The Lord is With You

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38 | Canticle 15

Advent is all about preparation. “Prepare the way, O Zion,” we’ve sung, and theoretically, that’s what we’ve been doing, preparing the way for Jesus Christ to be fully present. These past three weeks have given us clues. As we lit the first candle with a word of peace and heard the Gospel tell us to “keep awake,” we focused on being present and aware. We lit the second candle in hope that we’d be a part of making a straight pathway through the desert, that the pathway of God’s peace might be realized. We lit the third candle with a word of joy and the vivid image of John the Baptist proclaiming, being that voice in the wilderness for the one who stood among them but was not yet known, the one greater than him who would baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit. And today, we light a candle with the word of love on our lips, and we remember the Annunciation of Mary, to whom the angel Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/104384.html
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

If you went home today or sat in your favorite chair reading or watching a movie tonight and Gabriel appeared to you, would your preparations find you in a place ready to engage God’s will? Because Mary was apparently ready, though I do like the poems and paintings that show her hesitance, reticence, youth, and vulnerability. It is not lost on me that after Gabriel has told her not to be afraid and that she’s chosen to bear the Son of the Most High, her most pressing question is about how that’s to be? How can she be pregnant? Forget the logistics of gestating, birthing, and mothering the Son of God: let’s start with the basics. And she’s told that the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, with her consent. Mary shows us who she is in her devotion, in her strength.

I mentioned that there was one more thing I wanted to share from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. . . .” (quote from Roshi Joan Halifax at the beginning of Ch. 7, p.147)

I mention this because while we all take for granted Mary’s strength, we often hear her spoken of as meek and mild. Of course she’s that, too. God knows who she is and favors her. Surely she is one who loves God with all her heart, all her soul, and all her mind. She’s awake and aware. She anticipates the Lord’s presence in her life. Her joy is harder for me to see, so tied up in her love and her surrender, that it must be complete in being so implicated in God’s will. That Mary is all of this in her youth speaks to a wisdom beyond her years, a strength of spirit that even Zechariah failed to show when Gabriel appeared to him. She heeds Gabriel’s message not to be afraid, and her love of God remains steadfast. Zechariah, a high priest and elderly man, powerful in many ways, serves as a contrast to this our Mary in Luke’s telling.

Young as she is, dependent upon her family and now her betrothed though between the two households, and about to be pregnant…could she be more vulnerable?

“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

God knew in Mary the strength of her spine, her strong back, not only to withstand the strain of childbirth but to endure the trials of raising a son who would have to go the way of the heavenly Father. He would break her heart in rejecting his earthly family. He would dismiss her when she called him out at the wedding feast, though she did not dismiss him. She would be close always to the news of him, as a mother does, and stand there even at his death. The song “Mary Did You Know” wrenches our hearts because we know that all this will come to pass, but how could she? God knows she’s strong of heart, and she has a strong back.

And she’s soft. Soft enough to swell with a child. Soft in her vulnerability, which means not only that she can be broken but also that she can break into newness of life. She’s not hardened to possibilities or unresponsive to that which is far greater than herself. Naive as it may be, she knows who she is and where she is in this world. She doesn’t have God’s approval like Zechariah and Elizabeth; she has God’s favor.

And the Lord is with her. Already. Before he was conceived. Before he was born.

“How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly–and letting the world see into us.” (rest of Halifax’s quote on p. 147)

We see the Virgin Mary, in her youth and vulnerability, in her obedience and devotion, in her strength and love beyond her years. The Lord’s favor was with her, indeed, radiating to all through the generations, this most highly favored lady. But before all the generations called her blessed, she had to brave the wilderness of her wild-hearted response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes,” Mary’s consent to participate in the will of God took her further into vulnerability, the wilderness of walking a way alone. Like we said last week, though, when we take a light into the darkness of the wilderness, we tend to find others who have also ventured into a way that was right even if it wasn’t popular, a way that is true even if it’s uncomfortable. Mary makes it to Elizabeth’s house. Mary makes it to the birth with Joseph. The Lord is with her all the while.

We may not get Gabriel visiting us today or ever. Our calls are not as dramatic most of the time as we navigate our jobs and vocations, our lives and loves, but the decisions we make are often life-altering. When we approach a precipice having done the training in mindfulness and presence, with knowledge of our story and stories, and with a strong back and soft front and wild heart . . . what does our decision look like if we not only believe but know that the Lord is with us?

