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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, December 29, 2019

In the beginning . . .

First Sunday after Christmas - December 29, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, De

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, 
and the Word was God.”
It’s that time of year. As sure and certain as death and taxes every three years this passage from John will appear as the gospel reading for the first Sunday after Christmas. Well, in the Episcopal Lectionary, this passage from John happens this time every year.

Perhaps it’s more like Brigadoon, that mythical Scottish village which is the stuff of Broadway musicals that makes an appearance for only one day every 100 years – and every night at the Shubert on West 44th.

Every three years this time of year John’s gospel arises out of the mist of Christmas tinsel and paper and the fog of too much Holiday Cheer to call us deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation of God.

The early hearers of this word would have been shocked by John’s words.   

“In the beginning . . .” would have been familiar words to John’s original audience. If you’ve spent some time in church they may have a familiar ring to them.

You’ll find them as the very first words in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.”

Ah, yes. Now we remember.  So imagine hearing John’s words and expecting one thing – one familiar thing that you and your parents and your parents’ parents through generations of people have heard for hundreds of years.

Except, John changes it. “In the beginning,” he says, “was the Word. (capital ‘w’)”

Wait! What? No, no, no. He has it all wrong. It’s “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.”  But, John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

And, in case you missed what he was doing, John puts an even finer point on it:  
“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

It’s a new creation. It’s creation fulfilling itself and re-creating itself and evolving.  

I can only imagine the heads snapping to attention that morning around the synagogue when John spoke those words (or those words of John were spoken). Heads jerked. Some walked out angrily muttering, ‘revisionist’ and ‘heresy’. 

But others, the majority thankfully, stayed. They listened to the deeper meaning of John’s words about the Word of God in Jesus bringing about a new, deeper understanding of creation.

In English there is no other meaning for the word ‘word’. It means what it says. No nuance. 

In the Greek, the word used is ‘logos’ which means a thing so true to a thing, nothing else can come of it. In the beginning was the LOGOS, and the LOGOS was with God and the LOGOS was God. 

So, hear it now, this way: In the beginning was this one true thing and the one true thing was with God and the one true thing was so true it WAS God. 

In Hebrew the word often used is “Tzofia” a borrowing of the Greek word ‘sophia’ (for wisdom), meaning in Hebrew, ‘watchman’ or ‘guard’. 

Wisdom is the one who waits at the gate for us, calling over and over to us to return. 

Other translations use the Aramaic word ‘yida’ or the Hebrew word ‘yada’ meaning the knowledge that is gained by knowing someone intimately.

It is not simply knowledge, the acquisition of information. It is much deeper than that. It is being the One true thing so true that it is one with the Source of All. It is Wisdom that calls to us from the gate over and over and over again.

So, what John is saying here is something beyond, something deeper in meaning than mere words can carry.
He is saying that this Jesus is the one who embodies Logos and Tzofia and Yida. 

He is saying that Jesus is that light that separated the darkness at the beginning of creation. 

He is saying that Jesus is the knowledge that was sought after by Adam and Eve in the Garden.
I’ve given you a lot of information. Now, let me give you a story to help explain it.

I grew up in New England – Massachusetts, to be exact – where winters could only be described as harsh. When a Nor’easter came through, we could almost be assured that we would lose electricity.  As a child, I was desperately afraid of the dark, but when we lost our electricity during a Nor’easter, I was terrified.

The sound of the wind howling and blowing the wet snow pellets against our windowpane sparked my child’s imagination. 

I just knew there was a huge monster right outside our door, scratching at the window with his long nails or teeth. The darkness in the house only made things that much worse.

Just at the point I felt I was going to scream, my mother would appear with a large blanket, some pillows and a lantern with a large, thick, white candle. My father would light the candle in the lantern and carefully close the glass door. We all crawled under the kitchen table and pulled the blanket all around us and we’d cuddle and snuggle around the light of the lantern.

Sometimes, my parents would tell us stories. Sometimes, we would sing. But then we’d settle down and just cuddle around the light. 

In silence. 

The snow was still pelting the windows. The wind was still howling like a fierce wild beast. There was safety and shelter under the table, wrapped all snug and warm in a blanket, cushioned by pillows with my parents.

But, it was the light that brought me the most comfort. There were no words to describe the sense of safety and security I felt from that light. But even at that young age, I knew that the light needed tending and care ‘lest it go out. That’s why it was in a glass lantern.  

