04 Advent A

The Pregnancy We All Have to Go Through

veiled in Chicago three

Do not be afraid Mary, said the angel Gabriel, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb…

Now: I’m a man. And if I’ve learned nothing else, in my earlier years, from having spent quite a bit of time around pregnant women, I’ve learned that for a man to talk about what it’s like to have a baby is a dangerous thing! How can ANY man really know? I’ve been fortunate enough to rub pregnant bellies. I’ve watched bellies grow, put my ear to a belly and listened to heartbeats, put my hand out and felt a belly kick while a tiny little arm or head or bum inside is moving around. I’ve done all that.

But I’ve never ever owned that belly that’s full with child. I’ve never ever had all that blood and amniotic fluid sloshing around inside me, never felt the water retention, the sore feet, the growing breasts, the relaxing ligaments, the stretching and pulling and fatigue and hormones. I’ve probably been almost as close as most men can get to a pregnancy. But I’ve CERTAINLY never been pregnant.

The fourth Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of pregnancy, and I am a man. What’s more, it’s the Sunday of the Virgin Mary, what the Church Fathers called the Theotokos, and I am a Protestant.

But despite that, I believe there’s something for all of us in this story of a conception and pregnancy. It’s no mistake that the last Sunday before Christmas is the most pregnant Sunday of all, not just literally, but also figuratively. Somehow, this particular day in the church’s calendar, just a few days before the most brash and crazy and hyped and frenetic and overadvertised and overstressed and yet somehow, we hope, one of the most holy – of all festivals, you and I are supposed to sit for a minute, like pregnant women who have to put their feet up. Today we’re supposed to consider what it means to be growing, like Mary, the Christ child within us.

In one sense, the story of Mary, placed as it is right now just before Christmas, is a call for some common sense about all births, but this Birth in particular. You can’t have a baby without a pregnancy, the Bible is saying. Right? Right. Of course! And we shouldn’t expect to have a real, meaningful Christmas without something growing and developing in us, either. In our world of instant everything, there is no disposable Nativity. I can hang out my Christmas lights at the last minute, but not my spirituality and my faith. If we think we can pull out love and joy, peace and goodwill like pulling the Christmas ornaments out of a box in the basement at the last moment, we’re sadly mistaken.

Babies don’t come from nowhere (now there’s a line!). They take nine months – sometimes awkward, sometimes difficult, sometimes joyous, sometimes frightening, sometimes even painful months, to develop. The same is true of a real, meaningful celebration of love and peace and justice.

This last week has been more horrific than most. The gunman in Australia who held hostages, resulting in deaths, in a Lindt café in Australia. The poor children murdered in Pakistan. North Korea hackers cause the shutdown of a Hollywood film, jurors deliberate in the Luc Magnota case right here in Canada.

Can you and I celebrate peace in the next few days? That depends: have we made a commitment in a hundred small ways to living peacefully and in justice from day to day with our neighbors and our family and children or whomever, throughout the year? Have we felt the growing pains of peace?

The same is true of love. Can we celebrate love born in the manger? That may depend on whether we’ve been willing to go through the hard slogging of loving each and every day, fulfilling the joyous commandment to love even those who do not love us.

It’s always seemed to me, as a man, that pregnancy is partly the baby starting to make its presence felt with the parents even before it’s out of the womb. At the very moment of the annunciation, Gabriel is already saying to Mary what kinds of things to expect: you will name him Jesus. And he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

I find several things illuminating about this passage. It’s also more than a little strange that the angel Gabriel shows up in Mary’s private apartments. During that time, and in that society, for a young woman of Mary’s age to be caught with a visitor in her private space would be extremely scandalous. And dangerous.

And so: I’ve always wondered if, especially for a woman, there isn’t just a touch of irony in what Gabriel tells the young woman: Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you.

To be a thirteen year old, scandalized young child, pregnant and under suspicion? Some favour, and we who are Christians should keep this in mind when we think that we want to be God’s favoured ones. God’s favour is a difficult road. By the way, notice that it’s a woman who hears first the “good” news of the incarnation, and a woman who bears the pain.

This is God’s favour for Mary: she was about to become pregnant out of wedlock, risking losing her future husband and with him her chances for survival. She was about to live, for her whole life, the stigma that Jesus was an illegitimate child. She would never live down the accusations, and then when Jesus got old enough to go on his own and teach, he would almost deny her by saying that whoever listened to him was his mother and sister and brother. And then, finally, she would see her own Son, the one for whose sake she had already suffered so much, nailed between his wrist bones to the wood by the Romans for a crime he did not commit, there to die a most horrible death.

And Gabriel says that this is good news.

Mary seems much more realistic. She was much perplexed by his words, it says, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

In these last few days before Christmas, we would do well to ponder the message that we are also hearing this morning in these lessons. Because I believe that the Gospel writer wants us to consider Gabriel to be talking to us as well.

God would like us to be messengers in our world. But think of Mary – pregnant and unsure of what would happen to her. We are to be a new type of messenger – not just communicating with words, but also by growing a new way of life, a more Christ-like way of life, within our very bodies and homes.

Some people cannot have children of their own, but what this Gospel talks about is the kind of life we can all bring to term, whoever and wherever we are.

Being a man, I don’t really know ‘from the inside, as it were’ what pregnancy is all about. But even from the outside, I can tell you one thing for sure – clearly, even when ultimately it’s joyful, it’s never easy!

