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"The Magnifying Gift of Joy"

Maddi Baugous, Pastoral Intern

First Reading:

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Gospel Reading

Luke 1:46b-55
1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Message:

Last January, I was privileged to spend two weeks in the Holy Land of Israel-Palestine. It was part of a New Testament class in my final year of my masters program. And I will say for myself, I now put everything in the context of “Well in the Holy Land.” I’m that annoying person who must tell you about the time they went abroad. However, in this context of speaking to the story of Mary’s annunciation, I find it is only appropriate to share with you some of my adventures. Midway through our trip we stopped in Nazareth at the Church of the Annunciation. Before arriving there, I really did not know what all this church was about. (that could be said of many of the places we visited) But what this particular church was built over a cave which is thought to be Mary’s home. Whether or not it is the historically accurate place, is up for debate, but this place now homes a gorgeous chapel. What is interesting about this space though is how all the icons and images to decorate are depictions of Mary. In fact there are art pieces from all different countries showing how different cultures view Mary. From the Philippines to Korea to Canada and Brazil. Each a different art form but all showing beauty and power in their portrayals of Mary. As someone who loves photography and artwork, this was the place I could have spent hours at. Some were colorful stained glass, others were mosaic. While some were statues standing from the wall.  Some were clear and others were ambiguous. Each showed Mary as a mothering spirit. A powerful yet caring woman.There was something so beautiful about seeing Mary represented by different cultures, and in fact seeing female icons covering the walls of the space. I enjoyed looking at each so much my group had left and someone had to come back in to tell me it was time to move on to the next place.

For myself, I have to admit my bias towards loving Mary comes from the fact that so often we write off female characters of the Bible. Christianity unfortunately has the history of pushing women to the side. The femininity and force women bring doesn’t always get seen. And so when the Christmas narrative comes around and Mary is being put at the forefront, I’m going to celebrate and show her side of this story. We are forced to talk about women, and specifically to talk about the life giving power Mary’s story brings up. We have a pregnant woman who is about to give birth to our Savior- the Messiah, the one who is to come and proclaim good news to all. We, like Mary, are all waiting for a baby.  We are all waiting in anticipation at the birth.

As I see it, this is the time when we would be throwing a baby shower, buying gifts for Mary. Decorating the nursery and preparing. I was drawn to this wait and this anticipation, thinking of Mary in this time, and so I decided to do some crowdsourcing via Facebook and I asked women who are pregnant or given birth what it was like as they waited. One woman who is currently pregnant responded, “Well I know for me the anticipation has been immense. Especially after my  first ultrasound- finally seeing this little baby inside growing and it’s heart racing. I wonder what Mary’s reaction would have been if she had a chance to see her baby growing you know? To see the development of his brain, and fingers and toes. When I saw it on the screen, I was in shock- and I still have a long wait ahead of me.” Another woman commented, “ I felt calm. Which was odd and not what I expected. I figured I’d be antsy, not even nervous, anxious, just uncontrollably excited. And of course I was anticipatory, but in the most peaceful, centered way I’ve ever been.” While she mentioned the calm, another woman honestly admitted the challenges too “Pregnancy: It’s all the emotions. Excitement and expectation for what is to be and this tiny person who you get to literally grow inside of you, but then help grow into their own person once they are born. But there is worry too. What if something goes wrong – health problems or developmental problems? What if I’m not eating healthy enough or drinking enough water or I forgot to take my prenatal for 3 days in a row – any problems could be my fault.  The actual birth is miraculous but scary and painful. Then comes the terrifying part. You are now responsible for this tiny person, and the doctors and nurses have enough trust in you to let you leave the hospital and take over the responsibility of their care.”  Finally, I had to ask my mom what it was like waiting for my brother and I. She mentioned how in both she never knew if it would be a boy or a girl to which she added, “It is like Christmas morning. You see all the gifts under the tree and you’re waiting to open them to find out what you are going to get, but you know whatever you get you are going to love it because there is unconditional love that goes beyond just the physical.”

