Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
In “Signposts in a Strange Land,” Walker Percy wrote: “Life is a mystery; love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than infinite mystery and infinite delight, i.e., God.” In last week’s Gospel lesson, John the Baptizer was quoted as referring to “One you do not know.” He was talking about Jesus. We must be very careful–especially at this time of year, when we are so familiar with the Bible stories of Christmas–not to think we know everything there is to know about Jesus. As a matter of fact, we are well advised to clear our brains of conventional wisdom and get ready for the surprises of God–the mystery of the eternal, almighty and infinite, who is always showing up where He is least expected and doing the last thing anyone might think.
When God called the prophets of old, their response was almost always something like: “What? Who, me? There must be some mistake.” In this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, a poor woman from a backwater town in Galilee has a similar reaction when the angel Gabriel drops in with some good news. Nazareth was one of the poorest towns in a desperately poor region of the world. One of Jesus’ disciples would later cast aspersions on it that ring of the kind of silly prejudice that is still common today: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The woman who receives the message is surprised. The place is certainly unexpected and the time is when many had already given up on the promise ever being fulfilled.
William Willimon once described the time as follows: “God’s people have been quivering with anticipation for the advent of God into their world. Scholars have been poring over the Scriptures for centuries, looking for cues. Wise men have been scouring the heavens for some sign, some signal that God is coming. Then at last, with a flutter of wings and a cloud of mystery, God’s messenger, Gabriel, rushes earthward with a message, an announcement directly from God. And where does angel Gabriel go? ‘To a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph.’ We know Washington, we know Rome, but who knows Nazareth? We know Caesar. We’ve heard of Augustus. But who in the world is this Mary, this Joseph?”
Because of her station and her poverty, most people in her society, as well as our own, would consider Mary-the-ordinary to be disfavored–without power or influence. Yet, she is visited by one of only two angels in the entire Scriptures who are named, and that famous messenger greets her as, “highly favored!”
Mary is incredulous. She has a couple problems with the message. First, like the prophets of old, it seems incomprehensible that this should happen to her. She is no one of note. She is not deserving. She is a humble “handmaiden” of the Lord. Her description of herself is that of a female slave. The second problem is physical and moral: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel assures her that God’s favor rests on her. This message is pure Gospel–Good News of the undeserved favor of God! Then the angel assures her that God is quite capable of fulfilling His promises: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Leonard Sweet wrote that our typical manger scenes and pictorial images of the holy night, which came some nine months after this announcement, are pretty unrealistic and antiseptic: “It speaks to our lack of faith in the possibility of ordinary sacredness and ordinary miracles that we feel compelled to depict Mary on her knees worshiping the newborn Jesus as though He were some tiny deity that had magically materialized in her face. What we need to envision is an ordinary Mary looking pale and wan, disheveled and exhausted, but with her face transformed by joy and love as she snuggles the tiny baby Jesus tightly against her. Mary didn’t gaze in respectful reverence at her newborn child. She cuddled Him, counted all His fingers and toes, chuckled at the hair He did or didn’t have and wondered over the softness of His skin…Jesus was not some glow in the dark Christ-child. Jesus was the very God incarnate.”
Sweet went on to say that Jesus was likewise a thoroughly ordinary child as all human children are. He was a living, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating, wetting, messing baby. And just as with all babies, His greatest need was to be held in human arms, touched by human hands, soothed by human words of love and reassurance. Then Sweet wrote something that may be the most important words any of us could read right now: “At Christmas we are all called to birth and cradle Christ in our own lives–to wrap our arms around our faith.”
It was Christmas morning when a soldier finished his sentry duty. In years past, he had always gone to his home church on Christmas day. Now, in the outlying areas of London, that would not be possible. Lonely, and feeling the hollowness of holiday longings that would go unfulfilled, he and some buddies walked down the road leading to the city. They soon came to an old graystone building. Carved above the main entrance were the words, “Queen Anne’s Orphanage.” The soldiers decided to find out what the kids were doing for Christmas, so they knocked on the door. A matron came and, following greetings and the like, she explained that the children there were war orphans whose parents had been killed in the bombings.
As it was still early morning, the children were just tumbling out of their beds. The soldiers noticed immediately that there was no Christmas tree and there were no presents to be seen anywhere. They moved around the room wishing the children a Merry Christmas and offering whatever gifts they could find in their pockets: a stick of chewing gum, a Life Saver, a nickel or dime, a pencil, a pocket knife, a good luck charm. The soldier noticed a little fellow standing alone in the corner, who looked a lot like his own nephew back home. The soldier went to him and asked, “And you, little guy, what do you want for Christmas?” The lad replied without hesitation, “Will you hold me?” With tears brimming his eyes, the soldier picked up the boy, nestled him in his arms, and held him close.
What had begun, for that soldier, as his worst and most forgettable Christmas became one of the best and most memorable. There is a Nigerian Ibo proverb that says, “It is the heart that gives; the fingers just let go.” Jesus entered our world with a body from Mary and a heart from heaven. From that heart would come all the self-giving love a world desperately needs and that body would not be spared the cost of giving it.
Gabriel’s message began with Mary but it most assuredly did not end there. You and I and all who know and believe in the God who overflows His favor where it is least deserved and least expected are also recipients of the phrase, “Greetings, you who are highly favored.” With flesh still steeped in sin, but spirits being made over by God, we stand in awe of the mystery still being unlocked, the secret becoming disclosed. We worship a hands-on God, not one who holds us at arms length, but Emmanuel…God with us.
After Gabriel came to her, Mary-the-ordinary would never be ordinary again. Her life would be changed forever. Sometimes I look at myself in a kind of dismay, but when I look seriously at the people of the Bible I find we have much in common. Thomas Mann said we are tangles of ambiguity, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes kind, sometimes mean, sometimes faithful, sometimes faithless, but the more amazing mystery is God. For it is precisely to be with us as imperfect men and women, that God has come in Christ.
In 1849, a musician in New England wrote the first Christmas carol with positive social implications. Richard Storrs Willis witnessed the exploiting of children in the industrial revolution. He was saddened by families who were deserted by fathers who left to prospect gold. He knew that the unrest between North and South was about to erupt in war. He wrote his hymn in the hope that those who took its message to heart would avert and turn around these disastrous trends:
“It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven’s all gracious king!’
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!”