Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that would obstruct your mercy, that willingly we may bear your redeeming love to all the world, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son…” Luke 1:30.
Nothing is quite so disruptive as pregnancy. The news that you are about to be a parent alters your outlook on the future, reshapes your expectations and forces you to re-evaluate the direction of your life. The baby’s arrival wreaks havoc on life. For first time parents, gone are the days when you can decide serendipitously after arriving home from work to grab a pizza and go out to see the new movie everyone is talking about. Your social life changes. You find you can no longer keep up with your childless friends and the activities you shared with them. Those boring individuals who used to make your eyes roll with their fixation on Legos, play dates and where to get the best deal on Pampers are suddenly your new best friends. For established families, a new baby upsets the existing constellation of familial relationships, depriving older siblings of attention, changing sleeping arrangements and aggravating further sibling rivalry. And this is all under optimal conditions when a pregnancy is welcome and expected. Where, as in our gospel lesson, pregnancy is unplanned and unanticipated, its disruptive effects are multiplied exponentially.
Mary is not unaware of the disruption her pregnancy has unleashed, disruption that goes far beyond her and her family. In our psalmody from Luke’s gospel she sings:
“[God] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Luke 1:51-55.
At Jesus’ circumcision, the prophet Simeon tells Mary that “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke 2:34-35. Mary is very much aware, as is the poet Yehuda Amichai, that a child-her child-is “a missile into the coming generations.” Like the poet, she “trembles” with wonder at what she has launched into the world.
It has always struck me as ironic that this story, which for Mary, for Israel and the world is so very jarring and disruptive, has managed to weave itself into a holiday so steeped in tradition and sameness. Nothing is as rock solid and resistant to change as Christmas. Every pastor knows that the annual Christmas Candle Light Service is not the place to introduce new hymns and experiment with novel liturgical forms. Every nominally Christian family has its own traditions and practices for celebrating Christmas without which “it just isn’t Christmas.” Those traditions might be overtly religious, secular or a mix of both. But whatever they are, they constitute a set of cherished expectations we have come to take for granted. Whatever else might be changing in the world around us, Christmas is still Christmas.
Of course, I hardly need to tell you that this year of pandemic is different. It has disrupted so many aspects of our lives, not the least of which is the way we celebrate holidays like Christmas. Sesle and I were not together with our children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving and will not be together with them for Christmas either. We will not be celebrating the Eucharist on Christmas or anytime in the near future. Our town’s community Christmas tree lighting celebration will not be happening this year, nor will many other cultural and religious public events. All of our expectations have been shattered, our routines have been disrupted. We are feeling our way into an uncertain future-much as Mary must have been upon learning that, unmarried though she was, she was about to bear a child.
So perhaps this will be the most Christmas like Christmas we have ever experienced. Maybe God is brewing something holy and redemptively disruptive in the midst of all this darkness and uncertainty. Maybe we are finding ourselves in a place where we can finally hear the story of the Nativity. Perhaps we are finally positioned to encounter the terrible, fearful and wonderful miracle of the Incarnation, God’s missile of healing launched into a wounded and hurting world. That is bound to disrupt our established ways of thinking and acting. But, of course, that is the whole point.
Here is the poem by Yehuda Amichai I cited above.
A Child is Something Else Again
A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he’s full of words,
in an instant he’s humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.
A child is Job. They’ve already placed their bets on him
but he doesn’t know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They’re training him to be a polite Job,
to say “Thank you” when the Lord has given,
to say “You’re welcome” when the Lord has taken away.
A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I’m still trembling.
A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.
Source: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. (c. 2015 by Yehuda Amichai, Translated By Chana Bloch and published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). Yehuda Amichai is one of Israel’s most prominent poets. He was born in Germany in 1924 but left with his family for Palestine in 1935. He fought in the 1948 Arab/Israeli war. His poems have been translated into English, French, German and Swedish. You can read more about Amichai and his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.