A Star and Dreams More Powerful

Today is Epiphany, my favorite day of the Christian calendar! It is the celebration of when the wise leaders, religious  leaders, scholarly leaders of the world acknowledge the humility of God-among-us-in-the-flesh. It is the great revelation of the world acknowledging God–even as a small helpless babe.

In the narrative of the wise men (Matthew 2) God is found because the learned, the insightful, the sought-out-for-advise-giving saw a star rising in the East. These leaders, the wise men, saw a new star and followed through foreign lands in the hope of seeing the greatest of a kings–a babe asleep in his mother’s arms. I wonder what the other wise men said as they packed their bags for the long  journey. Were they laughed at? And if not why did only three make the journey? What would they have told the border guards as they crossed from nation into nation? Surely, telling them you were going to see a new king would have raised suspicions. Is that why Herod called them to meet with him? Come to think of it, the wise men surely knew Herod was among the most ruthless of rulers in the ancient world, and THAT is saying something. And still the wise men had the courage not only to cross the desert on their journey, but to risk their lives in crossing Herod because they held onto the hope that the child beneath that star was more powerful than the most feared ruler of the world.

One of the things that always strikes me in the Christmas-Epiphany narratives cycle is the role of dreams. Joseph is encouraged in a dream to remain with Mary rather than dismiss her in her pregnancy. The wise men are warned in a dream after seeing Jesus the infant, not to return to Herod, and they go home by another way. And finally, the dream seldom heard as more that a footnote, is Joseph’s dream in which the angel again comes and warns him to take Mary and Jesus and flee into another nation. We live in a world where we seldom make decisions based on dreams, at least the ones that come in sleep. In the modern world we are more apt to follow the big dreams that come to us by way of national pride or Hollywood. These are not the dreams of the biblical narrative. The dreams of the wise men and the dreams of Joseph are, rather, those dreams that come to us seemingly out of nowhere when we have gone inward enough to still ourselves and discern the will of God.  It is often God’s dream for our lives that leads us on journeys more powerful than we could have imagined, even if it is not a journey that follows the screenplay we ourselves had envisioned.

What dream has God put into your heart, that frees you from the tyranny of oppressive forces, and calls you onward to great journeys in search of the promised hope of justice and the personal opportunity to behold God and know, beyond all doubt that no matter the cruelty of the world, that God is with you, and indeed all of us?

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What’s Coming?

I have come to learn that I am one of those people who loves to travel. One of the most memorable trips I ever took was a cross-country train trip: west to east and then south to north, when I was seventeen and all by myself, even with a broken foot. One of the things that struck me during that trip was the great cross-section I saw of America—the well-to-do; the black, browns, and whites; the poor; the drunk; the unruly. There is a great diversity that we live in, a diversity that becomes pronounced in some ways and blurred in others over the holiday season. This blurring of the diversity of this season is similar to what I saw on that great monthlong train trip, and Advent is about that long as well. But on that trip, I also learned that despite all our diversities we have much in common. We are all travelers. Despite our station in life we all have to show our tickets when asked, and if we get too unruly we may get put off the car at the next stop.

I think there is a part of the Christmas narrative that gets rushed over. It’s the journey to Bethlehem. All the people, no matter their station, had to return to the land of their fathers to be counted. This Christmas account is an odd and troubling requirement really since it deviates from the Levitical code that required a similar return to homeland, albeit for a very different reason. On the one hand, all the people had to return to the home land of their forefathers—the family land—which was a periodic requirement of the Levitical codes. However, unlike the required Levitical return in which the land and debts would be resettled at this return to the family land so as to reestablish national life in accordance with the provision and justice of God, the Christmas narrative relates that the people are merely counted for Caesar. This is not settling of debts and return of land but an ancient form colonization and subjugation of the people of ancient Israel to the largest empire of the time, Rome.

The reason and consequences of the journey to Rome are not the only thing that gets glossed over in the pageantry telling. There is also a poor and young Mary who is very, very, very pregnant making the journey of several days to the temple city. They were traveling many, many, many miles on foot—if they were lucky they had a pack animal Mary might have ridden. One can imagine this journey would have been very uncomfortable for the mother-to-be. It was no baby shower for sure! What an exhausting physical trip before giving birth! (I consider the experience of Mary’s physical journey fresh and anew this year as I await the news of a friend who is expecting a child, a boy, this very week!) But Mary’s experience was not only a physical one. It was a spiritual and emotional one as well. Mary was a young woman at a precipice: a young woman about to give birth for the first time. A young woman about to give birth as her people enter into a new form of subjugation under a new emperor. A young woman about to give birth to a son come to pronounce a new way of relating, a new way of justice and peace at the end of an empire. And I wonder what it was like for Mary to give birth in such times. Mary, having been told this was the Child of God. Mary, wondering if this was the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. Was she ready to give birth? Was she ready for what was to come?

Let us dedicate this day in prayer to the women waiting to give birth, to pray for their preparation and safety in this transition of life to life.

And let us wonder, if we are ready.

Mindfulness

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

—Luke 2:15-20

Of all the passages about Mary’s reaction to her pregnancy and the birth of her son, this is probably my favorite. It is no big surprise that the shepherds are beside themselves with the news; it’s not every day you receive a direct command from angels who appear out of nowhere. When they arrive, they have to explain why they showed up, so they tell the amazing story of how a ragtag group of shepherds heard about a baby born in a barn. Naturally, their story causes a great deal of excitement. All who heard it were amazed, the Scripture says. But then comes the “But.” All were amazed, BUT Mary took it further and “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” By this point, Mary is used to angels appearing and making proclamations. What she knows is that her baby has now arrived, and the stories that cause such wonder and amazement are simply moments of her already special newborn’s uniquely special first days.

In our world, thanks to our 24/7 news sources, we have many opportunities to live into the excitement of others’ lives. Our voyeuristic obsessions with Real Housewives, the Kardashians, or a millionaire matchmaker add to the chaos of our own busy-ness and sometimes to our own disillusionment. We ponder the amazing events in the lives of others and compare our lives to theirs. However, each December I watch White Christmas and nod in agreement when Bing Crosby sings, “When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep counting my blessings.” Sometimes counting blessings seems nearly impossible, but when I really look, I find that my life is full of wonder and joy of which I should be mindful. I pray we all will find that to be true. Maybe in the new year we can take our cue from Mary and spend more time in quiet reflection, pondering our own wonders and filling our hearts with those moments of true awe.

***

Courtney Jones holds a Master of Theological Studies from Boston University and is currently an M. Div. student at Andover Newton Theological Seminary in Newton, MA. Originally from Arkansas, she is an active member of Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, MA. Her academic and personal interests are focused on LGBTQI theology, and she feels called to a career of pastoral care and counseling.

Bearing Unbearable Love

And we are put on earth a little space
that we might learn to bear the beams of love

—William Blake

I ran across this verse yesterday, and it felt just right for these last days of Advent. The time preceding Christmas provides exactly this: a little space to focus anew on learning to bear the beams of love. There are several ways to bear something, of course.

  • One meaning is to bear a child, or a crop; to bear fruit.
  • Secondly, to bear can mean to tolerate, carry, or accept a burden or condition.
  • And thirdly we can bear witness, or a gift; to share with others.

Mary must have wondered how she was to bear the beam of love that grew within her. She had the need to bear love in several meanings of the word. Her child would enter the world as we all do, she must give birth. But before that, Mary had to bear a difficult and lonely “beam of love” in carrying an illegitimate child. Only Mary really knew that she had been given a sacred mission; Gabriel did not write her a glowing letter of reference to explain it all to Joseph.

Her story told in Luke leaves out her inner conversation about her predicament. She was so young, we are told, unlikely to have had a lot of education. She was a pious young woman. But what would any of us make of a visit from the angel Gabriel announcing that we are ‘favored by God?’ And what kind of ‘favor’ is this when a young girl must bear the long months of a pregnancy by some invisible father?

