21 Dec 2014
“But Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be …?’” (Luke 1:34) In the name …
Do you know that tonight is one of the darkest nights that there is? And it’s a relatively rare occurrence. Tonight is both the winter solstice and the new moon. Combine the longest night of the year and the absence of the moon in the night sky and we have the longest, darkest night possible. We’re not all that in-tune with such things any more. We have light whenever we want it. But for the ancients, this darkness would have been palpable. This is one of the reasons why we celebrate the birth of Jesus in just a few days. We have no idea of when Jesus was actually born, but the symbolism of God’s light breaking through the darkness of our world in His birth was too powerful to ignore. Poetically, not necessarily historically, poetically Christmas had to be associated with the winter solstice. The great light of Christ’s birth was that much more of a surprise in the denseness of so dark a night. And I think that idea of surprise is one of the wonderful mysteries of Christmas. We should still be surprised by the ways of God. Maybe that surprise is even a sign of the presence of God in our lives, and maybe its absence is a sign that we need to look a bit harder to find God again.
Take the story of King David and his court prophet Nathan as an example of God’s surprise. David was a warrior. Most of his story involves conflict, but today we’re told that for at least the moment “David was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies on every side.” (2 Sam. 7:1) With every right intention, David suggests to the prophet that he would like to build God a temple. Nathan thinks this is a right and proper thing to do, and says the same to the king. But that night God speaks to Nathan and says basically, “What do I need a house for? Go back and tell David, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’” David’s motives were admirable and Nathan responds enthusiastically, but God had other plans that left both king and prophet surprised. Even with the best of intentions, we have to leave room for God to surprise us.
And there’s hardly a better example of God’s surprise than the one He pulled on Mother Mary. Maybe you’ve seen the commercials for the new TV sitcom called Jane the Virgin. When you see her face and watch the reaction of her mother as they get the news from the doctor that she’s pregnant, I think we get some idea of what happened to the Virgin Mary. The angel Gabriel appears to her and tells Mary, “‘You will conceive and bear a son.’” I love the honesty of Mary’s response to this news: “‘How can this be …?’” In other words, “You’re kidding, right?” This sets the stage for the life of Jesus. From the moment of conception, we will constantly be surprised by God’s revelation through this carpenter’s son from Nazareth, and remaining open to that surprise is what we are called to do still today as His followers.
With this in mind, Lynnette shared an article with me about Dones. Sociologists are coming up with all kinds of these new terms because the practice of religion today is rapidly changing around us. I’ve talked before about Nones. That’s n-o-n-e-s, not the nuns who are sisters. These are the people who have no particular church affiliation. They may show up on Christmas at this church or that one, but they belong formally to no particular church. The Dones, however, are those people, according to the article, who were once active in a church, but who are now just done. They have walked away from organized religion and not because they have stopped believing. One of the reasons they give for turning away is that they feel they’ve heard it all. There’s nothing new in churches and even more exhausting for them is that they have no hope for anything new in churches. Others are bored by the routine, the same practices all of the time. As they put it so creatively in the article: “The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.” This is the absence of surprise. This happens too often because the church thinks she has God all figured out, and other times it’s because the Done figures he or she has it all figured out. Either way, the thought of God’s surprise has vanished.
Part of our Advent preparation for Christmas is to think again about being surprised by God. Christmas is about Jesus’ birth and also His re-birth in us. Surprise means that our relationship with God should be changing over the years, developing and growing, and hopefully it means that the church has helped with those changes because she is also changing, developing and growing. It means asking questions and listening for answers, and the more difficult the question the more patient the listening. It means a willingness to try something new or to do something different. This isn’t to throw away the traditions of the past. It’s to live according to them. It is to understand the message of Nathan to King David that our thoughts are not necessarily God’s thoughts no matter how pious we imagine them to be. It’s to see in the story of Jesus’ birth a precedent for all that will follow in His life, that surprise can’t be separated from a Saviour born to a virgin mother, a mother who answered the angel by saying, “How can this be …?” In other words, “You’re kidding, right?”
Surprise is not a sign of doubt. It’s a sign of God’s work and our response to it. Why would we imagine that we wouldn’t be startled by God’s intervention? We shouldn’t be afraid of being surprised by God; we should be afraid of thinking there is nothing new or different in God. I think this is something we need to pursue further in 2015. We’re only days away from Christmas this morning. No one, especially not Mary, expected Jesus, but there He was, and now he’s coming to us again so that we can be re-born. So let us not be surprised by a God of surprises. Rather, let us be motivated by the coming Christ Child to see what is new, exciting and unexpected in our relationship with such a God. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo