In looking at Matthew’s introduction to Jesus we focused on the story of Joseph, and it only makes sense to cover Mary’s story with Luke’s Gospel. Luke gives us the grand narrative of the birth of Jesus, beginning with the drama surrounding his aunt, uncle and cousin, and then his own parents traveling to Bethlehem in that iconic journey which comes to rest under the star. He has angels galore, shepherds and an all-booked-booked-up inn. We have women breaking out into song and a guy with temporary muteness. Luke really delivers.
But in Mary’s story a single word has captivated me this season: Behold. You almost have to go back and grab an old translation for this, and I chose to study and read from the King James Version this past Sunday, Luke 1:26-38…
26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be . 30 And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
34 Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.
Mary said “BEHOLD!”
It was interesting to look into newer translations and see verse 38 expressed in different ways. Many simply had Mary say something like “I am the Lord’s servant” or a variant thereof, and some at least allow her to say, “Here I am…” In the Greek she says idou, which is “see me, perceive me.” She really does say behold!
I think that Mary was often presented to me as someone who acquiesced to God’s will… but this is not acquiescence, this is proclamation! She turns the table on the angel and says, “Ok Gabriel, now you pay attention and see that I am God’s gal!” She’s not giving in, she’s buying in.
Mary is sounding very prophetic here. This part of her story reminds me of Isaiah’s moment of identifying himself in God’s plans, “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” Isaiah 6:8, KJV.
This Is A Powerful Woman.
Why does it matter that Mary said behold? It matters because she is on the cusp of major life joys and changes, and God arrives to announce the impossible, the unlooked for and the unimaginable… and she buys in. She has her moment of how can this be?, and then she squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and gives herself to God’s insane sounding plan. This young woman hands it all to God and allows herself to be caught up in something she does not control, accepting all the repercussions to come. We think of Christ being incarnated in the Advent story, but this is an moment of faith being incarnated, strength incarnated and courage incarnated.
You Are a Powerful Woman (or Guy).
The story of Mary matters because it is our story as well. I want to be like Mary. I want to hear God’s crazy sounding will for peace and good news, grace and reconciliation, and believe it! I want to see a place for me in that plan, and I want to buy in like Mary.
I want faith to be advented in me, incarnated in my own behold! If we were all Mary in our own communities, Mary in our schools, Mary in our homes… if God’s insane grace, love and forgiveness were allowed to interrupt our daily plans and advent something new… if only. How many cycles of abuse would be stopped? How many cycles of insult and hurt would end? How many hearts would be reconciled in God’s peace? What do I miss when I insist on the plans I have made?
I’m not sure I can always be as strong as Mary when confronted with God’s work in the world. Many days I feel more like Zechariah, questioning and struck mute by my doubts. (Luke 1:5-25) But that’s ok, because Zechariah’s mouth was eventually reopened, his words are returned to him, and he sings a beautiful song…
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them…
…because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Let’s go advent some faith. And if we don’t have the words at a given moment, keep believing and the words will come. Yes, Mary was blessed among women, and she is also a prophet and a inspiration for us all.
We’ve been painting little hearts, hands and crosses in worship at Church in Bethesda as we talk about service, sharing and the impact of our faith and lives on the world around us. To make cleanup a little easier I’ve been taping the little wooden pieces to half sheets of construction paper. I thought it would make it easier to paint to the edge of the pieces while keeping fingers clean.
Later, I come along and pull the pieces off to lay them around on the altar. What I didn’t plan on was the awesome way many of our people painted onto the paper, using it as an extension of the canvas. I was also struck by this image of a piece of paper with the outline of a cross after I removed the wooden piece.
When we work so hard to create a life that has beauty and intention, we don’t know how far that life will reach or how much it changes the world around it. Painting that little red cross created two images, the cross itself and the place where it was made. How like that is my own life? How like that is your life? Let’s keep painting and working on our little lives, our efforts of colors and shapes of grace, and let’s stop every now and then and look to marvel at the patterns and imprints we leave behind.
One of the sweetest elements of community is sharing the surprises, the unexpected and the leftovers. One of the deepest blessings of our faith is what we don’t easily see it creating in us and our world. Thanks be to the God who paints alongside us. Thanks be to the God who overpaints our edges and covers the world anew in grace each day. Thanks be to God.
This morning I noticed that our daffodils don’t realize it’s still Holy Saturday, they must think it’s already Easter morning! And it got me thinking about Holy Saturday, about waiting, and about the goodness of human beings.
I probably should have blogged about Good Friday yesterday, but it was a full day of work getting things prepared at Church in Bethesda for the evening pilgrimage, and we also ran the boys over to Baltimore for lunch at the nearest Sonic Drive-Through… mmmmm, a family favorite!
