Getting Ahead of Jesus

The Wedding at Cana, by Paolo Veronese (1562). Public domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s face it:

Parents just don’t understand.

I’m only 32, so it wasn’t all that long ago that I was a teenager bemoaning this very fact to my friends at school.  All through those years, my elders kept on telling me, “You’ll understand when you have kids of your own.”

Well, you know what?  I do have kids of my own now and guess what:

Parents still don’t understand!

For the life of me, I cannot comprehend even a fraction of what goes on in my four year old daughter’s mind.  I admit that I’m still pretty new to the parenting game, but somehow, I get the impression that me not understanding her is only going to get worse as she gets older.

She has this incredibly vibrant and active imagination that can create entire worlds with their own cast of characters and plotlines.  Once in a while, she’ll poke her head out of her fantasy play world and update us on what everybody in there is doing.  Naturally, she just assumes that we’ve been in there with her all along and therefore know exactly what she’s talking about.  We don’t, of course.  But whatever she’s telling us is obviously important to her, so my wife and I usually just nod, smile, and say, “Okay!”

Parents just don’t understand.

But, as a parent, there certainly are things that you do understand.

For instance, there are things we know about our kids that no one else will ever know (with the possible exception of their future partners/spouses).  Sometimes, we know them even better than they know themselves.  We know what they’re capable of, even if they don’t.

I imagine that such was the case between Jesus and his mother as well.  On one occasion, around the time that Jesus began his ministry, he and his mother attended a wedding together in a tiny little village called Cana.  This village was so small and remote, in fact, that archaeologists today aren’t entirely sure where it was located.  During the celebration, the unthinkable happened: the host family ran out of wine.

If that happened at a wedding today, we would probably say something like, “Gosh!  That’s a bummer!” but then quickly get back to entertaining ourselves in other ways.  Generally speaking, we would get over it.  But in the ancient world, where social capital was just as valuable as money, this would have been a supreme humiliation.  The family’s reputation would be ruined for all time.  They would never live it down in the eyes of the community.  The shadow of this event would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

With that in mind, you might be able to imagine the very real concern in Jesus’ mother’s voice when she tells him, “They have no wine.”  At this point in the story, it’s not entirely clear what Jesus’ mother was trying to accomplish by telling Jesus this.  According to the narrative text in John’s gospel, Jesus had never done anything particularly amazing or miraculous before this point.  Even Jesus himself seems standoffish and dismissive when his mother first approaches him.  He says, “Woman (which was a term of respect back then, like ma’am or madam is today), what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Now, I just wish that the narrator had described the look on her face in that moment.  In my imagination, I see her with her head cocked to one side and her hands on her hips, looking her son right in the eye.  Then, without another word, she turns around, grabs a panicked staff member as he rushes by, and almost shoves him in Jesus’ direction, saying, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Jesus, visibly annoyed, clenches his jaw and furrows his brow at his mother.  She simply raises her eyebrows and walks back to the party, smiling knowingly.

Jesus says it isn’t time yet, but his mother knows: it’s time.  It’s time for Jesus to become the person he was always meant to be.  It’s time for the potential hidden in his life to break out into the open.  He may not have even seen it in himself, but his mother saw it.  And in order to actualize that potential, she had to get ahead of Jesus.  She had to take that leap of faith and push him into something that even Jesus didn’t think he was ready for.

What happens next is the famous incident of Jesus miraculously turning water into wine.  According to the narrator of the text, it was Jesus’ first miracle… and it never would have happened if his mother hadn’t pushed him into it.

Now, this whole scene might strike some of us as strange.  We’re used to thinking of Jesus as our guru: the all-knowing, all-wise Son of God.  He teaches and people listen.  After all, he’s Jesus Christ, right?  But in this story, he’s the one being pushed.  The situation feels a little upside down.

To be honest, the more I think about this disturbing idea, the more I like it.  In a metaphorical sense, it’s almost as if Jesus’ mother is reaching out across two thousand years of time just to mess with our heads.  But if you let yourself sit with this ironic image of Jesus being pushed into his first miracle, some interesting thoughts start to develop.