It wasn't just concern that it would catch fire to something which inspired my father to keep a close watch on the candle. It needed to be tended to carefully so it wouldn't go out and we'd be in darkness again. 

When I listen to John’s gospel about the Word being the Light, an image of my childhood home arises out of the mist like Brigadoon, and I’m suddenly under that kitchen table, in the middle of an old fashioned New England Nor’easter, gathered around the light in that lantern. Safe. Protected.

Some people are comforted every year by the image of the traditional nativity scene – the image of the Holy Family gathered together in the stable, surrounded by lowly animals. 

But I find myself comforted by the poetry of St. John that draws me deeper into the mystery of God.

The one true thing I know, that is the source of all that is true for me is this:  It is deep within a paradox that the mystery of the Incarnation is to be found.

In the beginning, as it is at the end, the love of God comes among us as vulnerable and delicate as a child. God comes to us as a light that needs our tending and support. 

It is both the brightness and the vulnerability of that light that calls to us, over and over again, and draws us in and closer to the mystery of the Incarnation.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, 
and the Word was God.    


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Dale Evans Christmas

 Christmas Day - December 25th - 9 AM service

Christ Episcopal Church, Milford

Christmas Day. It was probably 1955 or '56. All I could think about was Dale Evans.

I had been a die-hard fan of Howdy Doody. And, I still was. Buffalo Bob Smith. Clarabelle the Clown. All the characters on that program entertained my childhood imagination and fed my budding sense of humor as a defense against a growing awareness of the absurdities of life.

But, it was Dale Evans and Roy Rogers who captured something even deeper in me - things I didn't yet have words to express. Independence. Adventure. Freedom. I wasn't in school yet but I was a student of the immigrant experience who had inherited the American Dream. There are still things about that which run deep - too deep for words.

Dale Evans was all that. First of all, Roy Rogers was her husband but she was not Dale Rogers. No! She was Dale Evans. She had her own name.

Not only that, but she had her own horse. Buttermilk. She was a Quarterhorse while Roy Rogers rode a Palimino horse named Trigger. I had never even been in the presence of a horse, much less had a dream that I would ever ride one. I didn't know what it meant to be a Quarterhorse but I knew that about the horse she rode the way I knew my father drove a Studebaker.

But, here's the real thing about Dale Evans: She was a cowboy girl. Not a cowgirl. She was a cowboy girl. I insisted on that. In my mind, there was the category "cowboy". That was the status to be achieved.

And she was a cowboy girl the way there is a "doctor" and then there are "women doctors." In my young, budding feminist mind, that was how equality was expressed - not by creating a new category but by defining the femininity of the traditionally male category.

So, Dale Evans had a cowboy girl outfit: A cowboy girl hat and cowboy girl boots. She wore a leather fringed vest and a leather skirt with fringe.

She even had her own holster which held her very own gun. And, it wasn't just there for show. Dale Evans could shoot that gun just as sure as she could ride Buttermilk. And, she hit her mark every time.

Oh, I wanted to be just like Dale Evans when I grew up. I wanted to be smart and independent. But mostly, I wanted my own Dale Evans outfit.

My mother knew that but, being a thrifty housewife of the 50s, she had long ago put my Christmas present on layaway and paid a little something on it every week when she paid her bills.

She had bought me a Howdy Doody rocking chair. When you sat in it and started rocking, a little teeny tiny music box on one of the rockers would start to play a a teeny tiny tinny version of the Howdy Doody Theme Song, "It's Howdy Doody Time."

Sensing my growing admiration of Dale Evans and listening week after week to my longing to be just like her, she started to get a bit worried about her Christmas gift. So, she did what any smart mother would do: She started to lobby for the Howdy Doody Chair.

I wasn't clever enough yet to figure out what she was doing. I just knew what I wanted - what I dreamed - what I didn't even dare to hope might be under the Christmas tree for me.

When I came down the stairs that Christmas morning, I can still remember the feeling of my heart sinking into my chest when I spied what had to be a Howdy Doody rocking chair covered with Christmas paper. I'm quite certain my mother saw the smile fall from my face as I tried to put on a brave face for my siblings (My parent's admonishment: "You are the oldest, you set the example" was ringing in my ears.), but I quickly resigned myself to not being Dale Evans this year.

I started to make my way over to my present when I heard my father say, "Oh, wait. This says 'Madeline' on it. This is a present for your sister."