We did host the pilgrimage, and Jesus is still in the tomb in our sanctuary. The following is the passage we read at the tomb last night…
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
I didn’t grow up with Good Friday or Holy Saturday. In fact we didn’t have a Holy Week at all and I remember preachers making a clear point to us that Easter was not a “religious” holiday for us, but only a “secular” fun day. After all, we celebrated the death, burial and resurrection every Sunday! We didn’t need these kinds of holidays. So there.
But more than anything else, I think we feared death. We feared an impression of defeat. We feared a hint of weakness to our cause. I don’t think we were brave enough or strong enough to talk of the death of Jesus without immediately moving right to the resurrection. The church of my youth rejected things like crucifixes, because “Jesus is no longer on the cross!”
Really, I can’t recall hearing a sermon on the death without an exhortation to look to the resurrection. Without a Holy Week tradition that included a Good Friday service, I was never told that “Jesus has been killed, now go home and pray and wait.” Today, I struggle every year to place his “body” in our makeshift tomb in the corner of the Sanctuary. Kneeling beside a weeping pilgrim last night I had trouble praying the usual prayers.
Good Friday is such a beautiful time to hit the pressure valve that has been wound so tight throughout the last year. Let it out, drop some defenses, be human. Jesus was human, human enough to die. The people standing at the cross were human, human enough to jeer and laugh, to weep and cry out, to be afraid, to be proud, and to be humbled. And Joseph was human enough to want Jesus’ body to be in a tomb, not disgracefully hanging in the open. The women were human enough to go home and prepare burial spices, working right up to the start of the Sabbath, then resting and waiting. Holy Saturday is a time to rest in that deflated, relaxed and waiting place.
Dang, have you ever thought how hard it was for those women to sit through Saturday looking at the spices they had prepared, imagining the body of their beloved languishing without the tender attention of their care? And yet God says, “Wait. Rest.”
Today, as I wait on Saturday for the coming morning, as I wait for the right time to get that “body” out of our Sanctuary and replace black cloth with bright white, as I rest from yesterday’s long day of work, I love that man and those women who cared for my Lord so long ago, so preciously.
I look around Starbucks where I’m writing, and I love the people I see all around me. They are diverse, loud and beautiful. They are precious. They are human like Jesus was human, human like the man and women were human, and human like I am human. Thank you, Lord, for reminding me, for making me stop and rest and wait and see.
Most days in my later life I have taken wearing a crucifix under my shirt, laying against my chest, or maybe carried in a pocket of my jeans or backpack. It’s usually near enough to touch and hold. Because Jesus is still on the cross? Of course not. Because he was human, and I am human, and I find some deep comfort and hope in that? You bet. I look at the pain, love, sacrifice and humanity of the crucifix and it helps me look with love on the people around me.
I’ve decided it’s ok for my daffodils to bloom and shine today. I look at these flowers and I think of the women watching their fragrant spices throughout the day. I will watch with them and wait with them. I will love them. And when the morning comes, I’ll go to the tomb to give what I can to Jesus.
Seven or so years ago I stated my journey with tattoos. I had a nail tattooed on one wrist, and then my dear friend (and then boss as well as newly minted author) Suzanne Castle graciously gifted me with the other wrist nail. I wanted these tattoos to mark that Easter Season and the meaning that Christ has held in my pilgrimage through life.
This week as I work on Good Friday devotional ideas and prepare for Easter Sunday, I am stuck not by the violence of what was done to Jesus, but by what a repudiation of the violence the events represent for students of Jesus.
Beginning in the garden when Jesus heals the servant whose ear is struck off in his defense, our Lord lays the foundation for a different way to do life…
Luke 22:49-51 “When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.”
Wow, can you see Jesus in your mind’s eye, hands raised and eyes wide, motioning his friends to a halt, “No more of this!” No more of this! Striking with the sword was not the answer. Striking back was not the way.
Later, on trial for his very life, Jesus will again repudiate violence as he speaks to Governor Pilate. His assures the Governor that his followers will not violently storm any chambers or raise weapons in his defense or to overthrow any authority, for that is not his kind of kingdom.
John 18:33-36 “Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ ‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’ Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’”
These passages have caused me to stop and reflect on the exquisite repudiation of violence that exists in the violence to be done to Jesus. That God would enter into life to bear the burden of such violence to open our eyes, to soften our hearts, to change our way, gives me pause and humbles my “wisdom” I am tempted to think I have collected.
I look at the nails tattooed on my wrists and I think that I have tended to meditate selfishly on what they mean, that I am the recipient of such love. Today I am moved to meditate on the awesome burden of love that I am live, instead of the violence that so often inhabits my thoughts, my mind and my heart.
I’m not sure I will ever be worthy of such audacious marks as these inked nails; most days I know that I fall so painfully short. As I’ve been thinking of a new tattoo for this Easter Season, I feel the need to double down on what it’s all about… maybe I read too much news, but it seems that from battlefield torture to Middle America’s children raping children, to living in ignorance of the plight of my poorest neighbor, the world needs a change of pace, a new way.
