This is the first year in decades that my heart won’t be prepared for Christmas through the blessed pageantry of our children. Each year the costumes are pulled out of brown grocery sacks, each character in the nativity drama bagged up separately. Parts are doled out based on gender, age and capability. If you want a speaking part, you probably want to be a shepherd. If you like to make animal noises, you have your pick between a few sanguine species who looked in on the newborn King with appropriate awe—and soft mooing! If you want an important part, you process in as one of the crowned kings with your treasure in hand. But the pinnacle of importance were the parts of Mary and Joseph. Mary usually wears a light blue tunic and white head covering. Joseph—well, like the father of the groom, all we know is he’s in a suit like all the other men and looks respectable. Mary and Joseph have no words. Their sole stage cues are to look reverently at the baby (doll) Jesus. It’s not always easy to find a six-year old who can look reverent for the length of a pageant!
In the Bible Joseph really doesn’t have any speaking parts. Not a word! But Mary is a different story. We do her an injustice by silencing her and limiting her movement to a kneeling position. In our scripture passages today we meet a remarkable young woman. She speaks, she questions, she ponders, she submits, she praises the God who is behind a whole new makeover of her life! Maybe for a few moments right after she gave birth, she sat serenely, looking down at her newborn son as do all new parents. But the casting for a Mary character needs to take a lot more attributes into consideration besides serenity!
Different words in this chapter of Luke’s Gospel introduce us more fully to the one God chose to bear the Messiah. One of those words is “anawim.” (You probably saw the blog title and assumed I had made an embarrassing typo!) Anawim is a Hebrew word for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable and powerless. They are the ones who have little and must, therefore, depend completely on God for their needs to be met. The Hebrew translates to those who are bowed down.
After being told that she will bear the Son of God through a mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit, Mary reveals her self-identity: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The Hebrew word is doulos which means servant or caregiver. In another translation she demures by saying that she is the “handmaid” of the Lord. She is the housekeeper of God and will offer her womb as home to a life that, by an unprecedented miracle, was growing inside her. Joseph was a handyman and Mary, a housekeeper. Anawim. One young couple in the vast Roman Empire who were bowed down under the weight of paying their taxes and staying off the radar of the latest dictator.
Keeping their heads down and their noses clean was the goal. Go about your business quietly in the Roman Empire because you don’t want to attract any attention. So it’s no surprise that Mary is surprised at God’s notice of her. The angel appears and greets her as “Favored one.” Who, me?! As she ponders, she shakes. Or the blood drains from her face. So the Angel offers the words to her that are heard 365 times in the Bible: Do not be afraid. When angels drop in on our mundane lives, it’s scary. There’s a word used in the birth narratives to describe the emotion of old Zechariah in the Temple and the Shepherds, abiding in the fields, watching their flocks by night: terrified.
Mary is able to pull away from her fear and ask questions. She asks about biology, parental responsibility, and faith. It’s encouraging to me to know that we are allowed to ask questions of God when we find ourselves at a crossroads. The angel doesn’t scold Mary for doubting his words. Young Mary models for us what it is to honestly probe the deep questions of our lives in the presence of someone who allows us to speak. There are countless times when we are given the privilege of encouraging someone to speak vulnerably of their struggles and to listen them into a place of understanding. Mary Lou Redding states, “Voicing our questions in the presence of someone who allows us to speak honestly can move us toward being able to say yes to God.” When has someone sat with you, like the Angel Gabriel did with Mary, and listened until you knew you could—had to—follow God’s leading? When we say “yes” to God, have you witnessed how that makes us much better spouses, parents, community members, employees, church members?
I am startled by Mary’s ability to move from logical questions to acquiescence to God’s will. I don’t watch SNL religiously but my family members have adopted the totally chill response of Chad, acted humorously by Pete Davidson. In one skit JLo asks to dance with him and he is agreeable but totally unimpressed. His character has found its way into Wikipedia where he is described as “an apathetic teenager with limited conversational skills.” Duh. So his usual response to preposterous requests is a simple shrug and a one word answer: ok. It’s said with total disinterest in the world around him sauf the video games calling to him from his parents’ basement. So I confess that this image comes to my mind when Mary, at the end of an intense conversation with Gabriel, shrugs and says, “ok.”