Here’s what struck me about this story: Jesus’ mother is getting ahead of Jesus.

When I think about some of the most heroic people in history, I can’t escape the observation that most of them had to push back against the forces of cultural inertia in order to achieve greatness.  In a sense, they too were getting ahead of Jesus, so long as we understand “Jesus” as a cultural icon whose name is invoked by the powerful in order to legitimate the social status quo.

For example: 150 years ago, a large number of preachers invoked the name of Jesus and even quoted the Bible in order to justify the practice of slavery in this country.  And you know what?  They were right… technically speaking.  Numerous passages in both the Old and New Testaments talk about slavery as an accepted part of life.  Pro-slavery advocates had the text of the Bible on their side.

Nevertheless, abolitionist movements, beginning with the Quakers in the 1600s, gradually built up steam and generated support among the people.  They argued that the ownership of another human being as property violates the spirit of Christianity, even though it’s not expressly forbidden in the text of the Bible.

We take this line of reasoning for granted in the 21st century, but it was still a hotly contested issue in the 19th century.  It was not socially advantageous to be an abolitionist in those days.  Those who called out in the name of conscience were often beaten back by well-respected citizens carrying Bibles.  These early heroes of freedom and equality, like Jesus’ mother in the story of the wedding at Cana, had to get ahead of Jesus in order to stand up for what is truly right and good: not the historical person named Jesus of Nazareth or the Spirit of the risen Christ that lived in their hearts, but the image of Jesus that was constructed and corrupted by the prejudice of the slave-owners.

When I talk about “getting ahead of Jesus”, I mean to say that people need to challenge their ideas about Jesus, not Jesus himself.  We need to cultivate enough self-awareness to question our own assumptions about reality.  When well-dressed and well-paid preachers go on TV, quote the Bible, and use it to justify the exclusion of gay & lesbian people, we to get ahead of that Jesus.  When someone sends you an email with a painting of Jesus wrapped in an American flag and carrying an assault rifle, you need to get ahead of that Jesus.  When politicians use Christian rhetoric to turn our diverse society into a religiously monolithic nation, we need to get ahead of that Jesus.

Whenever we take a controversial stand for what we believe is right, there will always be people who can quote the Bible against us.  On the surface, many of these folks will appear to be more knowledgeable and more dedicated believers than some of us, but I’m telling you now that you don’t have to buy into their ideas.  The real measure of your faith is not the church you attend, the Bible you read, or the check you write.  The real measure of your faith is the life you live.

When people call you a hell-bound heretic, just remember Jesus’ mother, who made a miracle happen by getting ahead of Jesus.  Remember the abolitionists and Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow.  They all got ahead of Jesus, going beyond the text of the Bible in order to honor the spirit of the Bible and so they worked their own kind of miracle: a living miracle of freedom and equality that has yet to be completed in our day.

It falls to us to keep this miracle going, to question our own assumptions and challenge deeply-established injustice, to get ahead of our ideas about Jesus and come to know, love, and follow the real Jesus, the Jesus whose Spirit lives within us, working miracles in us and through us that we cannot even begin to imagine.

The Glory Around You

Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds.  By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)
Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds. By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)

There are two ways of not seeing something.  One way is for the object in question to be so far away that our eyes can’t distinguish it from the surrounding environment.  This is what happens when we try to look for distant stars and galaxies with the naked eye.  We can squint as hard as we like but, without the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, we still won’t be able to see the millions of galaxies that surround us in every direction.  They’re just too far away.

The other way of not seeing something is for the object in question to be so close up that there’s no way for us to see all of it at once.  Such is the case with our own galaxy.  We are part of it.  It’s all around us.  If someone were to ask you where our galaxy is, you wouldn’t be wrong at all to say, “it’s right here” without pointing to anything in particular.

