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.
God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation, says Mary. NOT “God’s mercy is for the rich”. She didn’t say that. NOT God’s mercy is for the upper-class. She didn’t say that either. And neither did she congratulate the selfish who are increasingly rewarded in our society and by our politicians (and apparently, by our votes): the influence-peddlers and the professors in their offices and the business-people in their downtown towers. For the mighty one of Israel, Mary said, has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Notice that word: empty. You and I –we’ve already had enough. Advent is about who we see and who we ignore, an announcement about place and privilege. It’s about justice. It’s about how much a cup of coffee costs, and who manufactures our shoes, and whether some government committee paid for by our taxes cuts funding for social programs. And it’s about our political and economic and environmental opinions just as much as our religious opinions. Because the surprise we’d better learn now, is that those things cannot be separated.
This last week a friend of mine, Orit Shimoni (http://www.oritshimoni.com/), came to town to perform. She’s also sometimes known as Little Birdie. Years ago she did graduate studies at Concordia, which is where I met her. Now, she tours all over the world playing her music. The place she sang at last Wednesday was a café on Cote-St-Luc road (not very far from here). It’s a small venue – fits maybe thirty people. She did the set with just a guitar and nothing else, so the words were really clear. Orit’s got kind of a theological bent to her music, which is one of the reasons I like it. One set of lyrics in particular struck me. It was about Cana, sort of.
Apparently, in Cana, in Galilee (that is, in the north of Israel), Jesus and his disciples were attending a local wedding. During the reception, more by chance than anything, Jesus performed his first miracle. He turned water into wine. But for her song Orit turned the words around. “If I could turn wine into water,” she sang, “you would not be alone.” Wine into water? What did she mean? “If I could turn wine into water,” she sang again, “a path to you I’d find.”
Oh, I thought. Oh.
There’s a tragedy behind that song. I didn’t ask her, but I think it’s about alcoholism. Orit sings a lot of sad songs, and songs with bite. But this one in particular has a ring. IF I could turn wine into water. Meaning: I can’t. And even though I don’t know the details, and I don’t know if it’s even about Orit: whoever that song is about couldn’t make a miracle. That’s what the song is about. That person couldn’t stop the alcoholism. Couldn’t turn wine into water. And so now, instead of singing about a happy future, the song is about regret.
Makes for a great song. But a sad memory.
In the Bible story, the bride and groom, in fact, the whole wedding party, are headed for a disaster. Not an earthquake, ice-storm, tsanami kind of disaster. But the small kind of disaster we all run into every day and all hate: a major glitch. A screw-up: the wedding reception was about to run out of wine.
Now. This is not the worst thing that could ever happen. But if you’re the bride and groom, or the person responsible for the reception, it’s bad enough. No wine means unhappy guests. Probably guests leaving. So it says that Jesus’ mother stands up from where she’s seated, and makes her way over to see him.
The writer makes it clear that Jesus and his disciples were at the wedding in Cana, NOT to face any tests, but just to enjoy themselves. It’s not even clear if Jesus knew the wedding couple. I imagine in the hills of Galilee, it might have been a bit like some Italian weddings I’ve been to, where the whole neighbourhood is invited.
In any case, when we meet him Jesus is off in a corner, well-hidden. He’s out of the spotlight and wanting to keep it that way. But then the wedding runs out of wine.
Mary’s clearly a mother who knows her own kid better than he seems to know himself. She comes to his table and announces: “they have no more wine.” As if the next step is obvious. “They have no more wine – now, do you want to leave your own mother without a glass of Chardonnay?” Quite naturally, Jesus responds: “what does that have to do with me?” I love that. This is NOT the pious, angel-faced, head-upturned or downturned Virgin Mary we see in statues so often with her hands clasped meekly at her side. This is a tough Jewish mother who knows what her son is capable of, and won’t take no for an answer.
You would think that the Lord speaking should be enough for any human being. But no. Mary ignores Jesus completely. The Son of God, the Lord of Life, and what does she do? She goes back to her own table. And tells the servants: “do whatever he tells you.” She KNOWS he’s going to fall in line! The fact that the Bible treats a lack of wine as a disaster is already interesting. But that’s NOT the main point. The main point, at least in my thinking, has to do with the water.
You can imagine Jesus sighing and shaking his head. Once a kid, always a kid, even Jesus. Do you see those stone jars over there, he tells the servants? Fill them to the brim with water. Then, he says, go, take a jug, and fill it up from those same stone jars, and take it to the chief steward.
And so, timidly, one of them does.
This is where you and I come in. You and I are that one scared servant. Like the woman my friend Orit was singing about, you and I don’t have the power to do miracles. If we could, we would.
All we can do is carry the miracle. Every time we get together, every time we pray, and especially every time we go OUT in Jesus’ name and try to do something for the world, we’re the poor, terrified, uncertain servants. Just like at Cana, it’s all simple stuff – water, bread, wine. Or maybe in our cases, it’s a hug, or a song, or an ear, or a moment’s time, or a few dollars, or a few words. Now draw it out, Jesus tells us, even though it looks like simple water, and take it to the world.
So. If we’re faithful, if we’re trusting, and more often than that, even if we’re doubting, we do that. We draw the water out of our unremarkable, unmiraculous lives. Because ultimately, THAT’S ALL WE HAVE. Then we go. We carry what we fear might be way too ordinary, to a world that doesn’t expect or believe in miracles, but like the wedding guests need them just the same. And if it turns out that the water is just water, then, like St Paul said, we’re the greatest fools of all.
It took faith for whoever that first nameless servant was, to take a jug of what he or she was pretty sure was worthless, and take it to the head steward of the whole feast. And it takes faith for you and I to do OUR simple commissions, with our simple lack of resources and abilities. But we have to. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That is how we will be judged.
And just in case you and I think we have nothing to offer, we should think of the news story from CBC this last week. Did you hear about it, or read about it? There was a fourteen year old kid who was begging on the street, saying he was homeless, and in the midst of that terrible cold of this past week, although a few folks gave some change, guess who was the ONLY person to stop and offer this kid a coat – in fact, the coat off of his own back? The only person to help was another street person, an Inuk man, Putulik Kumaq, originally from Nunavut, but homeless on Montreal streets for the past 17 years. It turned out that the 14 year old kid was doing a school project and was being filmed secretly by his brother, which is the only reason we know about this selfless act.
Anytime we say we have nothing to give, we can remember the servants, who were just asked to carry water, and we can remember Putulik, who said “it’s cold, and I had a feeling he needed help”.
On the third day, it says, there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and here, amid the food, and drink, the visiting and gossiping and the stuff of life, Jesus did the first of his signs.
Wine from water is just the beginning. That is the real point. In your life and mine, wine from water is nothing, compared to what our Creator can do. You are carrying miracles, if only you know it, says the Creator of singers who come to Montreal, of street people and poets, of Putulik and Paul, and of you and me.
To see Orit playing the song, watch:
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.
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?
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.