Fourth Sunday: Johnny, Mary, and a Wreath

Every year it’s been the same. By the Fourth Sunday of Advent, a homemade wreath stands on our dinner table, festooned with candles. But, rather than looking grand and stately, expressing a sense of the royalty it is meant to represent, it has begun to look a bit ragged and dried out. (Not unlike this year’s notorious Christmas tree in Rome, affectionately dubbed “Spelacchio “ aka “The Mangy One.”) Indeed, the stalks of rosemary that typically compose our wreath become desiccated, and the candles are a sorry rag-tag crew standing at uneven heights. Everything about our wreath by Fourth Sunday looks tired.

The exhausted state of our wreath usually has felt a bit of an embarrassment, and I often run out to the garden and snip a fresh batch of rosemary to assemble Wreath 2.0. But this year, as I think about our poor ol’ wreath, unlit and unceremoniously left behind when we evacuated in a panic two weeks ago, I actually find it to be less of an embarrassment, and more of a comfort to ponder the possibility that the people through whom God chooses to live and bring His Revelation to this wretched and suffering world…those people may be far more kindred in spirit to our tired Fourth Sunday wreath than the First Sunday iteration in all its pertness and promise.


Every once in a while, I read a book that I am completely smitten by. The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is one of those books. A new and recent find in the children’s section of public libraries, it is a book rooted in scraps of an unfinished story by Mark Twain, that is gently but assuredly brought to new life by Philip and Erin Stead (respective author and illustrator of the Caldecott Award-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, itself a gem!). The result is a poignant, outlandish, and at times wickedly humorous tale about a boy named Johnny whose life’s main feature is misfortune (he makes Charlie Brown seem like Richie Rich) and whose one friend in all the world is a mangy old chicken called ‘Pestilence and Famine.’ When all appears to be more lost and limp than usual, Johnny meets an old woman who begs for alms and to whom he confesses that he has nothing to give, but offers up his one-and-only friend. This purest act of kindness is received and exchanged for a promise of fulfillment that ends up reaching far beyond Johnny’s, and even the reader’s, imagination. What is most intriguing is that the rare tenderness of this tale is actually searing to the conscience. It is a laser beam that cuts through the crass and pathetic struggles for power we daily witness in our world and reveals all in the light of what is true. For the magic of the story is not in the actual miracle that the old woman interjects to turn things around, but rather in the realization of the remarkable expanse that is found in Johnny’s heart.


Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This Collect, or collective prayer, for the Fourth Sunday in Advent elicits an aspirational image of architecture that raises a couple hard questions: How do we become people whose Interior is a mansion prepared for Jesus Christ? What if our Interior right now feels closer to being a one-room apartment with a galley kitchen rather than the 12-bedroom Mediterranean villa with infinity pool that is Johnny’s?


In the Gospel reading for the final Sunday of Advent, St. Luke recounts a dialogue between the most-prestigious-of-God’s-messengers Gabriel and the until-now-nobody Mary. It is a dialogue whose outcome is as unlikely as the redeemed fate of Johnny:

“…The Lord is with you.”

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered….

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God….”

“How can this be…?”

“…Nothing will be impossible with God.”

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Again, the real magic in this exchange is not in the unexpected chosenness of Mary (though that alone provides plenty to meditate on), but rather the fact that, when Gabriel shows up, he finds in Mary a person who is already mansion-ready on the inside.


On this last day of Advent, I think of the people of Puerto Rico who remain hungry and without electricity.  I think of their loved ones and so many of their young people who relocated to the mainland, whose hearts ache for their island and their families left behind. I think of the countless refugees who have fled their homes and cities, and remain stuck in detention centers with no control over what will happen next. I think of local Hispanic families and communities whose lives feel strangled by the fear and threat of deportation. I think of my Ventura County neighbors who have lost their homes to the same fire that came within hundreds of yards of consuming mine.

I imagine their circumstances–as much as my limited experience can extend me, and I nervously ponder how nearly the Thomas Fires came to forcing my family and me to taking a small sip from their cup of suffering. (Though, even during our evacuation, having the privileges of family and resources to lean into–and having multiple days to prepare and anticipate the fires– always meant that we were being buffered from a level of forlorn existence that is the reality for so many.)

And while, in the months to come, I will surely be working out what lessons and carols I am to learn and sing from our experience of the Thomas Fire, I have begun to wonder this: Who is it that God chooses to draw near to? Who are the people who have found favor with God? Who are the people whose Interior is already on the sure road to becoming a mansion prepared for the coming of their Lord?

It seems that they are not necessarily who we, or much of the world, tend to think of, or who are noted as such. Quite frankly, they probably are persons who are not even on our radars. Not on anyone‘s radar. Perhaps they are among those we have forgotten– in Puerto Rico, in detention centers, in shelters. Perhaps they are Mary called to live into the Impossible. Perhaps they are Johnny whose only friend is Pestilence and Famine.

For those of us buffered from drinking of the cup, do we dare to enter their stories so that our lives might become intertwined, and maybe gradually, there might be a chance of a mansion being found in us, prepared for our Lord?

Version 2

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Thanks for walking through Advent 2017 with me.

A lot of unexpected business this Advent.

All evacuations in Santa Barbara County were lifted this past Wednesday. Thanks be to God.


One thought on “Fourth Sunday: Johnny, Mary, and a Wreath

  1. Pingback: The Epiphany of Martha and the Magi of Myrhh | circa40

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