When it comes to thinking about invisible things like the reality of God, most modern philosophers have argued for the first option: God, if there is a God, is simply too distant from our everyday reality to be seen or experienced directly.  From one point of view, this was a most useful idea.  It helped modern thinkers to move beyond the old mythical and superstitious ideas about God as “the old man in the sky” inherited from their ancient and medieval ancestors.  This was a good thing.  It needed to happen, especially once science began to debunk so many of the old superstitions.  In place of “the old man in the sky,” modern people began to think of God as a kind of cosmic clockmaker: a rational mind which was responsible for the machine-like order we observe in creation.  The Creator, according to this way of thinking, designed the laws of nature, built the universe, set it in motion, and then sat back to run under its own steam.  Compared to ancient mythologies, this idea of God seems very plausible, rational, and consistent with the discoveries of science.

On the other hand, this way of thinking has also made God seem more remote and distant from the concerns of everyday life.  God, according to the modern mind, doesn’t exist in this universe.  Some would say that God doesn’t even care about us or creation.  “The clockmaker may have got everything started,” so they say, “but hasn’t been seen or heard from since.”  The clockmaker idea of God might be more rational and less superstitious than “the old man in the sky,” but it doesn’t inspire our hearts toward worship and devotion.  The clockmaker God is little more than a mental concept that can be either accepted or rejected without consequence.  It didn’t take long for modern philosophers to dismiss the clockmaker concept itself as irrelevant and unnecessary.  Like the distant galaxies, such a God was simply too far away to be seen or experienced by human beings.

In recent years, those of us who still feel drawn toward worship have come to realize that both the “old man in the sky” and the “clockmaker” ideas of God are wholly inadequate.  Neither one captures the essence of what we mean when we use the word “God.”  In contrast to the modern thinkers who say that God is too far away to be seen, we say that God is close: so close, in fact, as to be all around us… too close and too big to be fully seen and understood by any one person.  The Bible tells us that we “live, and move, and have our being” in God.  God is like our own Milky Way galaxy: if someone were to ask, “Where is God?” it makes perfect sense to say, “Right here!  All around us!  We exist in God!”

For me, this idea of God being all around us, too close to be fully seen, is expressed most beautifully in the story of Christmas.  That story begins in a fairly mundane way: with regular, working class people being pushed around by the powers that be.  This has been the story of humankind in every age of history.  In this case, the Roman emperor wanted an accurate count of the population in occupied territories for tax purposes, so people Mary and Joseph were shuffled around like cattle and treated like animals to the extent that they even ended up sleeping and giving birth in a stable like animals.  Likewise, we see shepherds working the night shift.  Two thousand years of nostalgia and Christmas pageants have romanticized the shepherding profession, but it was a despised and disgusting job in the first century.  No one liked shepherds, no one trusted them, and everyone saw them as little better than the animals they tended.  Yet, it was to this band of ragamuffins that the angels came.  No outsider or passer-by could have known that the pathetic, mundane scene playing itself out before them was one of the most significant and miraculous moments in all of human history.  Even the key players themselves were shocked and amazed as “the glory of the Lord shone around them” and the heavens themselves seemed to break out in song.

The God that Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds encountered that night was neither “the old man in the sky” nor “the clockmaker.”  Theirs was an incarnate deity who “took on flesh and dwelt among” them.  They experienced this God in “the glory” that “shone around them.”  Contrary to the conclusions of modern philosophers, their God was too close to be seen, not too far away.

God is here.  God is all around us.  I can’t point to one place, or time, or thing and say “this and this alone is God” because the God I believe in can’t be so easily contained or limited.  We “live, and move, and have our being” in God, whose glory can be seen, shining all around us, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Like so many mystics and sages before us, we can see the glory of God shining in the wonders of creation, in the discoveries of scientists, in the guidance of teachers, in the healing of medical professionals, in the courage of those who risk their lives for others, and in the compassion of those who help the suffering.

The glory of the Lord is shining around us tonight, no less than it did for those shepherds on the first Christmas Eve, if only we have eyes to see it.  The poet Girard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” and St. Augustine of Hippo reminded us that “God is closer to us than our own hearts.”

