By Shelley Den Haan
As we move towards the third week of Advent — Joy — I recalled an article written for The United Church Observer, re-discovered while cleaning files last summer. Based on Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55, it was originally published 16 years ago.
In theological school, Wally was a classmate who stood out. He was funny, an incredible story teller and a preacher. A former Southern Baptist turned United Church, he had an ability to talk about faith in God in ordinary conversation.
One day another classmate struggled to write a sermon on Mary’s Song in Luke’s Gospel: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Wally’s advice was brief: “You can’t preach on Mary’s Song without talking about your own experience of God coming into your life and suffering.”
Wally’s words came back to me one Advent. (What was my first) marriage had ended the previous March. In the weeks and months in between I grieved deeply, going through feelings of shock, deep sadness, despair and loneliness. At the time I was a United Church minister in rural Manitoba. Each Sunday, I preached on resurrection and new life. After all, these were the themes of lectionary texts. But did I believe them for myself? No. I thought my hopes and dreams had been taken away.
But the Scriptures’ persistence with these hopeful themes prodded me to continue to look for God speaking to me. I began to realise that I was not alone in my loss. My ministry daily brought me into contact with others who knew tragedy and yet found the strength and courage to go on. As I prepared Advent and Christmas services, wrote Christmas cards and wrapped presents, I inexplicably found myself filled with thanksgiving for the life God was giving me in the midst of grief. Somehow I knew why Mary sang:
My Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant…
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped (his people) in remembrance of his mercy…
With all the merriment that we have led ourselves to believe should be around Christmas, we sometimes feel left out of the season if our lives are less than happy. That’s not so. This Christmas babe was especially meant for us.
For Mary knew what it was to suffer. She was a young Jewish woman. Her people had once ruled their own land. But for years now, the Roman soldiers ruled over them. Mary was not a rich woman nor was the man she was to marry. And here she is with child. Imagine the gossip her pregnancy would cause in the small community of Galilee.
Yet into the suffering of Mary’s life, God came and chose her. She likely thought herself unworthy, not good enough. Yet God chose her.
And Mary celebrated: My Spirit rejoices in God…Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me.
And don’t we say, Christmas is for someone else, not me? Christmas is for those who have big families. Christmas is for those whose husband or wife is still alive. It is for those who have grandchildren. Christmas is for the children or for those with young children.
We say, Christmas is not for us. We’re lonely because so many friends have died. We’re unsure whether we’ll still have a job or find another. Our family is in conflict. Christmas is not enough for us. There’s barely enough money to buy food, let alone Christmas gifts.
But Christmas is for each one of us. We, too, are chosen to receive the healing and fullness of life God wants for us.
Ours is a responsive God. As God responded to Mary’s suffering, so God breaks into our own suffering in ways that astound us, if we have eyes to see, if we open ourselves to God.
We can’t re-write the past. We can’t change that reality. It’s real. It’s life. Marriages fail. Jobs end. Those we love die.
But God breaks into your suffering.
Expect that God will break into the suffering of those you love and worry about.
That year, I celebrated Christmas with various families in the rural Manitoba community where I lived. In one family, the wife had just finished several months of chemotherapy after cancer surgery. The daughter-in-law had lost a family member in a grain elevator accident that should not have happened. But we still celebrated Christmas.
Then I joined in the celebrations of a family of seven adult children and many more grandchildren. We gathered at the family farm. The father of the adult children had died two years earlier.Then, we had all gathered around his bedside during his dying and later planned his service together.
Two years later we celebrated Christmas together. We were all proud of the musical son who had just won an award for one of his songs. There was another son, well-recovered from a stroke that had happened just prior to his father’s death. There was the daughter who brought home her second husband and their combined families and another who’d given birth to her first child at age 41 after several miscarriages.
The eldest son had made a skating rink on the slough as his father did before him. After feasting we headed out onto the ice. We skated and skated while the winter sun ever so slowly dipped into western sky. Sunsets can seem to last forever on the Prairies. Even after it was dark and a generator-run light was brought onto the ice, you could still see the orange of the setting sun in the distance.
We all know some type of darkness but we also know the persistence of the sun. Even more persistent is the determination of our God to break into our lives with love and goodness.
(Shelley is Communications Consultant for St. Andrew's United Church and St. Andrew's Regional Ministries)