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Glory to God in the highest!
Unto us is born this day
a Savior: helpless
upon our compassion
our willingness to give room
to the presence of God
Unto us is born this day
who bears the image of God
who contains the blessing of God
wrapped up, swaddled,
snuggled into the softest bed
And angels sing, if we have ears to hear
the eternal song of counting
fingers and toes,
the coos and whispers beyond language
to soothe a screaming newborn,
the universal lullaby
where we set aside,
for a moment,
the harshness of the world.
If we have ears to hear
what the earth-bound angels
then, God of mercy,
may we open our doors
to desperate strangers,
even if they’re from Nazareth
that backwater town
from which nothing good
could possibly come;
because we might be giving room
If we have ears to hear
the joyous, raucous,
exclamations of shepherds –
dizzy with the new-baby-smell
that clings, still, to their hands
despite the dirt –
if we have ears to hear,
beyond the impulse to dismiss
these evangelists who disturb our night
proclaiming the impossible
that God is here!
Right here: even here!
then, God of all,
may our eyes be opened
to the presence
of light in shadow
of eternal in temporal
of the Body of Christ
still walking this earth.
Creator God, source of life,
may we have ears to hear
the song of angels
in the voices of all
who call us to care for one another
as though we were caring for you;
who invite us to see
in unexpected human flesh,
who remind us that there is no
“us” and “them”
just your love incarnate
in a diversity of bodies.
Abiding God, resting,
in our frail human protection,
may we have ears to hear
the proclamation of the shepherds
who guide your children
to see you
in Bethlehem feed-troughs,
nosed-at by sheep;
in hospital bassinets,
shaking with addiction;
in donated carriers,
outside closed borders:
in swaddling clothes,
God-with-us now as then,
on earth as in heaven.
God of Grace, upending power,
in whom vulnerability overcomes fear
and love triumphs over death
may we have ears to hear;
If our minds and bodies can be
for long enough
to hear the ordinary,
blessings of incarnation.
may we run, like shepherds
to hold the child
so that Mary can get some rest
knowing her baby is in good hands.
Glory to God in the highest!
For unto us is born this day
One who will
heal the sick
house the homeless
nourish the hungry
release the prisoner
teach our children
care for our parents.
Glory to God in the highest!
For unto us is born this day
a Savior, a babe like any other:
given into our care.
Tiny fingers curling around ours
calling us anew
so that there might
be peace on earth.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” Luke 1: 46-48
This seems rather an odd text for this third Sunday in Advent – Gaudete or Joy Sunday. Not because Mary doesn’t seem joyful in her hymn of praise to God, but because there seems no good reason for her to be joyful in the first place. Certainly, she has found favor with God – Gabriel the Angel told her so, and who wouldn’t believe an angel, right? And certainly, she’s going to have a baby, which certainly can be good news under the right circumstances… but Mary’s don’t really feel right, by that measure, do they?
The reality is that Mary, whatever favor she may have found, is an unwed, teenage mother in a highly patriarchal society. There is every chance that her fiancé will leave her, once he discovers her condition, and no one will think any the worse of him for it. There is no guarantee that her parents will continue to care for her and her child. Mary, young, unmarried and pregnant, was looking at the reality of a future alone in an unfriendly world, trying to provide for herself and her child – a desperate endeavor if ever there was one.
Finding favor with God, though it sounds like a real treat, was no guarantee of comfort or security, as the scripture notes on a pretty regular basis. Indeed, God’s favor seems more likely to get one into trouble than just about anything else.
I discovered this week that Islam, in its telling of Jesus’ birth, goes into great detail about Mary’s life. The Qur’an traces Mary’s lineage back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and tells the story of her own parents: how, in order to maintain this lineage of prophets, they prayed for years to have a child – only to end up with a girl! Right from the beginning, it seems, the patriarchy was a part of poor Mary’s life. But so was prophecy, which she embodied beyond her parents’ expectations. But, like most prophets, Mary found that her gift – and the presence of God which it implied – would not make life any simpler for her. For Mary, as for the prophets of generations past, favor with God would be a hard road. After all, prophecy – especially when it comes to calls to repentance, or to the question of bringing the people back to God, is almost never well-received.