The task of the believer in all this is to take these momentary flashes of glory and learn to see them, not as random, isolated events, but as parts of a whole, individual threads in a great tapestry, woven through the ages.  That’s what Mary, the mother of Jesus, was doing that night when it says in the text that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  She didn’t let her moment of glory just pass her by, she grabbed hold of it and kept it with her.

In the same way, if we want to become the kind of people who can see the glory of God shining around us, then we need to start paying attention.  We need to find those little moments of joy, wonder, peace, and compassion in a day and remember them.  Maybe for you it’s the silvery beauty of snow on tree branches or the golden light of an Adirondack sunset.  Maybe it’s as insignificant as someone generously giving you the right of way instead of cutting you off in traffic.  Wherever you see these little moments of glory, don’t let them escape before you give thanks for them.  If you find it helpful for you, try keeping a daily journal of thanksgiving where you keep a record of these little happenings.  Develop this into a habit and I think you might be surprised at how easy it eventually becomes for you to call these moments to mind.  If that journal idea isn’t exactly your style, don’t worry about it.  Find whatever works for you, but find something.  Don’t let this life pass you by without seeing the glory around you.  Like Mary did: treasure these things and ponder them in your heart.  As you do this, may the glory of the incarnate mystery of God in whom we “live, and move, and have our being,” shine around you and become ever more real to you.

Of Messes and Miracles

De Visitatie by Frans Francken (1618)
De Visitatie by Frans Francken (1618)

Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect (or the pressure to appear to be perfect, even if you are not)?  This pressure comes down on us in many different forms.  For some, it might be related to performance at work or at school.  For others, it might be the pressure to have a perfect body.  It might also be the pressure to live up to a strict moral code or to be the perfect churchgoer.

For some strange reason, I think many of us have this vaguely-defined idea in our heads about what it means to “have it all” or “have it all together.”  We tend to think that if we want to be accepted, then we have to be acceptable according to some outside standard of beauty or performance.

I’d like to test this theory this morning as we examine the lives of two people whose lives were far from perfect.  The first is Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest, and the other is Mary, who we all know as the mother of Jesus.

Elizabeth, we know, was a good-hearted person, but she had a problem: she was getting on in years and she couldn’t have children.  While this can be devastating for families in any place and time, it was doubly-painful for women in first century Judea.  The most pressing concern for people in that society was the welfare of their nation as a whole.  They thought of themselves as the chosen people.  The most important thing, then, was to keep the chosen people going.  Anything that interfered with that process was most troubling.  So, if a woman was unable to bear children, people would see it as a sign that God had rejected her as a mother of the Jewish nation.  It wouldn’t have mattered that Elizabeth and her husband were honest people with good reputations, most people would assume that they had committed some kind of unspeakable act that brought this dreadful curse upon their family.  The village rumor-mill would have concocted all kinds of tantalizing tales of speculation over what that act might have been.  According to Jewish law at that time, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, would have been well within his rights to divorce her because of this.  Elizabeth, because of her inability to have children, was certainly an object of shame and ridicule in the time and place where she lived.

Elizabeth’s life and family were about as far as one could be from perfect in first century Judea.  Yet, even in her old age, after all hope had been lost, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and informed him that they could soon expect the arrival of a son, who would be named John.  What’s more is that this was not to be any ordinary baby, but a prophet who would prepare the people of Israel for massive change.

As painful as the stigma of childlessness must have been for Elizabeth, it put her in the perfect position to help her cousin Mary, whose period of shame was just beginning.

As her story opens, Mary seems like she has it all together.  Biblical scholars estimate that Mary was probably about 13 or 14 years old at the time.  This was the typical age for young girls to get engaged in that society.  They believed that women should start having children as soon as they were biologically able.  We read elsewhere in the New Testament that her fiancé, Joseph, was a kind and just working man who loved her very much.  Mary’s entire life was in front of her and things were looking pretty good.