But, once again, I’ve cast Mary wrong. God didn’t choose a doormat who would take anything that’s thrown her way. God chose a young woman mature beyond her years, a girl who had been raised in the faith so that she would recognize when God was at work in her life. We witness how deep her “yes” is by the song she sings after Gabriel leaves her to her own thoughts. Mary praises God.
When God shows up we praise, rejoice, magnify, worship God!
Have you ever magnified God? What were your feelings? What did God do that prompted your praise?
Mary models for us that we can live a profound life of faith when we are less than sure. When her rational capacity can’t make sense of God’s new mission, she asks her questions and ultimately agrees to live with mystery. What mysteries can you live with? Each time you pick up your cordless cell phone and immediately make contact with someone on the other side of the earth, are you obsessed with knowing how that works? Not me! I’m willing to live with that mystery! Were you the one who found where your parents hid the Christmas presents each year so that you could peek ahead of time? Or did you want to be surprised on Christmas morning? What mysteries can you live with? Does it help you to know that asking questions of God is allowed?
In her song, which we call “the Magnificat”, Mary rejoices because God has ushered in a new realm which has flipped the power structures upside down. God enables Mary to discern how a Divine initiative has been at work all along, knocking the high and mighty off their thrones and lifting up those who are bowed down. She sings about God’s obvious favor for the anawim. They are the ones who have been humbled by lifelong messages of unworthiness. They expect no favors because their life is marked by struggle or discrimination. They have learned to rely on God because they discovered repeatedly that they could not count on the people around them for help. So they notice when God shows up. Their joy doesn’t stem from riches or ease of circumstance. They praise God with tears running down their faces because they felt noticed—in a dream, a vision, a word, a visitation. And the wealthy man whose daily needs are more than met looks in on his grateful housekeeper who is singing hymns as she vacuums up his dirt. “She has no right to be this happy,” he snorts as he heads to the bank to deposit his sizable earnings. Could it be that she is the one who is more greatly blessed? Can he not feel the tsunami of change that God is effecting through the obedient and attentive anawim?
Great reversals happen in hidden ways among us. COVID has revealed the power structures clearly. People of color have contracted and died from the virus in disproportionate numbers to whites. Their income level is generally lower which means less opportunity for education which can lead to inferior jobs. So they have more limited access to healthcare. They may not be able to pay for all the meds that would keep them healthy so they hit up against the virus with more underlying conditions. The anawim of our society have many times been deemed essential workers. Maids and hospital cleaning staff report to duty to be able to buy food for their children. The anawim are the wait staff who put themselves at risk by bringing food out to us because we’re tired of cooking another meal at home. One Hispanic community leader argued that the essential workers should be at the top of the list of those receiving the new vaccine. She advocated for her Hispanic brothers and sisters who have suffered greatly in the past months from COVID while serving those of greater means. Do we hear her cry for protection for those who make our lives more comfortable? Those who pick our fruit so that our prices can be lower? Who work hard at the jobs we would never accept? Or will they be overlooked yet again? A true reversal of order in our human systems requires change. It calls us to make lifestyle decisions. It moves us to sacrifice from our well-being so that the least of these, the doulos, the anawim, are valued. In the marches, the protests, the impromptu celebrations of our healthcare workers, we see that God is at work and reversals are happening in hidden ways among us.
We will inevitably gather in different ways this year, holding onto memories of Christmas past. We will worship on Christmas Eve—from our homes. We can–and do–complain about the lost traditions. We grieve the temporary suspension of singing and hugging and sitting with each other in deep conversation. We can continue to fight the changes forced upon us this year by COVID. Or we can look for the ways that God is using us—even now—to throw our social order on its head in hidden ways. What we find in this disruption surprises us: hope, peace, joy and love.
Lynn Ungar gave voice to the possibilities of the pandemic as the quarantine began in March. She titles her poem, simply,
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath –
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love –
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
(Lynn Ungar 3/11/2020)