Christmas at Emmaus 2016
I was just at a Christmas party and while the adults talked and ate the children were in another room making gingerbread houses. The pieces of the homes – walls, roof, door, were stuck together with thick frosting made from powdered sugar and food color. These kids were into it and the longer they worked the deeper the frosting became, then came gumdrops and sprinkles and other gluppy stuff - obscuring the gingerbread.
almost completely - replacing it with blankets of sugar in garish colors. Instead of houses, the project – and the children had turned into multi colored sugar blizzards.
It’s a little like our story of Christmas which too often becomes a gooey mess wrapped in miles of glitzy wrapping paper. We mix our metaphors, the Christmas tree with I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, Jolly Saint Nick coming from the North Pole traced by fighter jets on his way, a nativity scene with figurine baby and wise men, Black Friday sales events and buy, buy, buy.
Is it a great way to say thank you and I love you and here’s a present I’ve been dying to give you. Yes! Is it a fantastic way to end the year all warm and rosy and eating ham and watching football with family – many of whom have traveled miles to be there. Yes! Drinking too much without shame. Yes! Welcoming everyone into our homes and not discussing politics. Yes! These are all great and good things - all Christmas blessings.
But during this celebration Cindy and I would like to offer you a slightly different take on Christmas – a single word to sum up this most amazing celebration; That word is courage. The Courageous Yes given by a young woman named Mary to Emmanuel – the God within us – to become manifest in real flesh and blood. But we would be remiss to think of God becoming human without a price. Mary’s “yes,” to becoming pregnant in this tiny village of Nazareth turned her into a social pariah whose life might be in danger. As she thought through her fears might she have thought of the consequences of raising a child who would shake the foundations of the culture and threaten the establishment. Why would she, agree to that? Why would anyone do that?
Though Luke doesn’t spend a lot of time – no time at all, describing Mary’s emotions, we can imagine that as a young woman who had spent all of her life in and around the temple, who had moved into Joseph’s house to be protected, she experienced fear like the rest of us.
I mean here’s an angel standing face to face with explaining that she has
been chosen by God to bear a child who would be called the Wonder
Counselor and Prince of Peace. Talk about fear. But Mary responded to her
fears with courage.
Today, this Christmas we are once more challenged to do things that are
unpopular, that could make us outcasts, that could figuratively stone us to
death. Standing in solidarity with marginalized communities of people is a
one-way ticket to unpopularity, but isn’t this exactly what Jesus was all
about? Jesus deeply loved and connected with the poor, with women, the
men who didn’t really make it, the blind, the common people who had no
power in society. Today the angel Gabriel challenges us too, to allow the
Emmanuel – the divine spark within each of us to be made real. All we need
is a little courage. And this community abounds in courage. Think about it.
First Reading: A retelling of the Annunciation by St. Luke
Mary had been working hard all morning in Joseph’s house in Nazareth. She started by arranging the sleeping mats and folding the blankets – one per mat. She cleared the charcoal from the earthen oven to make way for a new fire to cook the noon day bread. She went to the well with her friends where they drew fresh water and spoke in low voices and laughed as young girls do. She was the last to leave having taken a few moments to wash her face and hands to wipe away the soot from the charcoal.
As she turned there was a man standing a few feet from her in the shade of an olive tree. This was a huge surprise, more like a shock, because men were not allowed in this area of the compound. He didn’t look like a field worker pruning the tree or harvesting olives. She noticed that he was well dressed in a long tunic and sandals. He had dark eyes and smiled at her as she looked at him. Mary thought “He seems like a kindly person but I didn’t see him before and none of the others saw him either. I wonder how he came to be here.”
Mary was curious and the man said “Hello Mary, got a minute to talk?”Mary looked askance. She didn’t ever talk to strangers, especially strange men and she thought it profoundly odd that he would know her name.“Yes, Mary, I know your name and better yet I know your heart” the man said.
At that Mary laughed a teenager’s mocking laugh. “Oh Sure” she said. “I’m sure. I have no idea who you are. Are you for real?”
“OK Mary, my social skills aren’t the best – a bit out of practice. Didn’t mean to scare you. Let me explain (Inner dialogue... “take a deep breath” Gabriel you’re coming off a little too sure of yourself ... as usual.”
“OK Mary let me begin again... I’ve been sent to see you and ask you a very important question and perhaps get your help. See, The Father has sent me to you because he wants you to accept a special challenge. He wants you to become the mother of a baby who will be called Emmanuel - God within us.”