Than an angel named Gabriel showed up and informed Mary that she was about to have a baby, just like her cousin Elizabeth.  It’s ironic that the very news that took away the disgrace of Elizabeth would heap disgrace upon Mary.  While Mary herself knew that she had committed no indiscretion, she had a hard time convincing others of that fact.  Even Joseph didn’t believe her at first!  Not only could Joseph call off their wedding, but he could have her legally put to death as an adulteress for fooling around with another man.  As the weight of this news settled upon Mary’s shoulders, she packed up and made a hundred mile journey on foot as a lone, unwed, pregnant teenager to the only other person she knew would understand: Elizabeth.

Elizabeth knew what it was like to bear the disgrace of the community for no good reason.  Furthermore, Elizabeth also knew what it was like to be pregnant for the first time under unusual circumstances.  And so, sure enough, it was Elizabeth who was the first to greet Mary by speaking a blessing over her pregnancy.  Elizabeth was the first to realize that Mary’s baby was a miracle, not a mistake.  She said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  In Mary’s darkest hour, when the rest of the world was ready to reject and stone her, Elizabeth called her “blessed.”  This blessing must have had a profound effect on Mary.  In the text, she immediately breaks out into a song of praise, just as if this was some kind of Broadway musical.  In the song she sings, Mary says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed”.  The support and acceptance she received from one person was enough to transform her entire experience of pregnancy into one of blessing.

During the next three months that Mary stayed with Elizabeth, the two women became a support network for each other.  Each of them was God’s gift to the other in the midst of messiness and chaos.

We can see the miracle of Christmas working itself out in their lives, but it looks nothing like we would expect in polite society.  We learn from Elizabeth that miracles don’t just come to those whose lives are seemingly perfect or put together.  We learn from Mary that miracles don’t necessarily turn our lives into inspirational success stories.  The message here is that ordinary miracles happen in the midst of ordinary life, however painful, broken, imperfect, or messed up it may be.

Here in the nostalgia of the secular holiday season, it can be easy for us to get caught up in illusions of having the perfect family, the perfect gift, the perfect Christmas dinner, etc.  Too often, the Christmas story itself gets presented with all of the messy parts carefully removed.  For example, you walk by a beautifully crafted crèche sitting on a church lawn and see the newborn Christ lying in a manger, but do you ever think about what stables really smell like?  Not very good.  In fact, they stink just about as much as our own messy lives sometimes stink.

The world into which Christ was born was this world, the same one we live in now, only two thousand years ago.  As Eugene Peterson writes, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood”.  Your neighborhood, just as it is.  As we draw to the close of this Advent season, we are not just preparing to celebrate an event that took place “once upon a time”; we are preparing to celebrate the good news that Christ meets us right here in the midst of our messy and imperfect lives.  And what’s more is that our messiness does not prevent something good, beautiful, and miraculous from being born in us and through us.

Mary and Elizabeth knew that.  They accepted it.  What’s more is that they accepted each other in the midst of their mutual messiness.  That, more than anything else, is what put them in the perfect position to witness the miracle of the first Christmas.  They were a safe place for each other, a community of acceptance.

When I dream about what it is that our church is meant to be and do in this community, I think about Mary and Elizabeth.  I dream about a safe place, a community of acceptance that is truly open to all and reaches out to the world in love.  I dream about a church of people who are so accepting of themselves and their own mess that they can’t help but be gracious toward the messiness of those others who come looking for a place to belong.

There is so little of that in the world today.  Every authority figure, from teachers to bosses to the police car in the rearview mirror, seems to be looking over our shoulders, just waiting for us to mess up at something.  So, we mind our P’s and Q’s, dot the T’s and cross the I’s, and make sure to keep an eye on the speedometer.  On a less official level, we also feel like we’re constantly being evaluated by our peers for what we wear, what we drive, how we look, and who we know.  That pressure is enough to drive us crazy.

Sadly, our churches are not immune to this judgmental tendency.  In fact, we’ve developed something of a reputation for it over the years.  Too many churches have turned the gospel of Christ into just another system for judging people based on dogma and morality.  Too many churches have become houses of exclusion rather than communities of acceptance.

