First Saturday of Advent: One Who Sees

By Cole Arthur Riley

Advent Devotional | September 14, 2020

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.
He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

—Genesis 16:7-16 (Read Genesis 16)

Last week, hidden under covers with a pile of melting M&Ms, I watched Maya Angelou recite poem after poem after poem on YouTube.

An hour passed and I continued listening—with my eyes closed—just to hear the familiarity of that velvet voice. I’d been feeling a certain weariness of heart that comes with existing in a black-woman-body in our current cultural moment.

I thought I was looking for comfort, but what I found was belonging.

Maya said,

“My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.”

The full poem is called “The Mask,” and it is an adaptation of a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In the words of both Dunbar and Angelou, you find a paradox of alienation and belonging. They deal honestly with the repression of blacks and remind us of those with whom our story is deeply entangled. They are not easy poems for comfort.

Neither is Hagar’s story.

Divorced from her own people and made a slave, Hagar is alone in the desert with child. Then appears an angel of the Lord who doesn’t rescue her from her current predicament, but does reveal to her her place in the story.

“Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

A haunting line, the mystery of which only seems to grow. The angel of the Lord calls a slave woman by her name and then asks her to consider her journey, her moment in time. The answer to the question one can only assume the Lord already knows acutely. And yet, here we have it.

Where have you come from and where are you going?

Here, we find a pause in a moment of despair to remember. The Lord sees Hagar and her story as it stretches across time. He doesn’t transplant her out of her current suffering, but reminds her of her past and leaves her with a promise. Her seed will be a great nation as well. She belongs in this story. It is not an easy kind of belonging. No, it will be swathed in conflict and trial. But her inclusion points to something profound.

Here in Hagar’s exile, we find Immanuel himself, spilling out of the page in the wake of Hagar’s tears to reveal His character—that He was never content to abandon any man or woman to the grave. That His plan knows no dormancy.

Hagar’s promise comes to her right alongside that familiar promise of Abram’s. She will give birth to a son, and just as God provided the ram to spare Isaac on top of the mountain, the Lord provides a well to spare Ishmael in the desert.

This is no mere coincidence. This is covenant across time. Fulfilled already, but not just yet.

In Advent, we wait for Christ who entered the particularities of time and place and history so that we might be people of God who honor our time and place and history.

We wait for the Christ who heard Hagar and Ishmael’s cries (together with Maya’s and Paul Lawrence’s), who wept himself, and who will put an end to all our weeping.

We wait for, and with, Immanuel. On mountaintops, in deserts, and under blankets marred by melting M&Ms. He comes to proclaim, and not for the first time—you belong. Your story is of great significance. And you will soon see the One who sees you.

—Cole Arthur Riley is CCO campus ministry staff, reaching out to students at Cornell University.