk the path with us, though the guarantee of Christ’s presence will not make its cadence anymore peaceful, and if anything, it will challenge movement with ease. It will, however, faithfully lead us toward our most joyful end: a life lived in the presence and grace of God. We know this, because the mystery and power of the birth of Jesus is that he goes out the way he came in.