It’s no small miracle that, in all the world, Gabriel managed to locate the exact right girl he was supposed to find, but oh my goodness. He did not practice his approach! Gabriel took one look at Mary and bellowed: Greetings favored one! You there, human earthling! The Lord is with you!
So Mary answered the angel: Ummmm…. What now?
Already, my heart goes out to Gabriel because I have done this too. Not the part about hunting down the mother of God, but I’ve absolutely tried to comfort people with the words: God is with you. And honestly, I’m going to keep doing this.
May you know the Holy Spirit as the one who comes alongside you.
May you feel God walking with you through the wilderness of grief.
And if you were to ask me, Why does the story of our Christian faith need the cross? I would tell you: It matters that God knows what it is to suffer humiliation and violence. It matters that the Most High knows what it is to endure the worst hell. To have his own child die. To see his child get executed by the government. To carry the guilt when all the people asked, Couldn’t you have stopped this? There is no worse human pain.
It matters that God has come into the world to go through that, so no human person ever goes through that alone, so the LORD our God knows what it is to be human.
We know this. All the time, we remind each other that God goes with us, and yet. There’s also a part of me —and there might be a part of you— who’s right there with Mary. The angel tells her the truth: The Lord is with you! Good news!
Ummmm… But is it? Is it good news?
There’s some part of us that wishes God would stay in heaven where she can stay in charge. It could be that we don’t really want God to get evicted or arrested alongside us. We don’t want the Holy Spirit to go through depression too! We would much rather have God stay in her heaven and stop all this hardship from happening!
Instead. For God so loved the world… the Holy Spirit loves the world like this: he comes into the world, and he chooses to become human, and he chooses to go with us, as though by joining our pain with his, God could turn suffering into redemption. As though we could turn this world toward love and more love.
These days, it could be that you are grieving. More than a few of us have had a loved one die this year. We might be grieving for someone who has died many years ago. We might be grieving relationships that have come to an end, jobs we have lost, abilities we used to have that we don’t have any more. Our hearts are breaking for people we love who are alone and in trouble, for people we love who are locked up…
Then there’s the fact that Christmas is not going to feel like it normally does. I can tell you, we’ve been working to create a beautiful Christmas Eve worship service. And I hope you will worship with us, and I promise it will be meaningful! And —it won’t be the same.
Something that is difficult about grieving at Christmas is feeling the pressure that this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. So if you’re not feeling the sparkle-pop-dazzle of the Christmas spirit, there must be something wrong with you! You’ve heard me say this before, and I’ll keep on saying it:
Feeling the weight of grief in your soul does not make you a failure at Christmas. Feeling sad when things are sad makes you a human being, and it could be that being human is the purpose of Christmas. It’s certainly God’s purpose at Christmas.
Here’s the thing about grief: It will not stay in its designated well-labeled tote. It spills out and gets all over everything, and it never fails to take us by surprise. It makes us quiet when everyone else is laughing; it makes us weep when everyone else is singing, but what if it’s also doing something more?
What if our sorrow is what makes possible our empathy…
What if the pain you’re feeling is putting you in exactly the right position to walk beside someone else who’s feeling that way too…
And I know that’s easy for me to say. I know when we’re immersed in our own sorrow, just the idea of reaching out to help others might sound impossible! It’s just… maybe we could. Maybe we have more power than we realize.
This idea of choosing to see how somebody else’s struggle could be my struggle or your struggle reminds of a beautiful story. Full disclosure, I first heard this story in a speech delivered by President Obama, but that’s not what matters about it.
So there was one of those community meetings where everybody in the room goes around the table and shares why they chose to get involved in social change. You’ve been to meetings like this. The facilitator was a young, white woman named Ashley. She got things started by sharing her own story. When she was nine years old, her mother got cancer, which led to her mom losing her job, which led to her mom losing her health insurance, which led to them filing for bankruptcy. For dinner, they made do with mustard and relish sandwiches. Now Ashley is here in order to help other children whose families are also struggling.
The meeting went on like this, every person sharing their own story and their own motivation for showing up to do the work. Finally, there was an older Black man who hadn’t said anything. Tell us, why are you here? they asked. Oh… he said. I’m here because of Ashley.
Now I don’t know anything about this man —not even his name! What we know is that something in her story spoke to his heart. Something about her struggle convinced this man that it was his struggle too. You don’t have to have a child in juvenile detention in order to worry about the children in juvenile detention. You don’t have to have a parent in a nursing home in order to care about the people in nursing homes. This is what it is to be human, thank God.
When we find ourselves thick in the sorrow but then choose to turn our hearts toward each other, when we allow our pain to make possible our empathy, here’s the thing… This is where justice comes from.
And I know. I know that walking beside someone through grief, that doesn’t sound like a call to revolution. That doesn’t sound like dismantling systemic oppression. But it’s absolutely where this work begins! Go talk to anyone who’s out in the world doing the work of meaningful social change, find anyone leading the charge, and you know what, they could tell you precisely how their heart is breaking. They could tell you who their Ashley is, who they are here because of… If nothing else blows your mind about what it is to be human, may it be this.
Our grief doesn’t stay in its assigned tote. Our pain is not just our own cross to bear, so suck it up and don’t complain. No! Our God does not stay confined in heaven. God comes into the world to become human, to go with us, as though we might learn how to do this too.
It’s no small miracle that, in all the world, Gabriel managed to locate the exact right girl, but oh my goodness. He flung at her: “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” And Mary was not sure, but she kept listening. The angel tried again.
He told her, Do not be afraid. He told her she was pregnant with the son of the Most High and the Most High will overshadow her. He told her that she would give birth to God because nothing is impossible for God. So Mary told him, All right. I’ll do it. Here I am.
Here was Mary, probably fourteen, definitely realizing that her world is about to come crashing down. You know she is terrified. I’m pretty sure she auditions the possibility of ending her own life. I’m pretty sure Mary finds herself grieving the life she imagined that now she’ll never have. The Bible says she flees to her cousin’s house like she’s a fugitive, and thank God she did.
When Mary said hello, Elizabeth took one look at her, and she understood. She felt her own baby leap inside her body! Elizabeth took Mary in her arms and blessed her. Here she was telling Mary: It’s not just the Most High who’s going with you, I am too. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is your baby, and blessed are your tears, but, Oh Mary don’t you know. I’m here because of you.
Once Elizabeth blessed her, everything changed. A song rose up and poured out of Mary. She heard her own voice sing of God crashing down the powers of the world and lifting up the lowly, God giving food to those who hunger, Blessed are the hungry, God giving promise to those who had been despairing, Blessed are the hurting. Mary heard her own sorrow turn into singing, and all I’m saying is if it could happen to her…
For God looks at the world and loves the world, and God chooses to come into the world. The LORD sees the violence and the cruelty. The Holy Spirit sits down beside us in the suffering, then with her own hands, God begins picking up the broken pieces. I know, says the LORD. We could make something beautiful.
God becomes human, and so do we. And blessed are those who mourn! They’re the ones who give us the music.
Blessed are you.