May you and I, wherever we find ourselves this blessed season, learn from Mary to be realistic about what God wants to do with our lives, and still have the courage to say: “May it be done with us according to your will”.

Drawing Angels

Rasmussen angel

You probably didn’t notice, but on Thursday night at the congregational potluck at Flemming and Kay’s, I snuck away from the table. I did that so I could go back into their living room one more time to have a look at a piece of art they have hanging there.  I don’t know where it’s from, but the piece looks vaguely Scandinavian to me. It’s a wooden wall hanging, of an angel. Do you know the one I mean? It looks like it was made with a jig-saw or a scroll saw or something like that. A tall angel, thin as a monk, hands clasped together, wings unfurling like sails. Right over the couch.

I love that piece. In fact, when no one was around I took a photo of it, so I could look at it some more.

This week I’ve been trying to draw it. “An angel can’t be that hard,” I thought, looking at the lines. After all, everything is pretty straight: wings, head, long gown, two feet sticking out. How hard can that be to draw, right?

Wrong.

It turns out I keep getting the proportions all crooked. My first attempt was too short. Then a bit too wide. In the end, I realized that I kept making the angel look more and more like a real person.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way, says Matthew.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace (ie. stoning, very likely), planned to dismiss her quietly. In other words, Joseph may have been ashamed and publicly humiliated, but he still wanted to spare Mary’s life, a far sight better than many men behave under similar situations even now, in the 21st century.

But just when he had resolved to do this, writes Matthew, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream…

Oh…. right. Angels. Who are angels? Messengers. And what do angels do? Apparently, according to Matthew, they screw up our plans. They do that even when our plans are well thought out, good plans, made by good (or as the Bible says, ‘righteous’) people. Angels do one thing in the Bible consistently: they intervene. They mess with us.

In my classes at Concordia, I have a little shtick I do with the students in my Intro to the New Testament or Intro to the Bible classes. “If ever you should be visited by an angel,” I tell my students, “I’ll tell you exactly what will happen and what you should do.” I usually say this with a big grin and they smile back at me, the joke being that we all know this will never happen.

But some part of me wonders if my ‘are you kidding?’ attitude toward angels is tempting fate. Who are angels? They’re messengers. Maybe sometimes it’s not that angels don’t visit us. Maybe sometimes, as with Joseph, they come in dreams, or in situations. And maybe sometimes it’s that we don’t recognize the kinds of ways that a loving, caring God actually might interfere in our lives.

I remember being in the metro once, just minding my own business, when a man dressed in old clothes, with bad teeth, came shuffling right up to me, out of all the people waiting for the subway, and said to me, very loudly, and pointing: “you just gotta relax, man. Take it easy. Whatever it is, it’s not so important!” Then he walked away again. I was a bit in shock. It was easy to see who the man was: he was a street person. That was clear. If I’d reached out, which I didn’t….but if I had, my fingers would have touched flesh and blood. I could smell him.

So he WASN’T an angel. He was some homeless guy.

Or was he? Certainly the message was absolutely the right one for me, at that moment. He nailed me, this man. I DID need to relax. That day I was stressed about all kinds of things. Now you could say that the man was crazy, he saw me looking stressed and somehow that set off some script in his head that made him come up to me. All that would explain the event just fine.

OR: you could say that some angels are flesh and blood, and this flesh and blood street-person was a messenger. And that too, would, I believe, be true.

When the angel appeared in the dream to Joseph, it said what ALL angels, ALL the time, say in the Bible. It said “Do not be afraid.” But then it went on, very importantly, to prescribe an action: do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.”

Events were about to go one way, and because of the intervention of this story, events went another way. Baby Jesus did not grow up a street urchin to a beggar mother, which Mary might have had to become – if Joseph had, as it says “put her aside quietly”. Nor, to put it bluntly, did baby Jesus die in utero in a hail of stones, which might have happened if Joseph had been less of a man. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, child of Mary and Joseph. According to Matthew, all because of an angel.

When and if the direction of our lives needs changing, perhaps those persons we find at the crossroads are not just friends, but are standing in, as angels always do, for the love and wisdom of God.

You can’t get to Christmas, at least in the church, without angels. “Angels we have heard on high” we’ll sing. “Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining…fall on your knees, o hear the angel voices………all the Christmas carols we’ll sing say the same thing. The point is that the Bible speaks consistently of a God who is not just “out there” somewhere, but who gets in, close inside where we live, as close as Mary’s room or Joseph’s dream, where our hearts and minds, our ambitions and our sadnesses, our fears and our hopes and our embarrassments lie. That’s where we need, sometimes, to be spoken to.

So to come back to my dilemma with drawing the Rasmussen’s angel: I’ve tried several times this week, and I think I finally have it right. But the human-looking angels weren’t so bad either. They tell of another truth, which is that God can send all kinds of messengers our way. If someone has come into your life and brought love, maybe that person is acting as an angel. If someone has come into your life and brought you challenges, maybe that person is an angel of another sort.

There might be someone in your life right now that you could draw as an angel.

The one thing I hadn’t done right for the first few versions of the Rasmussen’s angel was to draw the wings as they are on the hanging. My wings were too small, and too tame. On the original, the wings are huge, fanning up over the angel’s head almost like flames of fire. It points to another truth: that however cute we might picture them, real angels, if I can use that term, will be outside our control. Their message, after all, is from God.

When Joseph awoke from sleep, it says, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. As we approach Christmas, may we remember to open our ears and eyes, to what messages – and what messengers – might be coming to us in these days.