Suddenly, Madeline sprinted by me like 'greased lightning', as Dale Evans would say, ripping off the paper to reveal, yesireebob, there it was: A jimdandy Howdy Doody rocking chair, complete with a teeny tiny-tinny music box that began to play "It's Howdy Doody Time" as soon as she sat in it and started rocking.

Now, my heart, which had fallen into the pit of my stomach, was crushed. I had really blown it. Now, I was probably going to get something stupid. Something like a new pair of pajamas or maybe - Woo hoo - a new sweater.

My father handed me a box just about the size of some boring new clothes - something I probably needed but most certainly didn't want. I started to tear the Christmas paper off the box, trying to focus on that and not on the incessant sound of the rocking chair playing the cheery theme song.

I'm sure the look on my face when I opened the box was an absolute delight to my parents. I can still feel what happens to your facial muscles when you are feeling surprised and delight.

There it was: my very own Dale Evans Cowboy Girl Outfit. Complete with fringed skirt and vest, cowboy girl hat and boots and my own holster and gun.

Somewhere in the dump heaps of time, there is a picture of me in that outfit. I am 'striking a pose' near my imaginary horse, Buttermilk, just as I had seen Dale Evans do hundreds of times on TV.

All these years later, the memory of that gift carries me through times of disappointment, times when I feel that my prayers are not being heard, much less listened to.

And, I learned that the gift itself is not the thing, it's the intention of the gift, the thought of the gift, the sheer, utter extravagance of the impracticability of the gift that makes it so memorable and stirs a deep sense of gratitude all these many years later.

I'm sure my parents could not afford that present. I'm sure my mother had to "cut some corners" as she liked to say in order to get what must have been a last-minute purchase.

I think that's when I began to appreciate the real meaning of Christmas - the the real gift of Christmas - which is not so much about the gifts we exchange with each other, but the gift that was given so many centuries ago so that we could be all of who God created us to be, free to make choices to be on this adventure called life.

I don't know if I ever said the words "Thank you," to my mother that Christmas morning. I probably did but I'm sure I didn't have to. The look of surprise and delight and gratitude on my face probably communicated all that and more.

Because of that Christmas gift, I never fail to say thank you to God every Christmas morning for the gift of Jesus, even though I'm sure God knows that my heart is filled to the brim, pressed down and overflowing with gratitude.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May you know the joy that was deep in the heart of Mary as she gazed upon the child who had come to change the world with extravagant, self-sacrificing love.

You can catch a glimpse of that kind of love in the face of a child who is surprised by delight and thrilled with the unexpected gift, she couldn't have asked for or imagined.

A gift that will last a lifetime - and beyond.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Advent IV: Where do broken dreams go?

ADVENT IV - December 22, 2019 
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE
“Now, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”  

 It began with a dream. 

This is a sermon about dreams. It seems an appropriate topic on this last Sunday in Advent, a season in which dreams and hopes are at the center of the anticipation and expectation, the meditation and contemplation that are high on the spiritual “to-do list” on the Advent church calendar.

Dreams are at the center of this morning’s gospel story from St. Matthew, who seeks to tell us how “the birth of Jesus the Messiah” took place. 

One could easily presume that we were to hear about the actual scene of the nativity. Instead, Matthew sets the context for us – a situation in which any and all dreams of respectability and conformity to cultural norms are shattered.

Joseph, a righteous man, was betrothed to Mary and, as the Gospel delicately puts it, but before they lived together” (ahem!) Mary “was found to be with child” – which from the start, let’s be clear, the child did not come from Joseph, but “from the Holy Spirit.”

What is a righteous man to do, therefore, but to spare her from “public disgrace and dismiss her quietly”? Wait! What? This doesn’t make a lick of sense. 

I mean, seriously! 

Even if Joseph ‘dismisses her quietly” well, she’s still pregnant. The only thing that changes is that she’s now an unmarried pregnant woman. Which, one would think, brings more – not less – public disgrace. So perhaps the one Joseph was “sparing public disgrace” was not Mary but himself.

See what happens when women get to tell the story?

So, that’s the context Matthew sets for the birth of Jesus. There are more dreams to be had and to be told. But this is how it began – by naming a dream that shattered all their dreams of respectability and expectation of “normal”. And they named that dream-shattering dream “God saves.”

One of my favorite albums – remember when there used to be ‘record albums’? – from another time in another place which seems like a galaxy ago, is Harry Chapin’s Greatest Hits

Anybody remember the singer-songwriter Harry Chapin? If you don’t know his name you have probably heard his song, “Cat’s Cradle. (“And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon . .  .”)

