This was the one God chose as theotokos, meaning “God-bearer”. My spirit rejoices, the girl tells the angel. For God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. The message is simple. If God chose someone as weak and lowly as Mary for something so important and powerful, then surely God continues to choose the outsider. We need have no shame when we feel that way. More importantly: we ignore the modern-day theotokai – the weak, marginalized, strange, poor, God-bearers around us – at our peril. They are the prophets. They tell us what is important.
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”.
(author’s note: This story was published on line in Maisonneuve Magazine a few years ago. Although it may not be immediately obvious, it’s actually a kind of Advent, Annunciation story. Interesting that it’s set in St-Henri, and I now live nearby in Verdun, although I didn’t when this was written.)
There I was, butt-up, head-down, outside at midnight in my dressing gown. Smack-dab in the middle of lining up my plastic snails, someone at Hydro threw the city’s breaker. The darkness was just so – you know – total, with no big fat moon sitting like a pumpkin just over the neighbor’s clothes-line, that I lost the snails for a moment. It kind of makes you think you could be anywhere. Or anyone. It’s like when we were St-Henri girls pulling down the shade pretending to be camping dans les bois even though we could still hear the humming of the fridge downstairs and the adults talking, voices rising and falling with the rye and coke, the shuffling of cards, the arguments, the calling through the screen door for fresh packs of du Mauriers.
It wasn’t easy making it all the way back to the porch in that kind of blackness. Every footstep’s a decision. I closed my eyes – for concentration – and figured my place in relation to the big cement angel fountain in the centre of the yard. Saint-Gabriel help me see my hand in front of my face, I said, and then I just went. Stepped right around the flock of pink flamingoes, each with their one foot up, waiting. Inched my feet around the frog, knowing the little rascal was there, even without the sound of water shooting out of his mouth. Pictured the glass fairy globes on their poles so clearly I could touch them, passing. Waited till I could hear the lazy clack-clack-clack of the windvane duck, so I wouldn’t bump it off its tethered flight.
I heard geese that night. I swear I did. It was a remarkable Passover. Their calling out in the high darkness to each other made me look up. Oh my God yes. If it’s true what they say, that in this world there are ghosts wanting bodies, then they could have had mine. Perhaps they did.
The night drifted, with the streetlights out. I don’t know, I really don’t – what happened, exactly. Stars trespassed the city, came up my street, crossed my eyes. I fell right over the yard butts (a family of four in descending girth, thick white legs like sausages from their slacks), still looking up. Don’t know how long I sat there. Like eating candy at the drive-in. A good long while, I guess.
What we long for, we live in fear of finding, open and waiting, wanting nothing more than to fall into our laps like fruit off the trees, forever luscious. I’m not saying it was the stars, exactly. But two things happened that night: my troll disappeared, the one sent to me by my mother’s cousin’s sister (somewhere in Norway, I’ve forgotten where). That nasty short fellow with his long nose never did fit with the leprechaun. Better he’s gone now.
And best: I sit on the porch, growing fatter and closer to term with my precious little baby each passing week. A real-estate agent came by today, a nice man in a fancy car, sweating in his spring suit as he hung over the fence trying not to look at either my big belly or the manger scene (I decided to leave it up at Christmas). He said “Ms. Elizabeth, I could sell your house for a lot of money.” I told him about the ultrasound the doctor ordered, about the bulb in the streetlight over my yard that keeps burning out now, the city crews that come back every few weeks to repair it. I showed him how my ankles have swollen with the edema. I asked him about my collection – what would happen to it if I sold? But he didn’t really answer. Eventually he left, my leprechaun making rude faces after him.