Prophecy may not be the tradition in which we, as Christians, tend to place Mary, but this text certainly bears out that particular reading – as, indeed, does the entire Gospel narrative around the mother of Christ. For Mary puts herself, here especially, squarely into the midst of a reality that does not yet exist, and then calls others – like Elizabeth – into that reality alongside her. Mary chooses to live in a reality in which the humble are blessed and the mighty are brought low; in which the hungry are fed and the marginalized are lifted up.
Mary chooses to live in a reality in which an unwed teenager can give birth to God incarnate – and does so joyfully, even knowing what probably awaits her.
It is not at all absurd to hold Mary as a prophet. It is entirely within the Gospel tradition to hold her as a proto-disciple, embodying the call that her child would eventually put to all humanity. There is a good reason that Mary is held in veneration by so many, and it is not for her living into some unattainable level of feminine perfection and purity. Rather, Mary’s importance stems from an ability to believe fully in the covenant promises, even when they seem tremendously distant; her ability to live joyfully into a reality that isn’t, yet – that will only come into being in the person to whom she will give birth. Mary is able, beyond all reason, to live out the unimaginable reality of love and justice, even when she is faced with incredible hardship and trial, the likes of which most of us would never consciously choose.
But what if we did?
What would it look like for us, to live as Mary did: choosing joy?
Would we, like her cousin Elizabeth, follow her into this new reality of possibility? Elizabeth, after all, had everything – the social status, the location, the ancestry – to believe that she should have been the one chosen to bear the Messiah. Yet she sets all that aside to rejoice entirely at the presence of God in one who is, by all standard measures, a lesser person.
Could we, like Elizabeth, embody the joy that lifts another up? Even another who seems so terribly unworthy, in comparison?
What would it look like for us to imitate Elizabeth: to learn our discipleship at Mary’s feet? What would it look like for us to live into a discipleship that embodies the joy that can surpass even real, rational fear?
What would it look like for us to choose to rejoice at God’s movement and presence in this world, even when it comes at a very real cost to us? What would it look like to embody joy at a God who would appear in the least expected places, in the “least worthy” people, the God whose light shines in those places where we so often hesitate to tread?
What would it look like for us to live as Mary did, singing praises of the God who continually calls for the disruption of our comfortable lives, the God who calls us to prophecy and its consequences? What sort of discipleship would Mary teach us, but the one that she taught her son, to live for the sake of love and justice throughout the entirety of God’s creation?
Mary teaches us, throughout the generations, to believe fully in a God of prophetic discomfort – in the God who will be present with us as we live into the consequences of our prophetic voice. For Mary knew, more intimately than we ever could, the presence of a God who walks with us through the difficulty and discomfort; the God who took on our weakness and our vulnerability so as to truly be Emmanuel: God with us.
Our call to discipleship may not put poetic hymns on our lips, or angels before us. Our prophecy may not cause unborn children to leap in the womb. But our God is present. God-with-us remains, disrupting, pushing, making life hard and uncofortable. For the same God who found favor with Mary calls us now, to live into the prophetic reality of hope, of peace, of joy and of justice. The same God calls us over and over to the power of weakness and vulnerability; as of a teenaged mother, as of her newborn child.
The same God who found favor with Mary invites us now, in the midst of discomfort, of prophecy, of impossibility, to choose joy over fear; to choose the reality of a God-with-us world; to embody the joy of God’s presence without counting the cost.
In the first days, when Creation was still new, there arose a series of majestic mountains, whose peaks seemed to caress the blue of the newborn sky. The two greatest rose to dizzying heights, their lower slopes swathed in rich forests, their peaks brilliantly white. Long they stood, side by side, gazing out upon the world which seemed to stretch out forever below them, and murmuring contentedly one to another.