Mary bore the news of the destiny she was offered by God, but not without distress.

She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean” after Gabriel trumpeted “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favor! The Lord is with you” to her, moments before.

Beams of love are sometimes so unusual, surprising, or foreign to us, that they seem unbearable, at first. All we can manage sometimes is to be, like Mary, ‘deeply disturbed.’ We ask ourselves what this new offering means, especially one that feels so strange. Beams of love that arrive out of order from the way we have imagined reality to function are the worst. “But how can this come about,” Mary asks, “since I have no knowledge of man?” she wonders. I do not imagine Gabriel’s answer was immediately satisfying or comforting to Mary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.” No sane woman of any era expects this far-fetched explanation will satisfy her questioners.

But somehow, Mary is convinced to receive, to tolerate, to accept this strange beam of love that apparently feels genuine to her, even though dangerously defying all reason and social convention. She began to bear the beams of God’s love when she said “Let it happen to me as you have said.

When Mary visited Elizabeth, she shared the revelation she received, and the news of her pregnancy with her cousin. But in Luke’s telling, Mary’s stayed quiet about her news with others, as far as we know. We can imagine how sensitive this pregnancy was for Mary. Joseph must have been terribly unhappy, knowing as he did that he was not the child’s father.

When Mary’s moment came to give birth to a real life, fussy, squirming baby Jesus, Mary bore her “beam of love” into plain sight. Jesus was a child who needed milk and warmth and cleaning just as all of us needed at the start of our earth careers. Mary bore her beam of love into flesh and blood, into smiles and speech, into a person who would reveal love in a fresh and unprecedented way to us all.

Which way am I meant to bear the beams of love more fully today? Is a new thing about to be delivered through me? Am I to labor and cry to bring forth some new creation? Am I able to carry a bit of compassion to another living being, and oh so gently lift someone’s heart? Or am I simply in that place of learning to bear the magnificent beam that is given to me, by letting loose of my own stubborn notion of what love should look and feel like, making room for the real thing? Might I make room at the inn for a love that melts away foolish striving and angling for power, that beam of love that transforms the heart to a radiant source of the very same warming glow?

For when our souls have learned the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear his voice
Saying: `Come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice!’

—William Blake

***

Carol Toben

Hannah, Mary, and Miraculous Motherhood

1 Samuel 2:1-11
Luke 1:26-38

This Advent season, I have been reflecting on how thin is the line between life and death, between being and non-being. In my work as a hospital chaplain, I wait with families as someone they love crosses that line, a time that is bathed in mystery and wonder. But more personally, in the past month I have celebrated birth with two of my closest friends, and I have mourned the death of my unborn niece, lost to my brother and his wife at just twenty weeks. What a painfully exquisite juxtaposition it has been.

Most striking to me is that the division between life and death is the work of a single moment—of a last breath, of conception, of miscarriage—and of many moments—the length of an illness, nine months of pregnancy, a lifetime of hardship and joy. What tilts the balance one way or the other? Why does one person survive an illness while another does not? Why does one woman give birth to a healthy baby while another aches with emptiness? How do we make sense of reality transformed in the merest breath of time?

I hear echoes of these questions in our readings today, which include the words of two women whose lives radically change in a moment. They come to motherhood at very different times in their lives but by equally mysterious and miraculous means. Hannah has suffered years of infertility and endured the vicious barbs of other women, especially her husband’s other wife Peninnah. She has passed countless nights in tears and deep sorrow to the point that she cannot eat. Then, after years of fervent prayer, the priest Eli blesses her petition, the Lord remembers her, and she conceives and gives birth to Samuel, one of God’s prophets. After a lifetime of struggle, in a moment, Hannah’s barrenness becomes fertile. Her “death” crosses the thin line into new life.

Mary knows no such struggle and heartache when the angel Gabriel visits her. She has scarce begun to even think of babies and parenting when, in a moment of annunciation, she changes from a lowly girl into the mother of the Most High. Puzzled and frightened, she hesitates only briefly before saying yes to God and beginning the march of events that will culminate in another passage between life and death.