Mary responded “Sir -- are you making this up? And if you do come from The Father doesn’t that make you an angel?” “I mean, you came all the away here to this tiny village to visit a girl who has nothing, who is nothing, who has promised to be a virgin for life and is being protected by old Joseph. It may be time for you to leave.”
Gabriel gave Mary his most winning smile – the one he’d learned from the Irish. But Mary wasn’t having any of it. “I think, sir, it’s time for you to leave” she said a second time.”
Gabriel stammered... “Just a minute Mary. My name is Gabriel and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, with anyone else at this very moment because I’ve been sent with this special request. It won’t be easy. Saying yes will put you in danger from the community. We understand that. But Joseph has been told in a dream to keep you in his household and to celebrate this new child.”
Mary laughed “You talk as though this is a done deal, Mr. Angel. I may be young but even I know how babies are conceived and I’ve not had that experience. And I don’t think I want to start anytime soon.”
At this Gabriel laughed out loud. “No worries there, Mary. The Spirit will flow through you like the wind and you will give birth to a child. You see, you are special. Very special, and although you come from this humble place you have been chosen to bring love into the world. To make it real.”
The angel continued. “I won’t lie to you, Mary. It won’t be easy. If you accept this way of life you’ll have to endure many heartbreaks. There will be times when you will get weary, when you will despair, when friends turn against you and when you think you can’t go on.”
“Your child will proclaim a new world founded on love for the stranger, the outcast, the other... and he will endure much suffering. He’ll shake things up and people won’t like it. And they will ostracize him and cause him great harm. But if you accept and bear this child the world will be a better place for your sacrifice.”
Mary stood for a few minutes in deep silence which Gabriel did not interrupt. Fear crept in as she thought through what the mysterious man was saying. Pregnancy without marriage could be treated as adultery and she could be stoned to death at the hands of the village elders.
At the least, she would have to endure the snickering of her friends and the adults in the community as well as the disdain and disappointment of her family. She would also harm Joseph’s reputation and that of his family. She shuddered in fear to think of the possibilities.
Mary weighed these concerns with her lifelong desire to bring peace to the land and to begin a new chapter for her people who had suffered so much. She thought of the beggars in the street who had empty stomachs and parched lips, the lepers who were cast out, the women who were made to feel less than. Could she actually be a spark, a flame to a fire that could warm the world in a new glow of peace? By bearing this child who would be called Prince of Peace, Wonder Counselor.
Her last fear was that she was not good enough, would never be good enough. But somehow this man who stood in the shadows knew she had the strength it would take to allow the god within her to take human form. And that gave her a new sense of confidence and purpose. If a servant sent from The Father believed in her, who was she not to believe in herself... She may be a humble peasant girl who had never left her village but she felt a new energy rising within her. She made up her mind:
“Yes, Gabriel. I agree. I agree body and soul.” And with that affirmation her heart opened - flooded with the courage to face all the challenges ahead of her.
She turned to Gabriel “My soul glorifies the Spirit and I rejoice because the Spirit has never abandoned the humble ones. Spirit has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. Thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. She has helped those who wait for the light, remembering to be merciful. I say Yes. “
And thus it was, that courage conquered fear.
Our second reading is taken from the writings of Simone Campbell
The journey of faith is a walk towards trouble. And I got thinking about it. And I realized that all our spiritual leaders, when there are broken hearts or pain in our world, they have walked towards it. They walk towards the pain in order to embrace, touch, heal. Now, that means if Mary and Jesus and Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and Pope Frank, start on that faith journey isn't that the witness that we all try to follow?
Walking towards trouble means we're willing to open ourselves to the surprise. To different perspectives. So, the importance of being uncertain means that I live a life that is slightly disturbed, if you want to know the truth.
And a bit puzzling. And so, I have come to know, in my little, limited experience, that it is the divine that hums us all the time. Hums each one of us. I think of God as the hum of the universe that's holding us together in a loving embrace. That's how I experience it.
But when I'm separated by myself, I lose touch with that deeper reality. Where we are called to make this vision is community. Hope is a communal virtue that we only know together. And it's in that light, it is in that quest for hope together, that we get surprised.
If you walk towards trouble, you'll have a lot of people walking with you, if you do it together. And that is the way it can be done. If you walk towards trouble, it's a vibrant life of faith and treasured doubt. If you walk towards trouble, all you have to do is do your best. It's enough. Because in community, it all gets covered.
This is the Word from our Sister Simone Campbell.