And they had reason indeed to be content, for the tiny creatures who lived below seemed forever in awe of the beauty and majesty of the mountains. Few creatures had the ability to ascend to the height of those highest peaks, and so the two great mountains stood alone, knowing themselves great among all creation, closest in all the world to God. Indeed, gazing upon one another and seeing beauty reflected back, it was hard not to believe themselves the most perfect denziens of Creation, the pinnacle of God’s handiwork, the very reflection of God’s majesty.
One day, the Northern mountain was idly watching an eagle soar and dip in great wheeling arcs, and found its gaze drawn downwards, into the valley that separated the Northern and the Southern mountain. From that height, the mountain beheld a lovely view; a broad expanse of green meadow, dotted here and there with fields and orchards and vineyards. Winding brightly through it all, a slight silver ribbon; the river that formed from the streams and cataracts of the two great mountains. Northern murmured contentedly to Southern, “See how pleasant that space between us is; green and fertile. It is the water from our peaks that makes it so, you know.”
Southern Mountain looked down as well, though the valley was far below them and it was hard to see much detail. Indeed, it was lovely, and the thought that the melting of its bright, snowy peak made that beauty possible… well, it just made Southern all the more proud of itself. Southern said as much to Northern, who agreed with the assessment. “Without us,” they agreed, “that valley would not be as rich, or as beautiful. What a blessing that we are here!” And they settled back to gaze fondly upon one another, contented to be not only reflections of God, but participants in God’s work of creation and life.
So they passed many happy centuries together. From time to time they gazed downwards to see what they could of the valley. For sometimes it was obscured by clouds for long stretches; other times, the shadows of the two mountains fell upon the valley and darkened it. The distant valley remained much as the two mountains had initially seen it; lovely and fertile. Sometimes the silver ribbon ran wide, sometimes it narrowed so that they could scarcely see it from their height. But distance blurred the details, and the two mountains could go long stretches without ever even remembering the land between them.
One day, Northern turned its mighty gaze upon its partner, and paused, quite confused. Southern, aware of the scrutiny, waited for the expected compliment; the recognition of divine presence in those wooded slopes, sheer rockfaces, and sparkling summit. Yet Northern continued to gaze, saying nothing, until Southern quivered in some anxiety, shedding some rock into the distant depths. The far-away crash roused Northern from its reverie.
“Oh, pardon me, friend, I didn’t mean to stare.”
“What is wrong?”
“Oh… nothing.” Northern sparkled pink in the setting sun, obviously uncomfortable. “I mean… I just noticed… it’s nothing, really… but… have you lost height?”
Southern, shocked, was still for a moment, and then roared in anger at the other mountain. Snow blew furiously from its summit as it thundered, “How dare you even ask such a thing?! I, lose height? As if God would allow any such thing? How could the reflection of God change, let alone diminish!”
So great was Southern’s anger and hurt that winds howled between the mountains throughout the night and well into the following day. When, finally the winds calmed, the lower slopes of both mountains glittered with early frost, and clouds obscured the valley. Northern tried to apologize, but Southern pretended not to hear, and the clouds persisted.
After some time, things seemed to return to normal between the two peaks. Murmured compliments passed once again between majestic peaks. Contented commentary on the soaring of the eagles, on the colors of the sunrise, on the twinkling river far below, became, again, the norm between the two old friends. And so passed another aeon. But in the long silences that fell between them, they often stole glances, one at another. For it really did seem, to both mountains, that perhaps they had lost some height, after all.
Millenia passed before Northern gently broached the topic once again. “It seems to me,” it said tentatively, “that the valley is not so distant as it once was.”
Southern, after considering for a moment, set aside its vanity and glanced downwards. Northern had a point, after all; the fields and orchards and vineyards did seem somewhat… well, not closer, but more visible. And that visibility did not please Southern, as it saw for the first time the houses, sheds, and roads that criss-crossed the formerly-pristine valley. “Hmph,” Southern sniffed. “I don’t see that that’s a good thing.”
“No,” Northern agreed. “But I’ve noticed it, recently. And it got me wondering; if it’s getting nearer, then, why, it must be getting higher.”
At this, Southern roared again in rage. “Higher!” it shrieked, sending a bit of itself sliding down. “As if! It will never be as high as we!” And once again, snow began to swirl, and clouds began to form.
