HEAVEN’S BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT
Luke 1: 26-38
Sean Lucas, Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg Mississippi, did a little research on the very first anthem I sang when I belonged to the Trinity Methodist Church Celestial Choir in Richmond Virginia. I was in second grade when I learned “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Most recently I sang it at our Blue Christmas service this past Wednesday; and we’ll sing it as our second hymn today. The words are etched in my mind. “The editor of Scribner’s Monthly needed a Christmas poem to fill out his December 1872 issue. He cast about for several authors to write something, but they all turned him down. Finally he decided to solicit a poem from one of the most famous poets of the period: Christina Rosetti…. By 1872, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease and experienced significant pain. However, that did not stop her from writing poetry.”
In response to the request from Scribners, she sent a poem that started:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
As I told my Bible class on Wednesday, strictly speaking there is snow in Israel year round, but it is only on top of the highest mountain: Mount Hermon. Melting snow in the warm months gives fresh water to the Jordan River, but the snow does not melt completely. In Israel, including Bethlehem, the weather is like a typical winter in Florida: it is not icy cold. We get occasional snow flurries, as does Bethlehem. But through the eyes of someone living in England, where December takes on the atmosphere of a Charles Dickens story, there is much that is bleak and cold. And through the lens of a young woman with a debilitating illness, a bleak mid-winter is clearly imagined.
But there is another way to consider the bleak midwinter. There had not been a prophet make a clear proclamation about God, according to the Bible, since Amos. He had proclaimed God’s word 400 years earlier! And what had Amos said? “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” [Amos 8: 11-12] Imagine: our country is a little over 200 years old; the last word from God through a prophet came 400 years earlier than the Christmas miracle in Bethlehem? Could it be that God would not speak with people on earth for that long? Or could it be that God was still speaking to people but they didn’t trumpet the news? Surely God has spoken, and is still speaking, to ordinary people; some say they have actually heard from God; I believe I have heard from God at least twice in my life; maybe more. But God’s holiness breaking into this world can sometimes be a startling: the Bible describes it as a “theophany;” a God-thing; often accompanied by smoke, or fire, and thunder. But in other places God speaks in a still small voice. I’m thinking that God can surprise us; God can be in the hungry man, the cold woman, the inquisitive child, or in the rebellious youth. Where might we find God today? And how might God appear?
Long ago, (according to the words in what we call the Old Testament) like a caring mother or a loving father, God wanted to be with creation. God was with people; usually ones called “chosen people.” Later, God embraced people who were other than the Israelites, or Jews; God embraced ones called “strangers,” or Gentiles, or people from other lands. The way God would chose to embrace people is to check to see if they already were serving someone as a god; if they were not, and their hearts were open, then the Lord might enter their lives and bless them. That’s what the story of Ruth is about, after all. Ruth was a Moabite who married a Jew, the son of Naomi and Elimilech. Moabites were not entirely devoted to God, but as she married her husband, Ruth became devoted to her husband and also devoted to his God. Ruth’s father in-law dies, and then her husband dies, leaving her with a choice: return to Moab to her family of origin, or stay with Naomi, her family by marriage. She chooses Naomi, and by her devotion she is brought into Naomi’s family, marries a kind kinsman named Boaz, and from their line came some important people, like Jesse, and David, ….. and Jesus! That family from Bethlehem, had a lineage that continued all the way to Jesus, born in Bethlehem.
