There is a rather obscure and tragic story from the bible not widely told. But it is part of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:16-18).
Herod was infuriated that the Magi had tricked him. Their agreement was that after paying homage to the newborn Messiah, the Magi would come back to Jerusalem and report to Herod where this new King was. Instead, they had gone home by a different route.
Enraged, the evil and paranoid dictator massacred all boys under 2 years of age in the Bethlehem area — just to be sure he would not have any competition from any Messiah, for years to come. Machiavellian in spirit, such brutality is reserved for the annals of history when humankind was barbaric and unenlightened, right? Surely, we have evolved to higher levels of sophistication. Or?
Last week alone, 132 schoolchildren and nine staff were massacred in a vicious attack by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan. Then, in a Nigerian marketplace, some children were murdered by suicide bombers. All this tragedy, just in the past week.
The world today, never-mind first century Palestine, watches the anguish of grieving parents burying their children. And, in the words of Primate Fred Hiltz (Anglican Church of Canada), “we are left wondering how such evil intent to kill innocent children continues to stock the earth.”
The world, it would seem, has never been an easy place to bear and raise children. The dangers have threatened throughout the ages. Not only two thousand years ago, but to this day, we shake our heads and wonder: Why would anyone want to bring a child into the world today?
I think we could, then, sympathize with Mary’s initial response, after the angel Gabriel visits her with the astounding news that she will bear the Christ child. The Gospel text for today simply indicates that Mary was “perplexed” (Luke 1:29) by this encounter.
I think we can relate. What the angel proposes is both irrational and incredible. One would have to suspend belief — in at least two ways:
The angel’s message basically boils down to two instructions: First, “Do not be afraid!”
and then, “You will bear Christ!” Why? How so? “How can this be?”
“Do not be afraid!” “Fear not” — This message is actually repeated in the bible some 365 times (one for each day of the year). But this time is a dark time, and a dark place. How can we not be afraid!
At the same time, the Word instructs us to “fear the Lord”. Fear, in this sense, is humility before the Divine. Fear is respect before that which is indescribable, uncontainable, Mystery. “Fearing the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Those who fear the Lord, as Mary then sings, upon them mercy endures forever (Luke 1:50). In the end, fearing the Lord is about trusting in God above all else.
What kind of God do we worship? Look at Jesus: Our Lord is known for having taken children in his arms, blessing them and upholding their awe and wonder in the love and trust of those who care for them (Mark 10).
Sometimes I think we get things mixed up about God — that somehow God is like a dictator who keeps a checklist of who’s following the rules and who isn’t — and then punishing those who are deviant. God, in this view, is like some cosmic police-officer.
But if Jesus shows us who the Father is, then the picture is entirely different. “Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God” (twitter: @RichardRohrOFM). Jesus shows us that the God we worship is nothing like what we had come to expect in the likes of ruthless, dictators personified in power-obsessed Herod.
We don’t have to be afraid — afraid of God — because of who God is: “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8).
The second message may be even more perplexing: “You shall conceive in your womb a child … by the Holy Spirit … and he shall be Son of the Most High”! (Luke 1:31-35)
Scholars have long puzzled over the past tense on the lips of this soon-to-be pregnant woman. Mary, who before giving birth speaks of her offspring’s approaching mission as already accomplished — finished and done (i.e. “the Lord has scattered the proud; has brought down the powerful; has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things”, etc.) She announces how the wrongs of her dark history have already been made right. (Luke 1:51-54).
The use of the past tense to announce a consummated future, is a statement of profound and deep faith. This grammatical curiosity from the Word of God suggests life-changing ramifications. Our challenge, I believe, is in the spirit of Mary’s faith, to cultivate the ability to see God’s promises as already having come to pass.
When we can express our faith from a trusting-in-God heart, how wonderfully this can change our whole outlook on life! Because we have to wait for it — something that, beyond our agency, will surely come to pass!
We are almost there. The liturgy in Advent forces us to wait for singing the joy of Christmas, unlike our culture that is already getting tired of Christmas when it hasn’t even happened yet. In church during Advent, we haven’t sung the Christmas carols for a reason.
Not only because Christmas doesn’t start until the 25th. But also because, as I’ve heard it said, Mary’s song must be the first Christmas song. Because it sets the right tone. It sets the tone of faithful praise and adoration. It brings truth and grace into sharp relief. It announces that the promises of God will come to pass:
For the lowly, the humble, those who respect the Lord. God will make things right for those who trust in God and God’s word.
How would you sing, this Christmas? How can you, now in your life, bring forth words, as well as a heart of thanksgiving, affirmation and hope? How has God been merciful in your life? Make a list, and check it more that twice!
My hunch is that even though life may indeed be difficult for you — whether burdened by grief, by sorrow, by depression, by financial ruin, by ill-health or a pending diagnosis, whatever — there are moments, even now, even barely perceptible, where you can point to a glimmer of grace, a memory of joy, and a hope that surpasses all understanding.
This is the song to carry you through the season. Because sleeping below our awareness of reality is the truth that God has already fulfilled his promises. And now, it’s simply a question of accessing the power of that truth, releasing it from your heart, for your life and for the benefit of a world shrouded in darkness.
Thanks be to God!