Last night, the hustle and bustle of getting ready, and anticipating the birth. Last night, the noise, the anxiety, the smelly stable, the animals, the shepherds, the chorus of heaven singing in the starry, silent night. “Joy to the world” indeed!
Today, however, the child is born. A little more breathing room, perhaps. A little more time for realizing what just has happened. Time, amidst the burping, squawking infant feeding for quiet reflection, to ponder this miraculous birth, this wondrous event that will change everything! “What child is this?” indeed!
As things begin to sink in, to settle, one may ponder the last several months as I am sure Mary and Joseph did — how it all began to take shape. It all started, of course, when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her the news of God’s intention (Luke 1).
Looking back, this was the critical moment. In the reverie it almost feels like the Mission Impossible theme song should start up: “Should you choose to accept your mission ….” Da-Da, Da-Da-Da, Da-Da.
Everything depended on that moment of decision on Mary’s part. The course of history hung in the balance. So much at stake. What does she do? How will she respond?
During Christmas, Mary mother of Jesus figures prominently in the story-telling. Traditionally, Mary has been imagined by Christians as a passive, placid, sweet and quiet girl. Certainly she is portrayed like this in many a Sunday School Christmas pageant.
But the biblical record suggests something more. Listen to the famous poem, the “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov who captures the immensity of the moment:
“We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–
but who was God.
This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed, Spirit suspended, waiting.
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.”
How did she handle the moment of decision before the Angel Gabriel? I must conclude, with both courage AND joy. Often we don’t consider the two together. Either someone has a whole lot of courage, determination, and serious intent about their business. Or, someone tends towards the frivolous, uncontained in their happiness and joyful demeanour — even being silly, unfettered from the cares of the world.
During the memorial service for the late Dorothy Mueller last week, we recalled a moment in Dorothy’s early life in Montreal with her husband Henry. One night all dressed up for going out dancing on the town, she and Henry came across a street fight where a couple boys were beating up another. Without missing a beat she crossed the street, strode right up to the offending boys and demanded that they stop their violence. Which they did.
Not many of us would demonstrate that level of courage in the public arena. And take the risk to stand up out of passionate concern for the underdog, the downtrodden, the suffering, the poor.
What else is impressive is that she showed that courage while out on the night, dancing. Along with any kind of bold, courageous deed on behalf of the poor, we must also be filled with joy, of letting go, of honest and playful engagement with ourselves and our loved ones — all of which good dancing demands and embodies.
Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, and others, have suggested that the most appropriate contemporary equivalent to “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) may be “The Word became poor.” (1) Like Mary, like Dorothy, we too need to express joy in our lives even as we are called to do the right things on behalf of the poor and the needy.
Dancing is a relational/relationship-building activity. And this is what we ultimately celebrate at Christmas. When Mary, with courage and joy, accepted the mission presented by the Angel Gabriel, the God-human relationship was now restored in the incarnation — the birth of Jesus. Indeed, “The Word became flesh.” Because of that first Christmas the divine could finally, truly and intimately relate to all humanity. To us.
God was now human in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the divine-human dance. At Christmas we ponder the love of God that seeks to fully understand each one of us. We ponder this great love which brings God’s comfort, mercy and encouragement no matter the depth of our grief, the extent of our suffering, the measure of our pain and loss. Jesus came into the darkness of the 1st century world. And, Jesus continues to come into the darkness of our lives.
At Christmas-time, this year, the dance continues. Yes, the world, our lives, still have problems. At the same time we can express the grace of God that comes to us in different ways, and to each according to our needs.
Perhaps, on this Christmas Day, we can start by giving thanks to God for Mary — her courage and joy at being the first to receive Christ.
(1) cited in “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion”, WJK Press Kentucky, 2014, p.138