I don’t go to Catholic Mass all that much, not nearly as often as many of my Protestant friends think I do given my bromance with St. Ignatius of Loyola, so I was happy to have a surprise chance to drop in on a noon Mass one day this week with my good friend Greg and others down at St. Paul’s College in DC. We arrived five minutes fashionably late and I had to grab an empty chair that was of course up front near the altar and next to one of the presiding Fathers.
I’m not Catholic, though I love and appreciate my Catholic brothers and sisters. And I know a good bit about the Mass, though I don’t know the rhythms like a good Catholic. This means that when I go to Mass I have to bring my “A Game.” I have to work hard to listen and watch everything so that I’m not always the last one standing or sitting. I rarely make the sign of the cross in prayers or before the Gospel reading… my goal is not to pass myself off as a Catholic, but I do hope to worship and to at least not be a distraction for others.
In this particular noon Mass I was rocking along quite well when the wonderful old, probably retired, Father who was presiding over the Mass moved to deliver his homily. I had of course already noticed his quaking voice and shaking hands, a loss of muscle control I would usually associate with my own sweet grandmother’s Parkinsons Disease or other such aliments that afflict the mature among us. But he manfully strove with his body to grip the lectern and deliver the homily with a stronger voice and presence than he had previously shown us.
His text was from Daniel 3, the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their fiery trial. As he worked to bring his body under greater control and speak quite eloquently on the passage my personal empathy went through the roof with this dear old man. I know the feeling… when I am especially tired or excited I will often have to work over-time to keep my stuttering under control.
His obvious effort served to focus me on the passage and his words. And so I was unprepared for the power of the words in verse 18, “But even if God doesn’t save us…” It’s a familiar passage, and one I have happily preached many times myself. But caught in the furnace of age, not himself delivered from the ravages of a failing body, this old priest drove those words to the center of my soul. From the lips of the three young men so long ago, to the lips of this venerable priest, to my own often too-hard heart, the words rang as they seldom have for me. Forget the fickleness of my faith, the faith that follows on good days and coasts on the bad days! Forget my faith that only responds to the gifts of God. Forget my faith that only survives on answered prayer! O God, give me a faith that stares into the trial and carries on regardless.
Some detractors might label this kind of faith that moves regardless of immediate evidences of God as “blind faith.” And certainly there are times when I could simply pantomime my religion instead of being a thinking, “seeing” person and an accountable soul. But that is not what I see happening in the story from Daniel. That is not what is happening in the life of a old priest who musters his strength to worship God and to serve his friends at the altar. It is not a blind faith, but a decisive faith. A faith that has chosen and does not have to continue choosing again and again. It is not a blind faith, but a very self-possessed faith that knows itself.
Even as I type the words I find my inner voice crying out in prayer, “Lord, help me know myself! Help me be so decisive! Help me be so self-possessed of faith and you!” And as we prayed together in Mass this week, “Lord, hear our prayer” I continue to pray, “Lord, hear my prayer!” For if I can bet on anything, it’s really two sure things: 1) another trial is eventually headed my way, and 2) I can either have decided my course, or be caught unprepared for the heat.
still grey skies
mock the storm in my soul
as a sacred unease
rises, shifts and rolls
i cannot name the thing
which inside me grows
This often happens when I sit to intentionally write some poetry. A still, quiet moment allows me to hear some of my more painful inner movements that are drowned out in the usual activity of the day. It’s not that I’m totally filled with melancholy, but it’s there.
In recent months I’ve been in several different situations discussing the impact of depression on our lives and those conversations have had me thinking. I have lived with the ebb and flow of depression as long as I can remember. I don’t think it’s ever outright owned me, but it’s been there. I’ve learned to watch the seasons and to be aware of their impact on my moods. I’ve learned to listen to the people who love me and live with me; Teresa will let me know when I seem to be letting it get an upper hand.
I’ve been thinking about some of the ways that being a person of faith has impacted the way I deal with my depression and darker moods. I think that growing up with a “seen and unseen” worldview has been helpful for me. I was raised to put my faith in something beyond my senses, beyond my ability to perceive, as I could perceive other things. So when the dark thoughts come and I perceive no hope, I have this reflex to look past it and try to see what may not be seen.
I have a cognitive trigger built into me that causes me to seek. When I seek I am in movement. When I am in movement I cannot be held in the grip of anxiety, fear or hopelessness for too long. So when I am in the grip of depression, it never holds all of me, there is a bit of me still free to roam.
I’m not saying that this idea is a panacea or a magic cure all of some kind. And there will always be times when our imbalanced physiology demands the help of trained professionals, both for counseling and for medication. When I stop seeking, then I think it will be time for me to see a professional.
But having that safety valve built into me allows me to be very open about the presence of darkness in my soul. I can deal with the fact that even as a creature of the light, I retain these shadows; I own the shadows. But the shadows don’t own me. I’m grateful to God for this. And so even as I write something that questions what “inside me grows” I am also very assured that it will not one day rule me and destroy me, or supplant in me what God would do. My unease is sacred.