Silent Night by candlelight on Christmas Eve at Good Shepherd, Asheboro.
O holy night, the night when angels sing, when the earth herself cries out for joy, and God breaks through history once again as a little baby. It is the night of our dear Savior's birth. Of course, we can get into all kinds of conversations about whether THIS is the actual night of Jesus' birth; after all, contrary to popular opinion, the Bible says nothing about December 25, or winter, for that matter, since the Roman census was taken during the spring. And we can get into all kinds of conversations about what actually happened that night, where he was actually born--a stable, a cave, the part of the house where the animals were kept--or what miracles really took place. Still, there was one sure miracle: the faith of a little girl named in Hebrew Miriam, whom we know as Mary.
There were no banners that were unfurled, no royal procession with incense and choirs that marched around that little town of Bethlehem when God came a-calling. Instead, there were the arms of a teenage girl, who, no doubt, must have been terrified at the prospect of what all this meant. No one had believed her--typical!--and there was a legitimate fear that her husband would abandon her, as would have been his legal right. Nevertheless, she persisted, resisted the social and religious constraints of her time, and said yes to God. It is because of her that joy, hope, and mercy were made flesh, and in time the world would call her Theotokos, God-bearer, the greatest among the saints. But right now she is just a mother holding her newborn son. It's just Miriam and Yeshua, and like any mother she looks at him with so much love and hope for his future. There in her arms lies everything.
For several years now my dad has sent me an Advent calendar at the beginning of December, and this year's has been particularly special. The doors on this calendar contain different pieces of art showing Mary and Jesus. Most are from the Renaissance period, though there are a couple from the late-Byzantine era, each showing Mary holding baby Jesus, who is usually reaching for his mother while she has a rather annoyed look on her face, as if to say, "Why won't this kid let me nap for five minutes?!"
The images are beautiful...and weird. In one painting, the Madonna and Child in a Garden by Tura (c. 1460-1470), Mary is a dead ringer for The Simpsons character Mr. Burns, complete with huge bald head and hands that are in the "Excellent!" position.
In another, the Madonna and Child and Goldfinch by Teipolo (c. 1767-1770), Jesus is holding a bird in his hand in such a manner that it looks as if he's going to squeeze the little thing to death. The look on his face doesn't help!
He's totally gonna kill that bird!
Each day during Advent I was gifted with images such as these, all showing a mother and her son. In so many, even the weird ones above, you can see the hope that she has for him and the future that he does not know or understand yet. Each of these pieces of art has taken me back to that moment on that night, when God reigned on earth in the arms of his mother.
Those daily images have hit me in an indescribable way over the last two weeks, after my own mother, Susan Mitchell, died suddenly on December 14. I have felt all the feels during that time, and I certainly was feeling them in the pulpit and at the altar on Christmas Eve. Prior to the funeral my fiancee Kristen and I spent time going through a bunch of family photos, and we saw so many of her holding me, or my sister Ashley, when we were babies. I saw my mother looking at me with hope for a life that would be better and brighter than the one she had known. I saw love radiating from my mother, and yes, sometimes I even saw her a bit annoyed that her child would not settle down. I saw the look in her eyes that would be echoed over and over through the years to both of her children, a look that said, "If I could take your pain away and make everything perfect for you, I would do it!" Such a sentiment is no doubt shared by every mother when her children are born. I suspect that Mary's eyes said the same thing to her son that night, and again some 30 years later when she watched him die. It is a kind of love only a parent can know, and as I continue to grieve for my mother I cannot help but think of this mother and her son, along with all the hope and love that was held between them on that holy night.
My mother with my sister Ashley and me at Ashley's wedding in 2007.
The holy night of Christmas Eve, and the season of Christmas as a whole, reminds us that Blessed Mary is not just the God-bearer, but she bears all of us. Christmas reminds us that Jesus is, of course, Emmanuel, "God with us," and that means that God is not some "Divine You Up There", utterly unknowable and far away. No, Christmas reminds us that God is here, all around us. And God is here, inside each of us. The dualities of old are gone, and there is no separation between us and God, for Mary has brought God here among us. This Christmastide she is our mother. She holds us as she holds her baby boy, she knows our joys, our excitement, and our Christmas dreams. She knows our sorrows, our sadnesses, and our pains, as well, just as she knew his. (As an aside, regardless of what the song says, Mary most certainly DID know! Read the Gospel of Luke!!) Mary holds it all, as a mother holds her child, and she looks at us with that same hope, that we may be agents of healing and love, along with her little boy, who, in all our trials, is born to be our friend. This Christmas, whether you are filled with joy and excitement, or with sadness and sorrow, you are held in the arms of Miriam, as you were held in the arms of your own mother at your birth. You are safe. You are loved. For you too are a child of God.
This is God's dream for the world, the dream of shalom, of the kind of peace that comes when we all know that we are children of God. It is the dream that we will love one another in that deep, powerful, earth-shattering way that Miriam's baby boy loved. He is the living embodiment of that dream, and this Christmas, thanks to the faith of a little girl, that dream is ours for the taking. Merry Christmas!