And as they walk the narrow edge of childbearing, both Hannah and Mary sing hymns to God, of favor found and enemies conquered, of faithfulness rewarded and status reversed. In God they find the source of life, the deliverance of the poor, the light of peace. And in death, darkness, barrenness, and pain they find God.

Perhaps my Advent musings, then, have led me to nothing more profound than to say with Hannah and Mary that God is in all moments. But perhaps that is also the most profound truth we can ever proclaim—that God is in all life, and God is in all death, and God is in the whisper of an instant that divides the two. So as we wait through these final days before the Christ child is once again in the manger, reflect for a time with me on all of the fragile moments of death and of life and fully know that God is there.

***

Sarah Green is a per diem chaplain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell in New York City. She is a candidate for ordination as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a graduate of Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, CA.

Nobody Can Change the World

A nobody can change the world—
It has happened many times.
But the best one so far was when a baby was born
On the fringes of the world
From folks no one knew
(With a bit of scandal to boot).
They were from a town of no consequence
Good only for their taxes and labor;
Forgotten by the senators and priests
Except when it was time for taxes and rituals.

A nobody can change the world?
It isn’t just for the big names in history—
Those who wield the money and power
Or who sit at the right hand of the king.
An itinerant preacher set the world ablaze with love and mercy
In a way that few saw coming—
Coming to a heart near you!
That is, if it hasn’t already rushed into you,
Consuming with unquenchable fire helped by a gust of wind!
But starting with the still, small, tired voice of Mary,
Who sang her child to sleep
Amidst the very few who were more lowly than they that evening.

Mary labored one night,
But Heaven labored much longer with the question:
How to penetrate the hearts of a troubled mankind…
When the answer came it was quite unexpected;
A marvel to be sure!
A baby who was born, lived, and died as a person of no consequence,
Except for the magic he wrought when he dared show us how to love—
First because he was innocent by the standards of the world,
And later because he was guilty by the standards of the world.

Where in the world tonight will that baby be born anew?
In that forgotten place?
Under the boot of the mighty empire?
Into slavery to the desires of the rich and well connected?

Nobody can change the world?
—One thought that must itself be changed!

Becoming Mothers / Parents

In some ways the beginning of Advent is an ode to Parents. The women becoming mothers, the men bearing their own visions and dreams. But Advent does bring that focus on the women becoming mothers.

In I Samuel 2:1-10 we read about the story of Hannah. Hannah was a woman of God who prayed with fervor for her barren womb to be opened, and she became the mother of Samuel, the Prophet and Judge who would anoint David King. In fact the passage of 1 Samuel 2:1-10 is often called the Song of Hannah. It is a text of longing for the child within, and the model text for another passage famous this time of year.

In the tradition of Hannah, we find in Luke 1:46-55 a very famous text often called the Magnificat. It is a text of Mary – soon to be a mother herself – expressing her gratitude in a psalm of praise to God. Her hope, though, was not just for herself and for her unborn child, but for all people… for all generations. Her hope was for a time when oppression and scarcity would be a distant memory. Through our singing of the songs and telling of the stories of Mary’s little baby, who became Jesus of Nazareth – our brother, teacher, and Christ – we keep hope alive. We hope for the continued fulfillment of the promise, when justice and deliverance will be realized for all of Creation. “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

PRACTICE: We invite you today to look at these texts so foundational to the Advent season. Ponder them deep in your heart and soul. We invite you to write your own hymn of praise to God, a praise that acknowledges the coming of Jesus at Christmas which we anticipate this Advent Season. If writing a unique praise to God seems to daunting…then you are invited to re-write the Magnificat from Luke’s gospel in today’s language—who are the downtrodden today? Can you name them in prayer to God?

Today’s devotional is a collaboration featuring the thoughts and words of Rev. Mary Jo Bradshaw and Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas. Both of their bios can be found on the bios page.