But our Presbyterian heritage teaches us that we are saved by grace: the unconditional love and unmerited favor of God.  There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation or get ourselves on God’s good side.  Not a single one of us has any grounds for looking down on or passing judgment over anyone else, even if we disagree with their opinions or disapprove of their behavior.  We are all sinners, saved by grace, loved by God, and welcome in this church.

This faith in grace as unconditional and unmerited acceptance is the biggest gift I believe our church has to offer our local community.  Ours is a church of grace, a community of acceptance: “open to all and reaching out to the world in love,” as it says in our church mission statement.  We have many neighbors in this town who need to hear this good news.  Their hearts are yearning for a place to belong, a place where none are judged and all are welcome.  We can be that place.

What we need to do in order to help that dream come true are three things:

  1.  Accept ourselves as we are.  We are not perfect.  We never will be.  We are full of faults and fears.  We don’t always live up to the values we espouse.  We need to recognize and accept this messiness in our own lives.  We need to get comfortable in our own scarred and wrinkled skin, knowing that we are loved in spite of our many messes.
  2. Extend that grace to others.  When you are able to accept yourself as you are, it’s only natural that you gradually start to become more tolerant and accepting of other people.  Their successes no longer threaten you.  Their failures give you no pleasure.  Their opinions were once the yardstick by which you measured yourself, but once you’ve stopped measuring yourself, you don’t need the yardstick anymore.  You are free to see and accept them as they are, faults and fears included.
  3. Spread the good news.  Let folks know about us.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people from places all over this country say to me that they’re looking for a church like ours.  I refuse to believe that none of these people live in Boonville.  Souls here are hungry for acceptance and a gospel that really is “good news.”  Our job is to share that good news with them in word and deed.  Just as you’ve often heard me say before: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.”

This Christmas, don’t worry about finding the perfect tree, the perfect gift, or the perfect ham.  Instead, focus on cultivating this kind of self-acceptance based on your faith in the immeasurable, unconditional love that holds us from birth to death and beyond.  This acceptance of self and others is ultimately what makes for a happy home, a growing church, and a merry Christmas.

Jesus’ Mom Was A Punk

My kind of Mary

Article by Roger Wolsey

Reblogged from Faith Forward at

Knocked-up, teen-aged Mary was the first punk singer and the first rock & roller.  When she learned that she would bear the Christ-child, she sang a song.  It was a song of praise.  And it was a song of protest.  She celebrates that God is about to do something new in the world.

She was celebrating that God was about to turn the world upside-down, knock the wealthy oppressors off their pedestals, lift up those who’ve been oppressed, and usher-in a new reign of social justice and reconciliation.

Click here to read the full article

I would add, just in case anyone else needs proof of Mary’s badass credentials, that she made a journey of about a hundred miles from Galilee to Judea: alone and on foot while pregnant.  If that’s not tough, then I don’t know what is.

Have Yourself A Messy Little Christmas

A little late.

This was the sermon from the fourth week of Advent at First Pres, Boonville.

The text is Luke 1:26-38.

Click here to listen to this sermon at

Did you ever notice that every time you’re going through some major transition in life, especially if you’re getting married, suddenly everyone you meet somehow magically turns into an expert on the subject?  Suddenly, everyone has that one piece of wisdom that’s going to make the whole situation clear.  Suddenly, everyone’s got a PhD in wedding planning, right?  They think they’re so wise and insightful but they almost always end up being obvious and inane: “Make sure the flowers don’t clash with the bridesmaid’s dresses!”  And they all start the same: “One word of advice…”

“One word of advice: don’t pick a DJ who will play ‘Bootylicious’ while your Grandma is still in the room.”

“One word of advice: Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ is not an appropriate song for your first dance.”

Really?  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.

Nobody likes it when people do that, yet everybody still does it.  I’m no exception.  I get to work with a lot of couples as they plan their big wedding day.  And, like everyone else, I’ve got my “one word of advice” for every couple that comes through my office.  I like to think it’s brilliant, but maybe it’s just as annoying as everyone else’s.  It goes like this: “The key to the perfect wedding day is imperfection.”

