Third Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013
Raleigh Moravian Church

The Risk of Birth 

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle

 

After hearing Madeline L’Engle’s poem one of the strangest things about today’s Scriptures is the tense in which it is spoken. Today we heard Katherine read Mary’s song, the song that wells up in Mary upon a meeting with her cousin Elizabeth. But these words are not a prophecy. They aren’t a hopeful word about the future. Instead, Mary speaks to something that has already happened, an action that is complete.

In the beginning we can see how that makes sense. Yes, God has put Mary in a place of honor. She will be remembered for generations. This is evident even today as we remember Mary and her bold “yes” to God. But from here the song stops being so personal. The scope of Mary’s praise widens. God’s has shown strength with his arm, she explains. He has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted the lowly. There is more. The rich have been sent away without a dime in their pockets while the hungry feast at the banquet.

Actions completed. The words of someone who has seen God set the world right. We have to wonder, is Mary speaking ironically? Or has her joy blinded her to the reality around her? It can be hard for us to see what Mary sees, both is her day as is our own. Mary, born into utter poverty, about to give birth in the cold, stone walls of a barn. She has escaped the anxiety of stares and whispers about the pregnancy by hiding out with her cousin Elizabeth in a neighboring town. She will soon be an unwed, teenage mother, stigmatized by her people.

Her world reflects the harshness of her particular situation. Mary lives in a country under the fist of foreign occupiers. Her people are taxed and humiliated. Revolutionaries who dare to defy the ruling power are crucified, conspicuously left at busiest intersections. They are a warning to others who would consider standing up to the might of Rome.

So it is in our day. War and rumors of war. Potential genocide in the Central African Republic. Typhoons destroying entire villages. The one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting. Polio reemerging in Syria and Somalia.

This is no time for a child to be born.

And yet, Mary sings. Instead of irony or expectation, this song is a moment of clarity about the reign of God, one sandwiched between humiliation, pain, stigma, and occupation. In it Mary names the impossible possibility. God is about to enter into the riskiness of this particular human life overshadowed by sickness, poverty and political oppression, and God will redeem everything through it.

Madeline L’Engel’s poem, The Risk of Birth, beautifully captures this sentiment. I’ve read her poem in tandem with Mary’s Song throughout the week. Both L’Engle and Luke see birth as a metaphor for what is happening to the cosmos as Immanuel, God with us, breaks onto the scene. Mary’s song is reminiscent of a song sung by another mother, Hannah in the book of first Samuel. It also has parallels to the song sung by Zechariah upon the birth of his son, John.

Yet, I have found myself drawn to stories of a different way of welcoming children as I wrestle through Mary’s insistence at God’s already fulfilled promise, in spite of it all. There is something brave and wild about this woman saying these things at this time in the world, a joyful hope that has drawn me to friends and writers who wait to welcome children through adoption. These friends have helped me hear a different kind of longing and different kind of hope in Mary’s Song.

This last Monday when I received an email from my friend Rachel updating me on the status of her domestic adoption. She wrote, “We’ve said yes to three babies in the last two weeks – each with very different, and potentially complicated circumstances. Two are due in December, one in February. There are three possible ethnicities, none of which are the same as our own. So we are praying and waiting and trying to see the waiting as essential, instead of an obstacle.”

She continued saying, “I am currently teaching the history of Judaism to my 7th graders (what a task) and there are so many rich lessons there about the keeping of promises – it has been a timely reminder.”

My friend Rachel helps me see what Mary sees. She sees that God’s redemption is pieced together out of uncertainty, the vulnerability of opening her life up to a child that may not be able to be her’s, in the waiting that has no specific date in mind. Yet it is rooted in a promised hope that is so real it is as if it has already happened. Her hope is being lived forward, instead of backwards. And like Mary, Rachel reminds me that God surprises us in the unknown. Like Mary she sees that God is making something out of all of this, rather than in spite of it.

This week I also read Susan Smartt Cook’s account of waiting for the arrival of her nephew. Contemplating this Advent season she writes about her sister’s adoption “my sister is adopting a little boy from Uganda and I will join her for the journey across the ocean to meet a new nephew and bring him to his new home. There are no Braxton Hicks this time, no back pain, cramps, or leaking fluid to signal a slow and steady start. There’s just a cold, quiet phone. She turns up the ringer, goes to bed, and wakes up hoping for the call. The watched pot never boiling, she stokes the flame of her hope for a child not yet her own. She waits with agony and disbelief that these wheels will grind into motion, the court date will be set, and the final stretch of the journey will begin. She waits with grace and patience, recognizing the cry of the orphan reverberating in her own heart. Compassion wells up within, and her heart expands.”[i]

I wonder if this Advent season it would help us hear Mary’s Song in different way if we put ourselves in the shoes of Rachel and Susan. With them we wait, sometimes anxiously, sometimes in anger, sometimes patiently for God to make himself present in the brokenness and pain of our world. But we are always shocked into action by his appearance, always caught off guard when he finally comes. The phone rings in the middle of the night. The angels appear to the shepherds and to Mary without warning. We are standing there with our arms open, without a crib or diapers or a car seat, only with fully formed love and hope to guide us. Like Mary, we receive a child already named, a child that comes from another. God’s Son. Jesus, the Redeemer.

Even in the waiting, in the gritty disappointment of our every day, what Mary’s Song tells us is that history shifted from the moment the angel appeared to her. Everything did change. But that shift doesn’t look like a revolution as we know it. It doesn’t look like a victory. It looks like an impoverished, pregnant teenager. It looks like a family waiting for a phone call from a social worker. It looks like paperwork and home studies and the hard work of waiting. That’s how it is here at the beginning and that’s how it will end. His kingdom will be made up of beggars, prostitutes, outlaws, and children. The King of Eternity takes away the sins of the world by taking that sin upon himself. Justice will come through the injustice of the cross. The revolution he initiates comes out of death, not out of the sword. God loses in order to redeem. And so do we.

No, This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

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