One of the challenges we face with a scripture so commonly known as this one is to find a way to read it as if it was our first time. That’s why it is good for us to read scripture using different translations or versions. We are helped when our preconceptions are overturned.
A line from within the morning anthem caught my attention: “Drawn by the Flame, led by a star…” I think of Moses going about the business of being a common shepherd when God draws Moses’ attention away from the sheep to the flame of a burning bush. God reaches into humanity to lift up one who will work with God to bring deliverance– deliverance from the darkness of slavery and oppression. The people were crying out for deliverance, and God heard their cries. Moses was drawn by the flame of that burning bush to be an agent of God. Out of that experience, out of that flame, came a new understanding of what it meant to be a people of faith and hope. Countless generations later, centuries later, a star rising in the East draws visitors from their every-day lives in distant lands to not a palace, but a stable. For them, and for us, this was a new experience, a new light, shining in the darkness, which leads us to a new understanding of God’s involvement in human history. From being “drawn by the flame… and led by a star” it is but one story of God. Instead of Moses, now God enters the life of a young woman in Nazareth. God would reach out to the earth, to humanity, to bring deliverance, but in a new way. God was going to come in human skin and be one of us, abide with us, teach us and guide us. We would learn that God is our God and that we are God’s people.
Another couplet in the anthem also caught my attention: “Eyes full of hope, warmed by a Promise, we are the seekers of Light.” There might be a reason why the first of the Advent candles we light reminds us of ‘hope’. After all, hope is the expectation that things will get better. We all need eyes of hope in order to move on. The nights now come earlier and earlier, the weather seems to affect us more than other times of the year. So, we light candles– small flickers of light which seem to shine out in the midst of encroaching darkness. We don’t need a lot of hope, just some… just some. Whether coping with the darkness, or illness, or disease; whether we feel like we are sinking in debt or struggling with a relationship that may have gone bad, we all need eyes of hope– just enough hope get through today and maybe into tomorrow. After all, without hope, some hope, why bother, there is no point in trying. Without hope some simply give in and give up.
For hope is about tomorrow. Hope is about things being different. The eyes of hope see beyond our present troubles. This is where the Gospel of Luke begins… in hope.
“… the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a young woman named Mary; she was engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. 28 Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!” [Luke 1:26-28]
Four hundred years had passed since the last written word of God in the Old Testament. It had been a very long time, and now God was sending hope. Except, Mary was greatly troubled! What is God going to do? “The angel went on to say to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. 31 You’ll conceive and bear a son, and give him the name Jesus—’Deliverance.'” [Luke 1:30-31]
As this Christmas story unfolds, Mary becomes a willing, active, partner with God. Far from being submissive to God, as many feel Mary was, I see her as actively participating in the ethics of the Realm of God. Mary listens, and wonders– and yes… was troubled. ‘Why was I chosen? What makes me favored?’ ‘God is with me? How? Who am I that God comes to me?’ Mary is well aware of who she is and knows that none of this should be happening. She is a single young woman with no family pedigree, living in a backwater village outside, and probably forgotten, by the realms of power. Her betrothed is of the family and lineage of David, but not her.
“Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have never been with a man?” The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you— hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God. 36 Know too that Elizabeth, your kinswoman, has conceived a child in her old age; she who was thought to be infertile is now in her sixth month. 37 Nothing is impossible with God.” [Luke 1:34-37] To this day, we don’t know, we don’t understand, how any of this could be. But yet, “Mary said, “I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say.” [Luke 1:38] For Mary to say this, for her to say “Let it be done to me as you say.” didn’t come fast or easy and it shouldn’t.
No, Mary isn’t the model of a submissive woman bending her will to God. Mary is actually the model of what it means to be a disciple. ‘What is your plan, God? How do I fit into it?’ I wonder if Luke got the order of events slightly wrong. I wonder if, after the angel left Mary, she went out to see cousin Elizabeth to see for herself whether what the angel said was true. When she found Elizabeth pregnant as the angel had said, then Mary knew that with God nothing was impossible.
Finally, as I heard the song “Mary, Did You Know?” two lines almost shouted out to me: “Mary, Did You Know?”… “This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I Am” When Moses was standing before the burning bush he asked God: By what name do I tell people about you? By what name are you to be known? God responded: “I am that I am”… I am existence itself, I am life, I am your future. Mary, did you know that you held the great I Am in your arms; that you held the foundation of life itself, that you held the future?
“Mary, Did You Know?”… “When you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God” ‘Did you know… that when we feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned’ we are feeding, housing, clothing, visiting God?
Luke’s Gospel is the foretelling of the birth of Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. Luke Gospel tells us that God comes TO US– as vulnerable as a baby can be, as vulnerable as the poorest of our society can be, as vulnerable as we are as we try to face the schoolyard bully, the hands supervisor or colleague, knowing that we have little to no power to change how life comes to us.
We do have, however, the power to change how WE see our neighbors, our sisters and brothers, the strangers we meet each day. We do have, however, the power to treat each person we meet with dignity, to treat each person we meet with kindness, to see and treat them as we (hopefully!) see and treat Jesus in our midst, and how we wish to be treated ourselves.
We would have no sex scandals, we would have no harassment claims, we have no inequality in our society, if we would treat each other with the dignity we would hopefully offer Jesus– God in our midst.
Christian, did you know that Christmas is about God overshadowing us and impregnating us with a new future, with a new hope, with a new sense of what life could mean?
Whenever we hold a baby, whenever we allow a neighbor their dignity, whenever we look into each other’s eyes and see the spark of God’s presence we acknowledge the presence of God within them.
When we are able to do this… Christmas comes, Emmanuel is born, God is here.