When I see these shows like ‘Bridezillas’ and ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, it strikes me that a lot of people out there are obsessed with having “the perfect wedding day”.  But here’s the thing: it doesn’t exist.  Something will go wrong.  Count on it.

On the day that Sarah and I got married, we used recorded music and thought we had it timed and coordinated perfectly.  Unfortunately, there was a miscalculation and the music stopped while Sarah was still halfway down the aisle.  What do you do then?  Start over?  “OK everybody, take two!  Back to the beginning.  We didn’t get it right.  Cue bridesmaids!”  No, not really.  You just roll with it.  As long as everybody gets there in one piece and says, “I do,” it counts as a successful wedding.  Everything else is just icing on the cake (no pun intended).

You’ll have to excuse me.  I’ve got weddings on the brain today because today is my anniversary.  Sarah and I got married seven years ago today.  But this idea of imperfection being the key to perfection doesn’t just apply to weddings.  As it turns out, there’s also no such thing as the perfect car, house, job, family, or holiday (especially Christmas).

People tend to get especially funny about this idea of ‘perfection’ around the holidays.  As a society, we’re so doped up on nostalgia during the holidays that we can’t see the forest for the (Christmas) trees.  We sing silent night by candlelight around the sweet little Nativity Scene at church.  Perfect, right?  Actually, no.

Wondrous?  Yes.  Beautiful?  Absolutely.  But not perfect.  This is an important fact to remember whenever we get down on ourselves because our Christmas, our families, or our lives don’t look like what we see in that warm, candlelit manger.  Here’s the thing: those people around the manger didn’t have the perfect Christmas either.  In fact, a close evaluation of the Christmas story itself will show us just how ‘imperfect’ this whole experience really was.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, where God comes to meet us in the middle of the blood, sweat, and tears of our messy and imperfect lives.  When we come to the point of being open to the presence of that mystery in our mess, then we can say that we’ve truly understood the meaning of Christmas.

Let’s look at the biblical text.  Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke is usually referred to as ‘The Annunciation’ because this is where the angel Gabriel makes an ‘announcement’ to the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant and will soon have a baby.  Mary is from Nazareth, a little hick town way out in the middle of nowhere that was probably less than half the size of Boonville.  As we’ve mentioned before, the country she lived in was at that time occupied by the Roman Empire.

Living in a society that was hardly ‘empowering’ to women, Mary’s only hope for a secure future lay in finding a good husband and having lots and lots of male children to care for her when she got old.  The price she had to pay in exchange for this security was her body.  She was considered to be the property of her husband.  Her value as a human being was defined by her virginity.  If any man was to make a lifetime investment in her, he would want assurances that he would have exclusive access to her.  Any evidence to the contrary (i.e. getting pregnant before the wedding by someone other than her fiancé) would be grounds for calling off the whole thing.  The next step would probably be a public execution.  Some might even view that as merciful, because it would save her family from shame and spare her from a life on the streets as a beggar or prostitute.

By the way, I should mention that Mary was probably somewhere around 13 or 14 years old while all of this was happening.  I’ll let that sink in for those of you who have ever had young teenagers.  Mary was an unwed teenage mother with no conceivable future from a backward hick town in an occupied country.  Does this still sound like the perfect Christmas to you?

Nevertheless, the angel Gabriel begins their conversation by saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  What kind of opening line is that?  In the midst of all this mess, knowing the scandal she was about to face, how could this angel have the audacity to call her “favored” and say, “The Lord is with you?”  It doesn’t make sense.

We’re not the only ones to notice the absurdity of the situation either.  The text tells us that Mary herself was “perplexed” and asking questions like, “How can this be?”  Her faith was not blind and unquestioning.  She didn’t walk around like some mystical saint with a halo over her head.  Mary was a realist.  She was just as confused as you or I would be in her shoes.

