Scripture reading for today:
Our second son was born mid-January, and the December before he arrived was a Christmas season like no other. I grew up familiar with the contours of the Christmas Story: the stable, angels, shepherds and wisemen. I’ve heard (and preached) many sermons about the miracle and wonder of it all, God-with-us!
But that Christmas was something special.
I felt for the first time that not only was I in the Story, but the Story was in me. I would feel my baby stretch, kick and hiccough and, along with the wonder of my own mother’s heart, I would think, “God? God, did this?”
How was God was so reckless with His own Godhood that He willingly became an infant, cushioned by amniotic fluid? How could God allow Godself to become so utterly dependent on His mother for life and existence? Did God realize, before putting the Divine Rescue Plan into action, that He’d be forced to leave the sacred darkness by the only exit available: a human vagina!?
Christmas that year was not magical or sparkly. My little family had all the usual stresses: money was tight, toddlers are difficult. A woman in our church was dying and I conducted my first ever funeral 9 days before Micah was born. I wore gray because, girl, when you’re that far along, you wear what still fits no matter what colour it is.
No, Christmas that year wasn’t magical, but it was raw, intimate and astonishing in ways I had never known. That Christmas, I was as tired as every pregnant woman or pastor or mother of a two-year-old ever is, but I was also full. Full of the baby and full of the mystery. God-with-us indeed!
That was four Christmases ago, and this year, Christmas will be different, emptier.
On the one hand, my husband and I are a lot better at “adulting” than we were in December 2015. We have a functional budget, and RRSPs and good, steady work, but still. With more life, comes more sorrow: communal sorrow and personal sorrow too.
This Christmas, along with the up-lose view of suffering that pastoring a local church affords me, the emptiness hits close to home. My husband and I lost a pregnancy this year, an early miscarriage. This Christmas we feel the ache of longing and disappointment, of being empty where we should have been full.
God with us? Is God with us, in any way that matters?
Mary is one of the key figures in the story of how God came to be with us, but I can’t help wondering if she ever asked this question herself, even as her own biography was being terrifyingly lived into the story we all know so well. Is God with us?
While all four gospels tell the story of Jesus, it is in Luke’s gospel that we catch a glimpse of Mary’s own experience of her pregnancy and the birth that would literally split human history in two. Luke was known to be a careful researcher, and some scholars believe that Luke was able to provide us with such intimate moments because one of his sources was Mary herself!
One of these intimate moments is the story of Mary’s visit to her elderly relative, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth too, had found herself miraculously pregnant. The passage that portrays the meeting of these two great women paints it as a sort of eye in the storm. A moment of rest and sanity amidst the swirling torrent of rumours and speculation that surely surrounded them both.
It is during this first meeting that Mary erupts in what would become one of the most celebrated prayers of Scripture, “The Magnificat.”
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful.
What is interesting to me about this outburst of praise from the mother of Son of God, is not so much it’s content as it’s timing, it’s placement in the story.
The confident assertion that God has been mindful, extended mercy, performed mighty deeds and filled the hungry with good things, comes not after the resurrection, or even after the birth when these things might have been more apparent, but at the very beginning.
We’re talking first-trimester here, in the exhaustion and nausea of new pregnancy, and in what must have her certain belief that life as she knew it had ended. Her marriage was over, of course it would be over. No one would believe her, surely. “Pregnant by the Holy Spirit,” must have sounded every bit as outlandish in the first century as it would today. She must have known this, young as she was.
And yet, this.
“My soul glorifies the Lord…
From now on all generations will call me blessed…
He has filled the hungry with good things”
Though full of new life, I can only imagine that Mary must also have been empty. Empty with the weight and sorrows of her exiled people Israel, and empty too with the uncertainty and fear she must have had for herself.
Bur Mary was a woman of exceptional vision. She may not have known all that would transpire for her, or this child she carried, but she recognized the presence of Someone else, a whispered invitation in the midst of the emptiness.
Poet Elizabeth Barret Browning puts it this way1
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Mary knew, and Elizabeth knew too, that often God comes not in fullness, but in emptiness.
Much of the time, God’s preferred way to be “with us” is to come without fanfare, into the spaces and emptiness we open for Him. It usually doesn’t look like we expect it to look. We would expect God to come with fireworks and parades, but He doesn’t, not most of the time.
Most of the time, God comes quietly, when nobody is looking, to places and people we least expect. He fills the empty spaces where someone is ready to welcome him: the womb of a teenage girl, a cold middle-eastern stable, and from there He offers his own invitation. We can acknowledge Him there, in the emptiness, or not. That is the heart and the invitation of Advent.
The invitation to each of us, in all the emptiness (and fullness) of being human. We can be like Joseph or like the shepherds or like Mary herself and acknowledge, celebrate, worship God in our midst, God-with-us, right here, right now all the while acknowledging that this is not how we expected the story to go.
Mary reminds me that “taking off my shoes” to God in the empty might just be worth the risk. Better that than the alternative: to“sit round, and pluck blackberries.”
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