Each of these speaks to the realness and rawness of the anticipation of a birth.  The emotions and how they vary for each woman. I want to lift up too, the reality that for some it is hard and a painful journey, it is one not always easy. After giving birth, or evening waiting to get pregnant. Sometimes there is hardship or heartbreak in the process.  And for some giving birth may not be an option. Yet, I find though, birth is something which unites us. Whether our family is one who expected us, each of us was birthed into this world. Each of us we brought in kicking, screaming, alive. And as I listened and heard the comments about the anticipation of that birthing moment, I found there was an overwhelming sense of love. In the concern and worry, there is love for the child, ensuring they would protect and care for this new life. In the watching of ultrasounds, there is love for the child, as the body grew and changed. In the screaming and cravings of food you cannot have there is love. There is a deep desire to show this love no matter what the circumstances might be.

And on this Sunday, which we celebrate the gift of joy, Mary becomes a witness to that joy. God’s mothering spirit surrounds Mary, showing her how she will be lifted up. And Mary recognizes it so clearly. She sees it is the same love of the Israelites who wandered in the desert, but received the promised land. It is the same love who spoke to the prophets as they lived in a time of war and exile. It was the same love which was speaking directly to her, a woman living in a place ruled by corrupt leaders who lived in fear, not joy. Mary saw this and proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” She is rejoicing and praising God in this moment. Mary shows though the way God has already been at work, taking down the powerful and lifting up the lowly. She herself is being praised, given the privilege and responsibility to bring in the gift of Christ. This young unmarried woman from Nazareth. Mary is not a princess. She does not live in a great palace with many rooms and servants to care for every need. She lives in a cave. In a small home, one which she may have been kicked out of for becoming pregnant. A place where she might no longer be welcome. Mary truly represents the lowly. And yet her song is all about the wondrous things God has done. But is also one about the promise that God will hold on to. God helped God’s people. God fed the hungry. God did these marvelous things. But how I see what Mary is saying, is one of reassurance. Yes God has done these things. And while they were in the past, God is going to continue to do miraculous things. God will continue to show unconditional love to God’s people. God will show love and grace to Mary and will comfort and protect her. It is by those past actions of God, Mary can rejoice with joy and ease because she knows the promise of this gift of a savior goes beyond her expectations. It goes beyond what she can ever imagine. It goes to unconditional love.

As we are nearly 9 months into a global pandemic, the anticipation to go back to what once was is immense. To gather together in community and to share communion and meals once more. To celebrate baptisms as new life springs out, but also mourn with one another as the transition of life occurs. And so we are waiting. We are waiting in anticipation. We are waiting for this moment. We are waiting for the joy and celebration of being physically together. And even in this time, of our grief, of our fears, God’s unconditional love does not waiver. God’s constant care- hesed, this loving-kindness surrounds us. 

This Christmas is going to feel different. I know for myself it already feels weird, fewer Christmas markets and shopping in crowded malls. More Lifetime Christmas movies alone on my couch and much more online shopping. Even though the celebrations and expectations of Christmas magic and joy might not be there, the promise of God still remains. A child will be born, a savior will be born. In the midst of the darkness and isolation the gift of Jesus will still be received. The savior who brings good news to the poor and lowly. Who pushes aside the oppressor. Who ends all our suffering. There has been turmoil, there has been war, there has been destruction before. There have been losses and heartbreak before. Yet God’s unconditional love does not cease. God’s unconditional care does not break. Mary could only proclaim such wondrous things about God, because she had one thing, she had the confidence of faith. She held onto the promise that God would do good things. She held onto the knowledge that God goes beyond our expectations. She knew God would give any amazing gift on that first Christmas, on that went above and beyond. She was probably scared of judgment and ridicule. She had no idea what would happen next. But she held onto her faith, and rejoiced knowing God had done great things. God is doing great things. And God will continue to do great things, far beyond our understanding or expectations. So on this Christmas morning, we might not get the end all be all of this pandemic. We might not get a complete fix to all the world’s problems, but we do receive the promise of God’s never love. We can rejoice, knowing our joy and delight in the Lord will be far greater than anything we can imagine.

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