December 20, 2020

Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights, V: Wonder

Passage: Luke 2:19

Even with its crushing pace and sometimes saccharine sentimentality, December is a poignant month, almost wistful. Like the buttery paper-thin layers of a croissant, every Christmas in living memory somehow stacks one on top of the other creating a rich warm tapestry of beauty. Or maybe more like a metamorphic rock formed by heat and pressure deep within the earth, December pierces Christmases past to form a tightly packed month filled with meaning. Maybe it’s true for you too, that the smells and bells from childhood intermingle with what was hard and holy just last year, so by the time we reach today, December 20, barely 100 hours before Christmas Eve’s candlelit Silent Night, it is impossible to separate what was and what is. Memory floats to the surface. Yesteryear and tomorrow amplify.

The Christmas season is packed with a spiritual depth that observably oscillates around every imaginable emotion, with joy and sorrow as close together as the lub-dub of each passing heartbeat. And that is true this year especially. We live in between. We hold the great sorrow of a thousand losses this year, and we carry the rich surprise of joy and gratitude, rejoicing as we see the year come to an end, and looking back, find veins of change that were or may become reasons to give thanks.

Because this year has been such a paradox, full of tension and promise, worry and hope, Bill and Jo and I have been preaching a sermon series on Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights. We needed a container, a way to hold these dynamic, fluctuating December sensations: a place to set down and pick up all that is unnamable about this season of Christmas. And so no surprise, we found comfort in Jan Richardson’s essay about traversing the luminous darkness of this season.

Luminous darkness: what an ultimate paradox, a darkness that sheds light.

When Jan Richardson’s husband Gary died unexpectedly one December, her grief was forever tethered to those dark sacred days before Christmas. And her advice is this: when darkness gathers round, first, find a friend. When darkness gathers round, second, sing a song. When darkness gathers round, third, get some sleep. When darkness gathers round fourth, look to the night sky. When darkness gathers round fifth, tend to what is fragile. And when darkness gathers round, wonder and remember.

Today we look to Mary for stage directions on wonder and remembering. Our scripture passage is one verse long, and while it is contained within the most familiar story of the season, with the intimacy of shepherds in their flock by night and a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, it ultimately zooms out beyond the Christmas story to the long arch of God’s love. Listen to this short but dense passage from scripture.

Luke 2:19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Wonder, multidimensional-response-to-the-divine that it is, connects our current experience to our understanding of the past in several ways.

First: “Wonder is our response to the visible world.”[1] When you wonder in awe at a rainbow, your wonder actually began long before the rainbow appeared, back when the storm felt like it would never end, when your umbrella turned inside out, your windshield wipers couldn’t swish fast enough, you stepped in a puddle deeper than you thought it would be and now your socks are soaked and you’re shivering from the cold.

When you wonder in awe at a Monarch butterfly as her wings fold in and out, your wonder actually began long before, back when you came across a fallen Monarch and touched her wings, how fragile, paper-thin, and you had just read the Times piece about how deeply endangered the California Monarchs are, and saw how your neighbors planted milkweed as a sign of hope and Monarch salvation.

Second: “Wonder is antithetical to fear”[2] Wonder pushes away the darkness and presses us to lift our eyes to the mountains, remembering from whence our help comes from. But wonder is not disconnected from the real life suffering of the world today. Wonder is not a pie-in-the-sky escapist orientation to the world, but a dear-God, let-us-recognize-hope-when-we-see-it orientation to the world, for glimmers of hope energize and mobilize us to attend to the suffering of today, for the sake of God’s justice and peace possible here and now.

When we stand in wonder at our life, we pinpoint the “now” while simultaneously seeing the long view, the past, the depths of our human history.

This weeks’ photos of our very own Kenilworth Union physicians receiving COVID-19 vaccines (Dr. Bennett, I mean you) behold so much wonder and awe and gratitude. It is a wonder that stands in stark contrast to many months of suffering, worry, and fear, in stark contrast to this weeks’ most recent mile marker of 300,000 deaths in the United States. Our wonder at the vaccine—the sudden, near obsession with seeing and celebrating is rooted in the near miracle of such scientific collaboration in a matter of months, in stark contrast to the years it took to create a polio vaccine, and the many centuries it took to develop a vaccine in the first place, and the suffering of people in ages past when there was no relief from pandemic illness. “Wonder is antithetical to fear” in that it decreases our anxieties and calms our heart rate and allows us to breathe.

