The 50 or 60 women in the room looked like most women you would meet anywhere on a given day in the grocery store, the elementary school parking lot or the coffee shop.
Representing ages 17 to 70 and attractively dressed, they helped themselves to coffee and doughnuts and chatted about their day-to-day activities the way most women would at a genteel Saturday morning gathering.
But as soon as the retreat began and each woman came to the microphone, the veneer of gentility quickly dissolved and the ordinariness became extraordinary. Story after emotional story poured forth — personal accounts of their life experiences — revealing a depth and magnificence of God’s power and presence that few observers would have guessed merely moments before. In the first reading for this week, the prophet Isaiah describes an unbelievable sight: the desert blooming with “abundant flowers,” its desolate silence breaking forth into “joyful song.” James’ epistle offers the image of a tilled but barren field waiting for fruitfulness that is all but invisible. And somewhere in the wilderness, a fiery, eccentric-looking preacher prepares the way for the Lord, who, at the time, was walking among the people, still unrecognized.
During the season of Advent, because most of us know what’s coming — the birth of Jesus at Christmas — we “over-anticipate” and look for the Lord’s appearance in all the expected ways and places. Despite the obvious liturgical shift from green to purple, we still can feel like we’re in “ordinary time.”
But Advent is really about surprises, about seeing the magnificence of God breaking forth in the unexpected, the overlooked and the hidden. Advent calls us to fine-tune our eyes and ears to the “splendor of our God” already in our midst — and then to tell others what we have seen.