“Come now, friend,” murmured Northern, soothingly, “Of course it shall never be like us. We’re special; God made us so, you know. So there’s really no need to storm like that. Besides,” it added, with a sideways glance at its counterpart, “if it were getting higher… well, it must be getting that height from somewhere, and I don’t see that getting so upset that we shed rocks and trees and dirt down there is really going to help matters.”
Southern, though still quite rageful, had to pause at this reasoning. Although the clouds remained, the wind stilled and the snow fell back upon the peak.
“That is true,” it said slowly.
“We must be cautious,” Northern continued, with more confidence. “That valley has gotten a little taste of height, and of our perfection and majesty. I can’t really blame it for wanting more, but poor thing; it can never really be a mountain. Not like we are. So it would be unkind to encourage it, don’t you think?”
“Of course,” Southern murmured, its equanimity restored. Calmly, both mountains watched the swirl of clouds below. “We must be kind to the valley. It cannot help that it is not like us, and I’m sure it cannot help wanting to be like us.”
A long time later, Southern added, rather as an afterthought, “I wonder what it must be like, to be a poor little valley?”
Northern sighed happily. “Nothing so grand as being a mountain, I assure you.”
From then on, nothing seemed to change between the two mountains, but Northern felt, from time to time that perhaps they spoke less often than they had before. Northern wondered if, possibly, the compliments and reassurances that had flowed so smoothly between them – the recogition of God in those lofty peaks, in the brilliant perfection of their height – weren’t – maybe – just a little bit stale, as if the same words were being spoken without quite the intention that they had once contained.
These thoughts concerned Northern at first; then concern became worry, and worry became anxiety, and anxiety became preoccupation, until near-silence fell between the two mountains; a silence that was filled with the imagined dialogue that Northern’s fears created. Until the day that Northern realized that the silence wasn’t complete.
“What did you say!?” Northern asked Southern, rather sharply; sharply enough to start a small avalanche. In its annoyance at having given up more material to the valley, Northern very nearly didn’t hear it’s partner’s reply.
“I’m sorry,” Southern said softly, “I wasn’t speaking to you.”
“Who were you talking to, then?” Northern demanded, still irritated at the loss of rock and dirt.
There was a brief pause before Southern replied. “The valley,” it said, with the firmness of an impending argument.
Northern was taken aback. “The valley!?” it barked in mirthless laughter. “Why?!”
Southern was quiet for a moment, enough for Northern to sense that something was amiss. “The valley is nice,” it whispered finally.
“I’m sorry.” Northern tried to sound sincere; Southern was clearly uncomfortable. “I’m sure the valley is lovely.” It glanced downward, which – truth be told – it had mostly avoided since the conversation about losing height. The clearer views of the valley weren’t nearly as pleasant to Northern as the more distant ones had been.
“It is lovely,” Southern replied eagerly, “more than I’d realized.”
Northern paused, rather taken aback by this enthusiasm. It looked appraisingly at Southern; looked closely for the first time in the aeons that it had been absorbed in worry about their relationship.
“What happened to you,” Northern cried, just barely able to not let its surprise shake loose any snow or rock. Southern’s snowy peak had all but disappeared; nothing more than an icy rime coated its summit. Upon further inspection, the streams that flowed down Southern’s slopes had broadened, and flowed with a distinctly muddy cast.
“Hmm?” Southern mumbled, “Oh, nothing. Doesn’t the world look lovely this afternoon? The afternoon sun makes such long shadows…”
“Don’t change the subject!” Northern retorted, and despite its best efforts, the earth between them shook with the mountain’s fury. “I thought we’d agreed not to let the valley take our height!”
“It’s nothing, really,” Southern countered. “I just realized how much sunlight I’d been blocking.”
“You realized?” Northern grumbled.
“Oh, fine, the valley told me.”
“And you believed it? And you gave it some of your stone and earth?”
“Yes,” Southern cried, defiantly; but it trembled slightly.
“Mark my words, nothing good will come of this. You give a little, that valley will take a mile.” Dark clouds swirled around Northern, obscuring the peak.