Third: “Wonder is an awakening, an opening of one’s eyes to see the world anew.”[3] No wonder Mary is overcome with wonder when she welcomes the shepherds into the stable. Her eyes are opened anew to the world, and she sees again with great clarity that the God of justice and peace will again turn the powers and principalities on their head, making way for the lowly to be lifted up and the hungry to be fed. So your homework today is to go read Luke chapter two, and maybe even chapter one. It won’t take long.

Shepherds—those marginalized, “religiously unclean,” outsider characters who are so untrustworthy in the ancient near east that they are (lawyers, get this) not allowed to testify in court—are out in their field by night and fall over in fear when angels appear to them.

But, behold! The angels have good news of great joy. And while the term “good news” seems innocuous to us, the phrase “Good news” was typically plastered across the front page of ancient Roman newspapers with reports from the battlefield, not the shepherds field. Caesar Augustus was typically the one who reported the good news, straight from his twitter feed, if not by word of mouth.

The Roman armies brought good news of battles won and far-off villages conquered. Good news was not some throw away designation, but a real-life reference to the political and military happenings in the Roman occupied Middle East. So, here you have Mary, exhausted from labor, adrift in a sea of motherhood, tending to her firstborn son far from the comforts of home, and enter the shepherds: unreliable narrators who confirm and uphold the message Mary herself had heard from an angel mere months ago when she learned she was pregnant under the most unusual of circumstances.

And if it seems as if the Christmas story carries a fairytale tone, let us not forget that it aches with the reality of politicians, institutions, economies, and places on an actual map. Mary is in Bethlehem for the census, a real town that so many of you have visited I hardly need describe it.

And no surprise, this year Bethlehem is not packed to the gills with Christmas tourists as it typically is and has fewer visitors than even the most violent years of the second intifada in the 1980s and 90s. Hotels that typically employ over 100 people in December are empty except their bare-bone staff of 3–4 people who go in to check and make sure the water lines haven’t burst and the lights still turn on. Restaurants in Bethlehem who typically buy 800 eggs a day from nearby farmers this time of year have no visitors to feed.[4]

Bethlehem is a very real city with very real troubles. And Mary’s presence there would have caused her to remember it’s a sacred history: Bethlehem is the ancient city of matriarch Rachel’s tomb, the setting of salvation in the book of Ruth, and the city where King David ascended to the throne, unlikely shepherd boy that he was.

Bethlehem is not an untested or fragile city: it has witnessed the shaping of God’s sacred story across a hundred generations. The durability of Bethlehem is a song as old as time. Mary herself may be chained to a mere moment in time, but there in a stable in Bethlehem, she remembers and stands in wonder at the long history of God’s salvation that confronts the same powers-that-be and identifies with the poor like her, the hungry, and the oppressed. God does the same today.

Mary begins, there in Bethlehem, to wonder at the ways that she will rise up in the footsteps of her unambiguously brave namesake, Miriam, who stood up to Pharaoh, who sang resistance songs, who sought justice for those living under the thumb of an unjust slavedriver. The visit from the shepherds awakens in Mary that vision, and connects her to her own resistance song, the song of hope she sang just verses prior back when she said “yes” to the God who chose her to carry the Christ child.

When darkness and light oscillate like binary stars around one another, when suffering and joy, when despair and hope, when pain and promise spin around each other, and we need God’s strength and courage to buoy us up, we are driven to wonder, to memory, to remembering.

Let us walk unambiguously brave into these treasure houses of memory this season, awash with wonder. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Vasalou, Sophia. Wonder: A Grammar (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2015) p. 98.

[2]  Fisher, Philip. Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 87.

[3]  William P. Brown, "Wonder: Stewards of God's Mysteries," Journal for Preachers (January 2013).

[4] Oliver Holmes and Sufian Taha, "Plenty of room at empty Bethlehem inns ahead of Covid-hit Christmas," The Guardian, December 18, 2020.