What follows is my sermon from our Monmouth College Christmas Convocation based on Luke 1: 26-38.
Honestly, if I were Mary, I would want to put off the whole “birds and the bees” conversation with Jesus for as long as possible. The problem, though, is that with kids the topic of sex comes up unexpectedly. Like when the Ott family was visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo and we heard this racket coming from the zebra area and so we turned to look and there are Mommy and Daddy zebra just going at it…loudly and somewhat violently. Or like when my friend Michelle, in the hustle and bustle of getting her four boys out the door in the morning, had to stop when ten year old Ben—who attends the local Catholic school—stopped brushing his teeth to ask, “Mommy, what’s a virgin?”
These are the moments that give parents pause. It’s not that we don’t want to talk to our children about sex. It’s just that we would like to plan for the conversation. Prepare for it by going to the library and checking out a few age appropriate books—books with titles like, “It’s NOT the Stork!” or “It’s so Amazing! A book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, and Babies.”
Poor Mary. You know it had to come up. Maybe one day on their way into town she and Jesus came across two donkeys getting a little frisky. Or maybe his curiosity led him to ask the pregnant lady in his synagogue why she was getting so fat. Which I’m sure would have left Mary scrambling for resources, a book maybe, to explain these things to the child Jesus. “It’s not the stork, Jesus,” she might have said. Or “It’s so amazing!” as she shoved a couple of books in his hands and told him to go off to his room to read. But then Mary had a more perplexing complication.
“Mom! Mom! I get it now! I read the book. I know where babies come from!”
Mary’s question to the angel may have been less a question and more a plea for a plausible way to explain the unexplainable.
How can this be?
You might have been asking this question too as I read the scripture today. A virgin giving birth to a baby? How can this be? I mean, really, how can this be? For some of you the answer is simple. It’s in the scripture. Check out verse 37. “Nothing is impossible with God.” For others of you it’s not simple at all. “Look,” you might debate later on in your ILA class, “we all know the biology of this. We all know that this is not how babies are made.” But there’s more than just one miracle in this text. We tend to focus on that which is more spectacular. But the miracle isn’t just that a virgin gave birth to a baby. The miracle is also that Mary said yes.
Just think about it. Mary could have said no. Sure she could have. Most of us walk around all day long saying no, no, no to opportunities, or ideas, or offerings that might be divinely inspired. We say no because we’re scared, or we’re tired, or lazy or apathetic. We say no because what is being offered just doesn’t feel right, or we’re not the right person, or we’d really like to but we just can fit it in right now, at this point in time. We say no to the Divine all the time.
Mary could have said no, too. She could have politely referred the angel to her friend Beatrice who lives down the street. Beatrice would make a wonderful mother for God, she could have said. Then the angel would have left and her life would have gone back to normal. No scandal of having a baby out of wedlock. No fleeing Bethlehem for fear of Herod and her newborn’s life. No complicated conversations about the birds and the bees. No grief over watching her prophetic son put himself in harm’s way. If Mary had said no she would have married Joseph, had a few kids, and lived out the kind of life that was expected of a first century carpenter’s wife.
But Mary didn’t say no. How can this be? How can it be that in response to the angel’s news Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word?”
I’m drawn to Mary because it seems like she could be any one of us. She was not uncommon. She was not extraordinary. I’m sure she looked at herself in the mirror before bed, in that unforgiving bathroom light, and condemned herself, like we all do, for not being smart enough, or pretty enough, or talented enough, or good enough.
So then how did Mary say yes to God? And how did she keep saying yes as Jesus grew up and became who he became and did what he did?
As a mother of two young children this blows me away—because while being a parent is the greatest of joys it is also the greatest of challenges. Nothing I have done in my life has been as physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging as being a mother to my babies. I remember a particular moment two weeks after our son Isaac’s birth when I was running on only a few hours of sleep and postpartum depression had sunk thoroughly in and the weight of my son in my arms felt like the weight of the world. So I flopped my tired self on the couch next to my husband, Dan, and cried, “My life is over!! How can I do this? What have we done?” Because that’s how hard it was and is. I can only imagine how much harder it was for Mary.