One of my favorite songs on that album – okay, I also love the song “30Thousand Pounds of Bananas” – is the song, “Dreams Go By”

It’s a song about life and our youthful expectations about how our lives are going to be lived and the dreams we have that never come to be. Dreams about growing up to be a ballerina or a ballplayer. Or a doctor or a painter. And, instead, we get married and have kids and buy a home and, as they say, “settle down”.

The refrain of that song goes like this: “Listen to the seasons passing. Listen to the wind blow. Listen to the children laughing. Where do broken dreams go?

Where do broken dreams go?

Every generation has a song with a similar theme. Gordon Lightfoot’s, “Broken Dreams”. Green Day’s, “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Prince’s, “When Dove’s Cry.” Aerosmith’s “Dream On”. Mama Cass’, “Dream a Little Dream with Me”.

But, it’s Harry Chapin who asks, “Where do broken dreams go?” And this time of year, as we get closer to Christmas, is the time of year where broken dreams, long covered over by time and temporarily forgotten, surface from their places of hiding.

As a priest and a pastor, my phone has already started to ring off the hook.

This is the time of year when many of us lose sight of "the reason for the season”. The romanticism of the commercial understanding of Christmas can spill into a touch of melancholy for “Christmases Past” or, actually, if we’re honest, “Christmases Never.” 

For some people, the season becomes stuck in the growing darkness of an unidentifiable type of general malaise that many may shrug off as "Oh, I'm probably just coming down with a cold." Or, “I’m just exhausted. I’m really bad at multitasking.”
But, in the evening, when yet another Hallmark Christmas story is told on TV, or another celebrity family or cartoon characters dance and sing their way into our living rooms, the memory of a loved one who has died or lives far away arises as well. 

At that point, a Christmas malaise can wrap itself around our shoulders like an old, worn-out sweater.

Sometimes, that malaise can slip into a low-level depression that can look like the ice that has begun to form around the waters of the marshes where I live on Rehoboth Bay. 

The ice doesn't stop the water from flowing but it's there, keeping the nourishment from those with whom we share this marsh at this time of year, the Canada Geese and Merganser Ducks and Blue Heron. 

There may be increasing instances of low-level bickering. People can say insensitive, hurtful things. Tempers flare like a match on an old newspaper. Impulse control is severely strained. Ordinary family squabbles can get blown way out of proportion. Some storming out of the room may be seen.

Stop me if any of this sounds even vaguely familiar. 

If it doesn't, hang tight. There are a lot more hurting people than you know, some of whom are sitting right next to you, putting on a brave face. 

Amidst the sounds of the cheery 'ho, ho, ho' and the Salvation Army bell ringers and the Christmas 'Musak' on the radio, television and in every shop and market in town, it's hard to hear the heavy groans of a young Nazarene woman as she prepares herself to deliver a dream, a the promise of hope, a light in the midst of darkness. 

And that dream, which she wasn’t expecting and didn’t plan for but none the less welcomed, would grow up to break her heart. 

Here's what I've discovered: Anyone can have themselves a "Merry Little Christmas". That really doesn't take much effort. A few decorations. A few choruses of "All I Want for Christmas is You." Some things that sparkle. A string or two of colorful, twinkling lights. And, the purchase of a few presents no one really wants or needs, all wrapped up in cheery paper, now on sale for 50% off. 

Christmas joy, however, requires none of that. It's not a luxury that can't be afforded but it does require a different kind of currency that is, in fact, not inexpensive. 

Having a Merry Christmas or a Happy Christmas is possible and attainable. Generally, that happiness lasts for about a day – sometimes, it can last a whole entire week. But it doesn’t last.

Christmas joy, however, knows no restrictions of time. It surpasses notions of happiness. It cannot be contained by ideas of respectability and propriety. 

Indeed, Christmas joy defies boundaries of logic and reason.  It makes little or no sense.  How can we have a Merry Christmas when our family looks nothing like the happy faces on the Hallmark Christmas shows? How can we be Merry and Bright when someone we love is ill or suffering? When I can’t afford to get the ones I love what they wanted? When I know I won’t be able to get what I want/need for Christmas?

The paradoxical truth is this: Christmas joy is not to be found in things. It is not to be found in perfection. Christmas joy is born of broken dreams. It’s right there in Matthew’s reporting of the context. 

Christmas joy is found in the place where our disappointments and sadness, our mistakes and failures, our misfortunes and regrets are placed in humble dwellings, like a stable where the lesser creatures of God find shelter. 