Beloved, the Lord is with you.

How do our decisions make space for the presence of the Lord to grow in our lives? Are we responding out of fear? Are we putting up a shield to defend ourselves from what is uncomfortable, terrifying, or different? Or are we showing our soft front, our wild, open hearts? Can we take that step into the wilderness even if it’s dark and unknown but we feel it to be true?

With this kind of walk in faith, the Light grows, and we make way for the Incarnation.

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Mother Mary

A sweet friend today shared in conversation that a Bible study she and her husband are going to has brought a greater Christ-focus to this Christmas season, an unexpected emotional and spiritual experience.  In turn, I told her that I was nearly overcome with tears at the Gospel processional, so deeply moving did I find the words, the music, and the sentiment.  Whether it’s by the year, season, or hour, the ebb and flow of our Godly focus varies greatly.

This day when the visitation of Mary is shared, I feel the tenderness radiate through the entire service.  The femininity and tenderness intertwine with the strength and reality of what is and is to come.  Mary answered God’s call with a willingness to serve.  As our priest this morning put it, most of us can relate to an “Oh-crap-what-have-I-done” moment when the reality of our servitude sinks in.  No such moments are related in Mary’s tale, but knowing what we do of the society and culture she lived in, her pregnancy and unwed status were scandalous (not entirely unlike today).  Surely even the mother of Christ had doubts.

We are human.  We doubt and question.  Then the pendulum swings, and we rejoice and praise.  I have a feeling that the trajectory isn’t linear.  I imagine the circle being traced again and again, though at different levels.  Sometimes we might stall, but often once we are set in motion, we keep going, following our path.

May we carry on in God’s will with the faith and willingness of Mary, blessed with a good mother’s love.

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Purple for Preparation

For those unfamiliar with the Anglican tradition, the Church calendar is a circle, a cycle, and it has certain colors for every season.  Naturally, there’s a lovely children’s song to teach the season and the meaning for each.

“Purple for preparation.  White for celebration.  Green is for the growing time.  Red is for Pentecost!”

The four weeks of Advent precede Christmas and its twelve days.  Advent is a time of preparing and waiting.  In that time we ponder the Mystery, the Light, Mary, and the other lessons accompanying the season.

In one of my rare solitary moments, I considered what it is that I need to be prepared for, beyond the religious norm.  What I discover, of course, is that my needs parallel with the lessons.

What needs to be done?  What am I required to do as a member of society?  I have to be counted.  I have to pay taxes.  I have to make sure the family is cared and provided for.  My husband and I do this together, the day-to-day, part-of-society requisites.  We have to follow the rules, even if it results in frustration from waiting in lines or finding businesses to be closed due to holiday hours.  We try again.  We do what has to be done.

What is needed of me?  The children need a more compassionate mother (especially this morning).  They need time and attention, which are hard to provide when one is tired and energy levels are low.  Others need the same of me; truthfully, they deserve the same.  Kindness.  I need this of myself, too.

And what might be required from me in this life?  Am I prepared to fulfill my purpose?  I believe that if I’m still alive, I have work to do for the greater Good.  I still don’t know what that work is, but I sense clues.  Ultimately, every moment is an opportunity to change the world for the better.  This is what makes me an optimist, I suppose.  Take the complacency, anger, animosity, even hatred and replace it with awareness and compassion.  It aligns nicely.

The advice given Mary and Joseph works for me, too.  “Do not be afraid.”  Do the work.  Be present to, for, and with others and myself.  Trust the Mystery and live the Magic.  Goodness is here, in every moment, but I have to be prepared if I want to see it.  I have to be prepared to experience it.  I have to be prepared to be surprised, which ironically I am every time I experience true Grace, Light, and Love.

May we all be so blessed.

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What Mary Knew

Of the four children smacking their cocoa-sweet lips and held captive by The Polar Express, one has a birthday this week, two days before Christmas.  Ten years ago I was 40 weeks pregnant, great with child.  But it wasn’t my first.  I had my support in place.  Preparations had been made.  I knew what to expect, more or less.