Nothing about her situation made any sense.  The angel’s message went against everything she believed in, morally and theologically.  The angel was asking the impossible.  Yet, as a voice told Mary in verse 37, “nothing will be impossible with God.”  Through the presence of that great divine mystery (which we call “God”) in the messiness her life, Mary encountered infinite possibility and creativity.  “Nothing is impossible.”

Her risky response, “Let it be,” opened her up to actualizing this potential in her own life.  This openness, more than religious dogma or morality, is what real faith is all about.  Are you open to the divine mystery being present in the messiness of your life?  To take the risk of disaster and damnation is to make a leap of faith.  “Let it be” is a statement so bold and so brave that the Beatles even wrote a song about it: “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’”  “Let it be” was her response to the angel’s invitation.  I think John Lennon perhaps understood something of the power in those words.

After Mary had spoken these words, everything was the same yet everything was different.  New life had begun to grow inside of her.  When the time was right, this new life was born into the world: Jesus (Yeshua, salvation, deliverance, liberation).

Celebrating Christmas is about looking for the mystery in the mess.  It’s not about perfection in holiday nostalgia, moral uprightness, or religious dogma.  It’s about saying “Yes” and “Let it be” to the limitless possibilities in front of you.  It’s about staying open to the new life that is waiting to be born in you.

Be open to the angel’s invitation when it comes to you in your messy life.  It might not look like a winged messenger from heaven, but it might show itself in a sudden opportunity to help someone, welcome someone, trust someone, forgive someone, or love someone.  When it happens, you’ll know.  In that moment, say in your heart, “Let it be” and watch new life grow in and be born through you.

Be open to the mystery in the mess.  Embrace the divine possibility in the earthly imperfection and take that leap of faith, saying, “Let it be.”

And have yourself a messy little Christmas.

Faith in Doubt

Annunciation, by He Qi (2001)

One of my favorite things about our crew at St. James Mission is the theological diversity among those present and the willingness they all have to explore the tough questions of faith and reality.

This week’s Bible study happened to fall on March 25th, which is the Feast of the Annunciation.  It comes every year, exactly nine months before Christmas.  (I guess that means Jesus wasn’t a premie!)

We reflected on Luke 1:26-38, which can be read by clicking here.

What the people of our community noticed most was Mary’s faith in accepting the angel’s invitation.  Some people remarked that they long for that kind of faith.  They want to respond to God in that same kind of instinctual and immediate way.

The next logical question to explore has to do with the definition of faith itself.  What does it mean to “believe in God”?  One woman was honest (and brave) enough to admit that she had trouble accepting the idea that Jesus was literally born of a virgin (i.e. without a biological father contributing his portion of the DNA), but that she too wanted to share in Mary’s faith.  This is a bold thing to say in the middle of worship.  I was elated to hear someone speak so openly about doubt.  What’s even better is that I believe this person, in her honest doubt, was able to draw out certain truths from this text that would have otherwise remained unspoken.  Truthfully, I think this text readily lends itself to a definition of faith that transcends an acceptance of certain facts and cuts deep into our souls.

If faith is simply a matter of acknowledging established church doctrine, then Mary herself fails the test immediately.  We read that she too was ‘perplexed’ and we see that she began by questioning the angel’s proclamation: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  If doubt truly is the opposite of faith, then it’s helpful to know that we who doubt stand with the Blessed Virgin herself in the company of the faithless.

However, I believe that true faith is something that encompasses doubt and welcomes it as a partner in the journey.  Mary is unafraid to show her cognitive noncompliance with the royal decree of heaven.  Even in the presence of an angel, she has the cojones to shake her fist at the sky.  And the ironic thing is that her challenge of the divine edict did not disqualify her from participating in God’s plan, but confirmed her place in it.

Deep in Mary’s heart, with all its doubt and perplexity, there lived (and still lives, I think) a profound openness toward God.  Her open-mindedness prepared her to accept that truth which reaches beyond mere fact.  It is in the incarnation of that mystery that she takes up her calling as the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

If we say that we too want to share in the faith of Mary, I think it is her openness toward God, not the mere acceptance of church doctrine, that we should pray for.