There, in that place, that which is quintessentially human – our brokenness, our vulnerability – is wrapped in rags and visited and blessed by The Holy. In that place, in that moment, our human brokenness becomes whole, becomes holy. 

And, because of that holy moment in time, we are assured that God knows our suffering. God knows our sadness. God knows our depression. God knows our mistakes and failures. And, most importantly, God knows our dreams – those that have been broken and those yet not dared to dream.

We may feel lonely or alone, but because of the Incarnation, because God became human, we are never alone. Not in our sadness. Not in our broken dreams. Not in our poverty.

There's a story going 'round Facebook about a teacher who knows about Christmas joy. She teaches in a poor region of the country and at Christmas time, though she tries to tell the parents and children not to buy her Christmas presents, she gets them anyway.

Her favorite present, however, was a small plastic bag of the marshmallow treats from a box of Lucky Charms. 

Many of the children qualify for the School Breakfast Program. One of the little girls took her breakfast box of Lucky Charms and sorted out all the marshmallow treats from the rest of the cereal. 

She then took the plastic bag which held her plastic breakfast utensils and filled the bag with the marshmallow treats from the Lucky Charms cereal and gave them to her teacher as her Christmas present.

Now, I don't know if that child and her teacher had themselves a Merry Little Christmas. They probably did. But, I know they both knew something about Christmas joy.  

Indeed, I'm certain that the Christmas joy they had experienced previously stayed with them which inspired both the Christmas present and the gratitude felt by the recipient.

Bob Marley is quoted as having said this: “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”  

The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus came because we are all worthy of his birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection. The joy of Christmas is that no matter who we are, or who we think we are; where we’ve been or where we think we are going, we are all worthy of the sacrifices of God in Christ Jesus.  Jesus came to each one of us. As the angels sing, “For unto us, a child is born; unto us, a child is given.’ 

St. Matthew tells us: “Now, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”   

It began with a dream – the appearance of an angel who brought to Mary the dream of God. It was a dream that broke expectations of what and who will save us from ourselves. 

It is not super-human strength; no, quite the opposite: Vulnerability. Meekness. Sacrificial Love, these three, all bundled together in rags and lying in a place beyond respectability in the company of the lesser creatures of God.

One way to find Christmas Joy can be found in the words of the third verse of "O Little Town of Bethlehem". There, buried deep in the lyric, you will find the key to open your heart to the the miracle of this season where you will find more than enough fuel to enlighten the darkest night of your soul.

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of (God’s) heaven.
No ear may hear (Christ’s) coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
Be silent, then, and listen. Listen to the seasons passing. Listen to the wind blow. Listen to the children laughing. And, you will find the place where broken dreams go to be blessed and born again in the form of love, human and divine. 

May your broken hearts be transformed into a manger to hold the dream of Christmas joy.   


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Something About Mary

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Advent III - Year A - December 15, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Welcome to the third Sunday in Advent. One more Sunday and then, two days after that, in the midst of the darkness of Winter: Ta da! Jesus will be born.

Let me begin with a little teaching about the church which is always good to do in this time of interim for you. 

This is known as Rose Sunday or Gaudete Sunday or Stir-up Sunday. 

This Sunday is known as Rose Sunday for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is an illusion to Mary as God’s rose. One of my favorite Christmas hymns is the traditional English Christmas carol, from 1420: 
“There is no rose of such virtue as is the rose that bare Jesu. Alleluia. For in this rose contained was Heaven and Earth in little space. Res miranda.  (a thing to be marveled).”
In some churches, the vestments for Advent are the color Sarum blue* to distinguish the season from the purple of Lent. On this Sunday, whether blue or purple, many churches switch to rose-colored vestments in honor of Mary. We light the pink or rose-colored candle for the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, who “contained Heaven and Earth in little space”.

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Of course, the real reason we light a pink candle was a long-held secret, whispered only among monks and nuns in the depth of the silence of monasteries and convents. It was revealed about 20 years ago by Bishop Cate Waynick, bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis and one of the first women to be consecrated a bishop diocesan in The Episcopal Church.

Shortly after her consecration, she wrote in one of her first diocesan newsletters, “For centuries, people have wondered why the Advent III candle is pink. Well, now it can be told. The Advent candle is pink because Mary really, really, really wanted a girl.”

Which is a perfect story to tell on Gaudete Sunday. The Latin Introit for today begins “Gaudete in Domino”. Or, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice”.