Still, Mary said yes. And I believe she said yes, and kept saying yes, because of another miracle in this text; the miracle that she was entrusted with an extraordinary gift. How can this be? How can it be that a common woman is chosen to be the mother of Jesus? How can it be that God would entrust such a woman with such a gift and such a responsibility?
I believe it was this final miracle that enabled Mary to say yes and to keep saying yes. Because there is something about the knowledge that you have been entrusted with something special that keeps you going. This is what keeps parents going in the middle of the night when they have had so little sleep and their baby can’t stop crying and their nerves are all shot. It’s the knowledge that they have been entrusted with that little life in their arms—that they are responsible for his or her wellbeing—that keeps those parents going.
So whenever the shame and public scrutiny of having a baby out of wedlock was too much for Mary, whenever Mary fell on her couch in a fit of postpartum despair, whenever fear gripped her heart over another threat on her son’s life, whenever the voices of self-doubt and self-criticism started screaming, “You can’t do this!” and “You can’t be this!” she remembered that she had been entrusted with an extraordinary gift—that she was responsible for the wellbeing of this miracle. So Mary said yes. And she kept saying yes, even when saying yes felt impossible.
Here, on December 1st, as we stagger our way towards final exams and the end of the semester I think it is prudent for us to recognize the gifts with which we have been entrusted.
Extraordinary gifts like the opportunity we have to study philosophy, biopsychology, kinesiology, or sociology at Monmouth College.
Extraordinary gifts like the ability we have to learn, to absorb complicated algorithms, to memorize and deliver speeches, to debate political and social issues, to daily expand the knowledge in our heads and the wisdom in our hearts.
Extraordinary gifts like the ability we have to do good by countering stereotypes, engaging the stranger, welcoming the unwelcomed, opening the door of conversation between those who are different.
Extraordinary gifts like the opportunity we have to live as if our life matters, not just to me, but to that kid who lives down the hall from me, and to the Muslim student I have yet to talk to, and to that big dude who sits in the back of class and fails all the quizzes, and to that worn-out looking woman in the library’s restroom who is running her cold, dirty hands under the hot water of the sink as if she hasn’t felt hot running water in months.
How can this be? How can it be that we polite, midwestern folks who live in the middle of fields and fields of corn have been entrusted with such extraordinary gifts? It must be some kind of miracle.
We need to recognize the gifts with which we have been entrusted so, like Mary, we can say yes to these gifts and keep saying yes. Even when it has become difficult, and stressful, and exhausting—even when it feels impossible—remember that we have been entrusted so we can keep saying yes.
In a poem about this scene between Mary and the angel, a poem about the Annunciation, Anna Kamienska writes: “No one can know how lonely it is when an angel departs.” So after this convocation has concluded, after we have finished singing our final hymn, after we have blown out all our candles, after we have returned to the quiet of a library cubicle or a desk spilling over with papers, and work, and responsibility, after all that is spectacular has died down and we are left just with ourselves, let us call Mary to our minds. Let us remember Mary saying yes to the gift. And then, after the angel has left and she is all alone and the darkness settles in, let us remember Mary saying yes again. Because we can too. That’s the miracle of the story. We can say yes too.
[Feature Image: Jason Devaun]
7 responses to “How can this be? A Christmas Sermon”
Teri, I can’t believe how appropriate this article was for my life right now. I have been reading an article on Mary in the Smithsonian magazine about her role in Christianity. Your writing brought to mind how often women are expected to say yes when they are too tired or too busy at work or haven’t had enough sleep as you wrote. I am grateful to have the time to stop and read and reflect on these writings. Thanks for inspiring me and making me think about others instead of myself. Jo Ann
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Thank you, Jo Ann! I love how we have reconnected this way.
Inspirational! Thank you for sharing beyond Monmouth College.
Thank you, Chrystal.
Thank you, this is a beautiful and thought provoking piece.
Thank you, Suzy.
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