Imagine, then, what a surprise it was for a young woman—a girl really—to be visited by an angel! Yes, she was from a family of faith; but no she wasn’t famous, nor was she part of a powerful city. She was from the village of Nazareth, a very small place indeed. She was betrothed—promised to Joseph—in a ceremony that united them to each other but they had not yet become husband and wife. In that setting Mary had her future hopes in her heart, even as she was carrying out household chores. Then she gets the visit of her young lifetime: an angel, not likely a child as in our Christmas plays, but a being of strength. When angels came in mass in the Christmas story they were called “a multitude of the heavenly host.” The Living Bible translated that as “the armies of heaven.” To have even one messenger/soldier of God in one’s presence would be startling; but for a young woman it could have been very unnerving. The angel offers a greeting of respect: “Hail O favored one, the Lord is with you!” And then this angel who caused Mary to stop what she was doing, delivered Heaven’s birth announcement: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Goodness. In one breath we have the extraordinary event, the gender of the child, and the name of the child! No other pregnancy starts off with so much information! But this was a pregnancy like no other. Ordinary responses might have included initial fear, some sense of humiliation at the hands of the townspeople, and certain anxiety. She is whisked out of town to visit a relative who can teach her how to be a mother. And, as God had planned it, although Elizabeth was much older, she was expecting too! She too had a visit from an angel and knew the gender and name her child! His name would be John. Now the two women, young and old, were bonded together. And thus began the nine long months of pregnancy that Mary had, just like every other woman in the world who conceives in her womb. In some ways, other pregnant women could relate to the mother of our Lord. It didn’t take me long to think of a person to ask. What might Mary have gone through in her pregnancy? What issues might have surfaced as she made a journey in her ninth month, perhaps on the back of a donkey? I didn’t have to look any farther than my own daughter: The Rev. Jenny Sumner Carswell. She is eight and a half months pregnant, also with her first baby: a son! So I asked Jenny, a chaplain who sees women every day, but now also one who is carrying her first-born son, what feelings or thoughts she could share with me. She was filled with insight and wisdom. Let me let her continue the sermon as she wonders how Mary did what she did:
I hear the Christmas story so often that I haven’t taken much time to reflect on the real life challenges that come with pregnancy and the anticipation of new life. That is, until this year. With only a few weeks until Marshall Conner Carswell’s arrival, I find myself wondering about the Christmas story in ways I hadn’t before…
As I manage the aches and pains on my morning commute with heated leather seats and cruise control…
…I wonder how Mary managed her backaches, swollen feet, and morning sickness while riding on a donkey through long, winding, unpaved roads.
As I find immediate – yet admittedly not always helpful – answers to my pregnancy-related questions on Google…
…I wonder how Mary managed her anxiety over unanswered questions related to her growing body.
As I have the luxury of iPhone pregnancy apps, weekly midwife appointments, and supportive friends and family both in person and over social media…
…I wonder where Mary found emotional support. I wonder which voices, if any, reassured her with the words, “What you’re experiencing is normal.”
As I face inappropriate comments (like when people say, “Wow! Are you sure there’s just one baby in there?” And “You look like you’re gonna pop any day!”)…
…I wonder what kind of judgmental comments and glances Mary faced as an unwed, teenage girl whose story was surely unbelievable to many.
As I wonder whether I’ll make it to the hospital in time for an epidural…
…I wonder about the panic that comes alongside trying to find a place to birth your child when everyone is telling you they have no room for you. And having to place your newborn child onto hay in a feeding trough. I find myself wondering, “Was it truly a silent night?”
As I write this, my right hand is tingling from carpal tunnel syndrome which I’m told is related to swelling. And I’m aching in places I didn’t know could ache…
…and, yet, I feel Marshall blissfully rolling around inside me. Such beauty. Such joy. Such anticipation. I get lost wondering:
What he will look like?
Will he recognize Brian’s and my voices?
What dreams will he have in life?
Will I be enough?
So, sweet Mary, I understand you in ways I haven’t been able to before. I know what it’s like to have your body and heart expand simultaneously to make room for your son. I know what it’s like to be in a place of joy and anticipation alongside total panic and uncertainty. In this advent season, my heart is drawn to the mystery of your son’s birth, which is beautifully captured in the song, “Welcome to Our World:”
I hope that you don’t mind our manger
How I wish we would have known
But long-awaited Holy Stranger
Make Yourself at home.
Thank you Jenny, for helping us know your bonds of sisterhood in pregnancy with the mother of our Lord.
Jeffrey A. Sumner/Jenny Sumner Carswell December 21, 2014