In this fourth week of Advent, I love that we light a pink candle to honor Mary.  I love remembering that she surrendered to something greater than herself, that she humbled herself to be a servant.  She didn’t know . . . she couldn’t know what was in store.

Every time I picture Mary or try to work with any kind of visualization or exercise of lectio divina, I have a sense of what Mary might have known.

Surrender.

What was happening was beyond her control.  It wasn’t just about Mary the innocent young woman suddenly expecting child.  As with every mother bearing child, from the moment the baby is conceived and grows, the mother can only do her best to keep healthy.  The formation of the child is left to genetics and the miracle of life.  A mother-to-be can seek the wisdom and comfort of other women to learn all that she can, but when it comes time to birth, there is no bringing forth of life without letting go of one’s identity.  Virgin Mary to Holy Mother of Jesus.  Can you imagine what Mary experienced alone in that stable?  Do you think she found in herself the capacity to pity poor Joseph standing helplessly by?  Could there have been a woman from the Inn who had mercy?  Such details are left unaccounted.

Next thing we know is that there’s a baby in a manger.  Mary has a child, a dependent.  This child’s existence depends upon her care and attention.  She knows this.  With her surrender, though, she knows this child she cares for is not hers alone.  She cares for this precious child not only as her own but as one of God’s . . . as God.  Did she know this?

Could she truly sense this from the beginning?  Could she know the heartache that would come?

From the very beginning, this would be beyond her comprehension.  She might never fully understand.  She could only do her best to do what was required of her in every moment.  She would live fully into each moment, keeping her heart as open as possible to live into the will of God.  This would be the best she could do.  It’s the best any of us can do.

Oh, that I have the humility to live into every moment with awareness and true surrender.  May I raise my children so that they will grow into the beings they are meant to be, not what or how I want them to be.  May I have the strength to be a mother of strength, love, and acceptance.

My children are blessings to me.  I am surrounded by abundance, and I understand this mother role . . . more or less.

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“Here am I”

Since I’ve heard the story of Mary’s anunciation at least three times this month, it rings loudly in my ears.  It could be that last year all my ears could hear was the “holy s**t!” factor Mary must have felt, the “you-want-me-to-do-what?”  This year, however, I was given the opportunity to truly listen to the story, and like doing deep dream work, I was able to close my eyes and enter the story, the scene, the characters, and the energy present on that holy night.

I could feel the dry desert air in Mary’s mouth, in my mouth, the sandy breeze.  I could feel the weight of the day but the relief that comes when all that can be done is done, and it’s time to rest.  There’s stillness and a quiet acceptance of what is.  Then there’s this overwhelming encounter with an angel?  Could that be what that was?  Did anyone else see?  Did anyone else hear?  Could the racing of my heart be betraying me?  Have I not just heard a commission from God through one of His glorious angels?  Didn’t I just accept the call to be a mother to the child of God, me a young innocent?  The curious look from a neighbor makes me question, but my heart assures me it is true.  True, also, was the look of awe, sympathy, and adoration on the face of the angel, in his voice.  Returning to the stillness of the night, it was like a dream, but now my life is changed forever more.  I cannot know the depth of this responsibility, what it might fully entail.  I just know that in the moment, in the presence of what is Holy, I knew I could make no other choice, for “Here am I . . . servant to the Lord.”

Then I realize that the anunciation of Mary is quite similar to our own stories when we are answering a call that aligns with God’s will.  Often it comes to us when we least expect it, when we are still and accepting of the present.  But it could be when things seem most in chaos.  When we hear that tumultuous stirring in our hearts, experience the ecstatic joy of co-creating with God, we know we are where we are meant to be.  What comes down the road, we may not know, but we continue in faith and trust and hope.  Most importantly, we continue in Love.

I don’t know anyone personally who has had the clarity of purpose as Mary, through an angel’s visit.  If you’re like me, you would welcome an angel’s visit telling you what to do, what God wants you to do.  But it seems even as it seems harder to hear God’s voice these days, God’s trust in us is just as present, if not moreso.  God seems to trust each of us that Jesus was enough to teach us how to be in relationship not only with each other but with God as well.  And example after example in the Bible shows us people, servants to the Lord, who are simply present, hear a call and respond, “Here am I.”

May we be that strong, that trusting, that faithful.  May the joy of the season inspire us.

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