Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let It Be To Me -- An Advent Meditation

One of my fondest memories of Christmastime is meeting at the church to go caroling. We’d gather around dusk in the black-topped parking lot and board the old school bus that now bore our church name. The engine would cough and sputter to life and off we’d go, bouncing along on springs worn out by school kids, out onto the main drag of our part of town.

One of my Dad’s friends always drove and if I cajoled and wheedled enough, my best friend and I got to sit on the steps beside the driver. We’d listen to the whine of the gears as he shifted up through them, hear the noisy little fan mounted on the ceiling above the driver’s head trying desperately to clear the windows fogging up from the combination of warm bodies and cold night air and watch the parked cars whiz by, seemingly inches from our noses. The bus would fill with the sounds of children’s laughter and adult story telling.

Down though the gears. A slow stop. We’d pull up in front of one of the homes of a shut-in from the church and pile out, forming ranks on the front lawn or porch. We weren’t very orderly. After all, we were Quakers and military precision was something we didn’t do well. A few carols, including some where we smart boys fractured the lyrics, a quick verse of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and then it was back to the bus and on to the next victim’s house.

I always enjoyed those stops. The people we sang to, no matter how badly, enjoyed them too, their faces lighting up with the Christmas spirit at the mixed bag of families, singles, kids and adults singing to them.

But there was one stop that was different for me.

I didn’t look forward to it. In fact, I dreaded it.

Our last stop before heading back to the church for hot chocolate and cookies took us up a winding lane to a big house that had been left to the Yearly Meeting. We filed off the bus, but gathered more solemnly than at all the other. Adults seemed nervous and shuffled their feet. I really didn’t understand why there was so much unease, but picked up on it quickly. The door to the big house would open and we would file into the huge living room, which was filled with young women. I didn’t know all the particulars as a young boy, but my dad tried to explain to me when I asked him why they were at the Friends Rescue Home, that these girls had gotten “into trouble.”

What kind of trouble, I wondered. He mumbled a lot and said I was too young to understand and he’d explain it later. All I could pick up at the time was that it must have been bad trouble and something to be ashamed about. After the first visit there, I was always glad to beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the bus and head to the church. For a while I felt tainted with something inexplicably dark and brooding. This at a season of light and miracles.

Of course, I know now why the young women were there and what they were being rescued from. It was a much different time than today. A time when it was a matter of personal and family shame to be single, teen-age and pregnant. I’m not saying it was a better time than now, I’m just saying it was a different time. A time that called for drastic measures – sending your daughter away (“out of town visiting relatives” or “attending boarding school”) if she was unmarried and pregnant. That’s why the faces of the girls, even those who wanted to enjoy Christmas and the carols, didn’t look like those of the rest of the people we caroled to. They always looked apprehensive, downcast, sad – and to a young boy who picked up that something was wrong here – slightly sinister.

As I grew up, of course, so did my understanding and feelings. Now it just seems ineffably sad to have to live in shame daily away from the support of friends and family. It’s almost cruel. Yet it was the norm. It was something to be hidden away from the view of polite society. It wasn’t talked about. And it was a blot on the family.

As I think today of that time, I can’t help but think of the mother of our Lord – Mary. If anything, the time she was pregnant and unwed was even tougher than the 1950’s and 60’s in the Midwest. In the case of the young women at the Friends Rescue Home, many of them were sent away for a few months, until the time for the baby to be born and adopted (sight unseen) came and then they went home. In Mary’s case, the penalty was a whole lot more severe. Family shame was bad enough. Strict interpretation of the laws regarding sex before marriage called for severe punishment.

I think that’s important for us to remember. We have come to take the story so for granted and accept the wonder of the angelic announcement and ensuing miraculous birth, that we fail to recognize the boldness and obedience behind Mary’s “Yes” to God. This was no easy thing to ask of a young virgin girl betrothed to a man. This was hard and carried a societal stigma that makes the one we used to force on single mothers easy to bear by comparison. What God asked of this young woman was about the most difficult thing she could accede to. As the poet Luci Shaw writes:

it seemed too much to ask
of one small virgin
that she should stake shame
against the will of God.
all she had to hold to
were those soft, inward
and the remembered sting
of a brief junction – spirit
with flesh.
Who would think it
more than a dream wish?
An implausible, laughable

A risky, unqualified yes. That’s what Mary said to God’s request. What would our response be ? I think that’s important for us to consider at this advent time. How do we respond when God calls us to service – even though our call does not make the demands upon our very lives and families that Mary’s did upon hers? Do we shrink from the tasks before us, the things God would want us to do, those things we know in our hearts are right and good, because they might cause us some embarrassment?

I’m afraid we worry way too much about what people think of us than we do about doing what we know needs to be done. And yet, even during this time of year when we celebrate the unselfishness of God and his handmaiden, we shrink from doing them. We close ourselves off from the possibility of wider service to God, claiming to be too busy (which we are), or unqualified (which we might be), or not the right person (even though God says we are). We ask to be excused from service, or at least excuse ourselves in our own minds, because of obligations we perceive as having a higher priority.

Mary, on the other hand, a simple (in a positive sense) trusting young woman looked into the face of the eternal and said “Yes.” And once the “yes” was said, moved forward joyously with it. I am sure there were times when she wondered if she had said “yes” wisely, especially in those early days when even her beloved Joseph felt bewildered and betrayed and was going to send her away. But overall, her obedience and willingness to serve is something she embraced with a joy and serenity that we would do well to be emulate in our own lives.

Who can imagine what Mary felt when she stood in the face of the mystery of the eternal? What could her thoughts have been? Surely she knew she was risking society’s, family’s and Joseph’s disapproval. But did she also know the supreme joy she would have cradling the baby in her arms? Could she even begin to dream of shepherds abandoning their flocks or wise men bringing gifts from afar to come and worship the baby king? Was there even a slight shuddering premonition of the cross that awaited her beloved baby boy?

We can not know Mary’s feelings, other than what we read in the scripture passage today. When the angel speaks she stands in reverence and awe and says “Let it be to me according to your word.” It is then that the wonder of the incarnation, God come down in human form to live among and bring his people back to him, begins – with the simple “yes” of Mary.
At this advent time, let that be our ideal as well. To say “yes” to God when called. Even as foolish as the call may seem. What is called for is not rational, self and community respecting reflection. What is asked for is obedience. Madeleine L’Engle, writing as Mary, says
An angel came to me
And I was unprepared
To be what God was using.
Mother I was to be.
A moment I despaired,
Thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard.
According to God’s Word
I bowed to this strange choosing.
A palace should have been
The birthplace of a king
(I had know way of knowing).
We went to Bethlehem;
It was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
My cloak was old, and thin,
They turned us from the inn;
The town was overflowing.

God’s Word, a child so small,
Who still must learn to speak,
Lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood, strong and tall.
The beasts were warm and meek
And moved with hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.

Perhaps it was absurd.
A stable set apart.
The sleepy cattle lowing;
And the incarnate Word
Resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
The folly of the Lord,
Wiser than all men’s knowing.

Let it be to me according to your Word.

-- Brent

1 comment:

Paul said...

John 3:16 says it all for me.