“You would deny sunlight to the valley?” Southern retorted, defensive and hurt.
“God made the sun to shine on us. If God had wanted the sun to shine on it, God would have made the valley a mountain, like us. Would you go against what God wants?”
Southern was silent for a long moment. Northern, feeling its point had been made, added smugly, “I’m sure you thought you were being kind, but you have to be careful. Start talking to valleys, and you could lose everything.”
Despite feeling the utter truth of its position, Northern could not help but notice Southern’s distance, after that conversation. Nor could Northern mistake the sudden proximity of the valley floor, the softening of Southern’s once-sharp peak. On the day that the last snows disappeared from Southern, leaving its summit rock-bare to the springtime sun, Northern berated its companion angrily, dismissing Southern’s remarks on the drought that had plagued the valley, the necessity of the snow-fed streams to the health of the valley river and everything that depended on it.
“It’s become depedent on you,” Nothern remarked disdainfully. “I could have told you this would happen. Nothing you can give will ever be enough, you know. It’ll wear you down until you’re at its level, and then where will you be? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Yet Southern ignored its counterpart, and its streams poured forth with both water and the silt that would nourish the valley’s soil. Northern’s warnings grew dire, then threatening, and then panicky – especially when Southern would let loose an earthquake that shook even Northern’s foundations.
“Hey, now, stop that!” Northern screamed, as a tremor shook a sizeable chunk of its lower slopes free and sent it tumbling down towards the river.. “You can go slum if you must, but you can’t make me support that good for nothing lazy valley. It’s not natural. We’re made to be mountains. It’s made to be a valley. We’re not supposed to be alike. You can try to go against what God planned, I’m going to live up to the perfection God intended for us!”
Southern didn’t respond.
Northern waited a long moment, then tried a different tactic. “I bet you can’t see as high as you used to,” it said softly. Even in the silence, it knew it had Southern’s attention. “I bet the world isn’t as beautiful from down there. Remember how much you loved watching the eagles circle below your peak? Remember the beauty of a snowy peak against the clear blue sky? Do the people still come and stand in awe, now that you’re so short?”
In the quiet that followed, Northern felt sure it had won its point.
Then a new voice spoke. “Do you hear the breeze in the branches of the trees? Can you make such music, with your snow and rock? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, tall one.”
Southern chuckled at the new voice’s comment. Northern was shocked into stillness, until it realized that it had been the valley who spoke. “How dare you speak to me!” it thundered. “You would not be what you are without me!”
“Possibly,” the valley allowed. “Although whether that is a good thing or not, is also a matter of perspective. Without you, I might have been a meadow, or a plain, or a grassland. But I would still be, just as God made me.”
“HA!” Northern laughed, but Southern cut in.
“Stop, stop. Northern, stop. Can’t you see we’re connected? Can’t you see we’re in this together? Our being depends on the valley, and it depends on us. We’re not enemies, but equal parts of God’s creation.”
“Equal, ha.” Northern snorted. “I can’t believe you’d betray me like this, Southern.”
“I’m sorry you feel betrayed,” Southern replied calmly. “But I cannot, in good conscience, continue to value certain parts of creation more than others.”
“No. God didn’t. We did. But we were wrong.”
Northern was so horrified, so infuriated by this reply, that it could say nothing else. But as months became years, and years became centuries,, it continued to hear the conversation between Southern and the valley. Mostly, these two spoke softly, so that Northern could only hear if it cared to listen carefully – which it didn’t. Indeed, Northern was so intent upon not listening to the dialogue between valley and mountain – dialogue which was sometimes painful to hear, when the valley spoke of the winter darkness made worse by mountain shadows, or of the fierce snowstorms that had seemed so playful and beautiful to the mountains at the time… When Northern heard Southern’s quiet apologies, it became disdainful, and brewed up out-of-season storms as a demonstration of its power, of its might, of its God-likeness. But Southern sheltered the valley as best it was able, and acknowledged the pain that the storms brought, until Northern felt embarrassed, and ashamed, and angry at its outbursts. Yet when it overheard again the quiet conversations between valley and mountain, it resolved, in its shame and anger, all the more to win the day.