This is also known Stir up Sunday because the Collect of the day begins: “Stir up your might and come among us.” 

Some people think it has to do with the old English/Anglican practice of fermenting the fruit in alcohol to be used for the fruitcake. This would be the Sunday one would ‘stir up’ the crock of fermented fruit. 

I like that story because I like to think the kitchen work of women has had some influence on the collect prayer. It probably didn’t but I love the image. Just as I love to think that Mary might have wanted a girl.

There IS something about Mary, though, isn’t there? Something that makes us stop and think about the mystery of the Incarnation. 

Because, well, let’s face it: Everything about the Christian faith begins and ends with the Incarnation. If you don’t believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, then none of the rest of the fundamentals of the Christian faith makes any sense – or, actually, any difference. 

It’s because of the Incarnation that all the miracle stories of Jesus are important. Because of the Incarnation, the Resurrection is important. So, it all begins here, with Mary.

Artist: Igor Kufayev
What is it about Mary? Throughout the centuries, people have wondered about the miracle and mystery of Jesus being fully divine and fully human. How could that be? Why did Jesus have to be born of a woman, just the way every other human being comes into this world? 

And, why did God choose this particular young Nazarene girl named Mary? What was so special about her to have been chosen to be God’s special rose, the one to “contain Heaven and Earth in little space”? Was she the only one to be asked, or was she the only one to have said, “Yes”?

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus names John as his “messenger” – the one who was sent before him to prepare the way. But, reading Mary’s song – known as The Magnificat – it would appear that there was a messenger of God who prepared the way for Jesus long before his cousin, John began calling people to repent and baptizing them with water.

Listen a bit to the song Mary sang after the Angel Gabriel delivered to her God’s message. I prefer to think she sang this song directly to God, as one would a prayer: 
“You have shown the strength of your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit. You have cast down the mighty from their thrones and you have lifted up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things, and the rich you have sent away empty.”
And, I’m thinking she sang this prayer around the house which Jesus heard as he was growing up. You can hear the words of his mother’s song in the words of the sermon he preached on the Mount, commonly known as The Beatitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Realm of Heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Turns out, Mary had quite an influence on her son. Turns out, she was his first messenger. We should not be surprised. 

Artist: Sandro Botticelli
There has always been something about Mary. Something strong. Something brave. Something inspiring. 

Something that you knew just from looking at her that allowed you to marvel that in her, “There is no rose of such virtue as is the rose that bare Jesu. . . .”

It is the poet and spiritual author Jan Richardson who captures the moment in which Gabriel delivered God’s message to the one who would embody “Heaven and Earth in little space.” 

I want to share Jan’s poem with you now. 

It’s called Gabriel’s Annunciation.
For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.

For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,

I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her ‘Let it be’
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction
for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.
And so, as Wendell Barry says of Advent, the time grows darker and darker and darker until we arrive to this brief moment of light in the midst of the darkness before the birth of the One who is the Light of the World. 

In this moment, it is good to remember the messengers of God in our lives of faith. The ones, like Mary, who have that certain indescribable something – a strength in the midst of holy vulnerability – enough to make the heart of an angel pound and even place a few beads of sweat on an angel’s brow, he who had condescended to leave Paradise to speak with a mere mortal. And a woman at that.

Let us light the pink Advent candle in memory of Her, Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the messenger of God to the messengers of God. 

See? God is stirring up the cosmos, sending messengers to us in the bodies of those whom the world would cast off but God will raise up.

Look around. Who are the unlikely ones? Who are those cast-offs for us today? Who are the ones our culture does not value? What message might they be carrying for us – for YOU – in our day and in our time? To whom and for what might God want us – want YOU – to say ‘yes’?

Artist: George Hitchcock
Indeed, it’s not too late to consider how we – you and I – might be messengers of God. 

How might we be a different light, a different color, in the midst of the same and the familiar? How might we bring unexpected greetings of hope to a world torn by despair? How might we speak inspiring words to a culture so filled with privilege it has lost its hunger for justice?

These are some of the spiritual challenges for us this third Sunday in Advent – to find ‘Heaven and Earth contained in little space’. For we are – each one of us – God-bearers and messengers of God.

Because there’s something about Mary. And, because of the child she bore – and in whose name we are baptized – there’s something about us.


* SARUM BLUE: This is a recovery of an ancient English tradition stemming from Salisbury Cathedral, and so it is referred to as sarum blue. (Sarum being the ancient Latin name for Salisbury.)