In today’s Gospel reading, an angel visits Mary and tells her that she will bear God’s child. We all know the story — the surprise, the questions, the faith. It’s so familiar; it may be hard for us to take it seriously as more than a Hallmark moment, part of the mythology of the baby Jesus.

Unfortunately, much of the power of the Advent season can be lost, with the challenge and urgency of the message gutted by pageants and figurines retelling the story. Because what today’s story gives us is a startling picture of just what Advent is all about — the call to be prepared for the call of God.

I like to think I’d respond well to an angel asking me to do something. After all, if I know it’s really a message from God, why not? You have the power of God to assist you. But it’s rarely that easy.

Think about it: How did the messenger come to Mary? In a dream? As an apparition? A voice in her head she couldn’t ignore? How was she to know it was God, and continue to embrace that message as obstacle after obstacle comes her way?

I’ve had a lot of moments of recognition of God’s voice or presence in my life. But usually, I’m sorry to say, the will to follow that voice doesn’t last all that long. I get distracted. I doubt that it will work. I don’t want to look silly to others.

The Advent story is one of fierce, frightening fidelity to God’s call. It does not necessarily make our lives easier.

If the voice Mary hears is real, she will become pregnant before she is married. And yet she is willing to follow the voice she hears, putting at risk not just her plans for her life but her reputation in the community.

We are called to be the same. Following Jesus is not a matter of simply blessing ourselves and doing as we please. We are called to live our lives differently than others — to risk our security and even our reputations because the values of the kingdom of God are much different than the values of our societies. We are called to serve the poor, to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable, and to love our enemies.

We live in an era that is nearly defined by conflict, where the harder you resist your enemies, the more you are rewarded. It’s happening in our national politics, where elected officials are racing to be the first to be outraged by their opponents.

The Advent story is one of fierce, frightening fidelity to God’s call. It does not necessarily make our lives easier, on a material level. We are called to lives of service, of surrender, and of sacrifice. And we are promised a joy and peace and security more expansive and more lasting than anything we can imagine.

It sounds like a great deal, right? It is. It’s just difficult to live it every day when the world around us pleads with us to acquire, accumulate and acquiesce.

As Christmas arrives, and we celebrate the truth that God comes to us in human form to show us the full extent of God’s love, compassion and joy, it is important to remember that the way to access God’s generosity is by living differently. We will only know that love is better than gold if we live that way.

Bill Peatman writes from Napa. He may be reached at [email protected].

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