Still, in all its planning and scheming, Northern could not fail to notice how low a hill Southern had become. Nor, indeed, could it miss that its own snowpack had dwindled; that try as it might, little bits of mountain were flowing down the streams of which it had once been so proud; the streams which flowed into the now-nearby valley river. So focused had Northern become on the argument it had with Southern that it had scarcely noticed its own decline; but now it looked around and saw that the Creation upon which it had looked down from such lofty height was not so far below; indeed, the birds now circled well above its bare summit.
“This is your fault,” Northern spat bitterly at Southern. “Your melting for those who were below us. You’ve brought us all down.” But Southern didn’t seem even to hear, too engrossed in converation with the valley.
Yet there were gaps in that conversation as well, Northern realized; gaps when it seemed that both Southern and the valley were listening to another voice; one that Northern could never quite hear. Northern barely spoke to Southern by this point, but its curiousity finally grew until at last, one day, when it was sure the valley wouldn’t be able to hear, Northern asked Southern about the other voice.
Southern was surprised. “Can’t you hear it?”
The valley, who had, in fact, been listening, sighed. “No, Northern cannot hear it. To hear that voice requires that we hear more than just our own voices, more than just our own stories.”
Southern considered these words. “Of course,” it replied. “Which is why I didn’t hear it for so long – it wasn’t until you and I started talking, Valley.”
“It wasn’t until you started hearing me, Southern,” Valley corrected gently. “It wasn’t until you were able to hear my story, without defensiveness. It wasn’t until you stopped trying to tell me how I’d experienced my own tale; it wasn’t until you were willing to hear me, in your heart, even when it made you uncomfortable. It wasn’t until you stopped being afraid, and started being willing to change because of what you heard me say.”
Northern harrumphed. “I’m not afraid,” it said grandly.
“Lift me up,” suggested the Valley.
“You’re changing the subject,” Northern countered, quickly. “I still don’t see why Southern can hear this other voice, and I can’t.”
“Southern and I depend upon one another. We share a common root, acknowledge a common ground. We give to each other. We recognize God in each other.”
“You’re alike enough, now, to see that, I suppose,” Northern grumbled.
“God isn’t just present in sameness,” Southern murmured, “God isn’t just present in the parts of me that I see in the Valley; but in the many ways we are different. I see God more clearly when I remember that God isn’t just a mountain, but is both mountain and valley, hill and plain – more than the sum of all of us.”
“And when you know that; when you can give of yourself for the God who is present in difference,” the Valley continued, “then you leave room for the voice of God to enter into the conversation.”
Northern was stunned. God? The voice that Northern couldn’t hear? How could that be? How could the pinnacle of Creation, the most powerful and majestic part of all Earth, be unable to hear the voice of its Creator?
Southern seemed to hear the unspoken question. “When being great and mighty is what matters to you, you hear the voice of power. We spoke it for years, you and I, and mistook it for God. We mistook ourselves for God. But when you hear the voices of those whom our power has hurt; when you hear beyond yourself, with all your heart… then God will be made known.”
The Valley gazed upon Northern, who realized for the first time that it wasn’t totally clear where the moutain ended and the valley began. Tentatively, Northern let a few rocks tumble down.
“How could the reflection of God change, let alone diminish?” Northern asked, plaintively. “We were the image of God, once, Southern…”
“We were an image of God, one among many. One image of one aspect of God. Our mistake was in thinking we were the only image, and therfore believing ourselves to be gods.”“I’m afraid I won’t know who I am, once I’m not a mountain,” it whispered.
“I know,” Southern whispered back. “But it’ll be okay. We’re all still learning. And perhaps, really, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps what matters isn’t who we are, but whose we are. As long as we know that, I think we’ll be fine.”
And now a new voice spoke, so low Northern had to strain to catch it. The voice came from everywhere at once, even, it seemed, from within Northern’s rocky core:
“Prepare God’s way, remove the obstacles. The valleys shall be lifted, the moutains made low, and all Creation shall see God together.”