Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Katie Snipes Lancaster

The Nativity
Luke 1:29–33 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Reflection on the Nativity
As was true with Joseph’s dream in the Gospel of Matthew, Mary too must be offered the words, “Do not be afraid.” Celestial visitations would surely cause your heartbeat to rise. Maybe you’d walk backward away from the power of such angelic apparition too. We might in our moments of deepest need, seek and long for God’s presence, but when appearing before us unbidden, there seems (at least here) to be a surprising amount of potency amid our human vulnerability when God shows up embodied.

Mary was “greatly troubled” even at the seemingly simple words a verse before, “The Lord is with you.” But all of this is laced with meaning. Something troubling is afoot. Despite its deep hope it will mean that Mary’s world turns upside down forever. And remember she is young; maybe 14? maybe younger? A teenager. Maybe the vision of life ahead for Mary had been mediocre at best for a young peasant woman from a small village in the midst of the Roman empire, but now the angel’s impending message brings with it great risk to her life, and her son’s, not to mention grief and a mystery beyond holding. The angel’s words “do not be afraid,” seem inadequate at this point for those of us who have read the rest of the story and know what is ahead for her, there is much at stake, much to fear.

But the angel lays it out anew. Mary’s son will be named Jesus which etymologically carries the meaning “YHWH helps.” She will not be alone. This One who will embody God’s help will be with her all along the way. The way is not yet clear, but if the lineage of kings, and the promises of the past are to be trusted (and for Mary they could be), she could at least let fear drop from her shoulders for a moment and trust that this angel’s wild speech had some air truth to it. The journey ahead would be different than she expected, but the dotted line between the generations past and Mary’s future was being traced right before her eyes.

What possibility is there in praying this part of the nativity? Sometimes it is hard to pray when the journey ahead shifts and becomes different than expected. Mary’s life was on a certain trajectory, and then suddenly it wasn’t. This entire 2020–2021 project has upended every expectation and caused us to recalibrate, and so our collective oscillation between “God help us!” and “O Lord how long?” has pushed us to our own limits. Gratitude for the small and simple helps our prayer, at least sometimes, become “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Yet reports of high levels of depression as we move into year three of the pandemic put us in touch with how challenging an upside down unwanted major change can be.

Mary receives her challenging message with incredible fortitude and becomes a picture of resilience for generations to come. She gathers her strength and starts anew, welcoming the unknown (wrapped in swaddling clothes). The angel’s words “Do not fear” remind us that her strength did not come outside of the trappings of regular human experience, the angel sensed that she was afraid. Fear—especially when the world is turned upside down—is part of our faithful response. And yet I believe anyway, that within and between us is this One who embodies YHWH’s help, despite our reasonable fear, and that we can—like Mary—rest in the presence of Jesus in a new way within our own fears, our own disruptions, our own upside down lives.

Praying the Nativity
(from a hymn text by Isaac Watts)

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home;