A 12 year old is found pregnant while not living with her betrothed. She could be stoned to death, shamed, disgracing her family. And this is blessed?
A young man finds his life in turmoil. His intended is pregnant, but how? Who is it? He trusted her. She was a good, obedient girl. Yet in a dream an angel tells him to trust, this is of God. Take her as his wife. He wakes up. What does he do? The rational says quickly dismiss her, or does he believe the whispers of a dream and embrace a life of faith? This is blessed?
Together, the young man and his pregnant wife are forced to travel sixty miles to Bethlehem to register in a census, by Roman decree. They travel alone, almost as if they were shunned by the other travelers. Indeed, when they reach Bethlehem, there is no room in the local inns, no distant relatives that can put them up. There is only a stable with the animals for an obviously pregnant woman and her husband. What happened to the code of hospitality? This we call a blessing?
So the blessed event happens not in a secure home, surrounded by loving extended family members and a celebrating village. It occurred far from home, in a strange village, surrounded by only animals, the immediate parents, and strange, smelly shepherds who visit unannounced later in the night. This is what we call blessed?
I think we can easily conclude one point from all of this: God has a very different understanding about what constitutes a blessing than from what human beings thing think.
We often refer to the old gospel hymn, “count your blessings,” count them, one by one. And so we name all the favors, gifts, and intangibles that bring us happiness. Our family members. Friends. Co-workers. We think of our homes, our warm bed, food in the fridge, clothes in the closet. Our careers, our talents, whether they be for singing, playing the organ or piano, cooking, accounting, or making friends, and visiting a shut in. Blessings, one and all. However our Advent/Christmas story now asks us to take a great Santa leap in understanding blessing, so that we can see how Mary in her circumstances was blessed, how Joseph in his confusion was blessed, how together in their challenges they were blessed, and we are blessed as a result.
Blessings occur hundreds of times in the Bible. God covenants with us and blesses to confer favor – peace, and the Holy Spirit. Material prosperity, while a sign of blessing especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, does not overshadow the primary sense of blessing that derives from walking with God, following his commandments and doing his will.
Being blessed and doing God’s will doesn’t mean that we escape danger, inconvenience and other infelicities of life as we saw with Mary and Joseph. Ask any civil rights worker, any one working for social justice, anybody trying to do the right thing when what’s “right” isn’t fashionable, and we see how God’s blessings brings added challenges as well as joys to our life. The question is, do we feel God-with-us as closely as Mary spiritually and physically did, that the challenges are subsumed in the joy of the relationship. That’s real blessing.
We can look at it another way. Why would the Divine Blesser, The Infinite One, the Omnipotent, bother with the messy, dangerous process of incarnation as a human being? Why bother with engaging the free will of young human beings, putting them at risk in this plan? Why the waiting, growing, changing? What would it mean, other than God wanting to have the most intimate, loving connection with us, his creation, in a way our hearts could fully understand and embrace? What greater blessing can there be than for us to see God’s love with our very eyes in Jesus, and be blessed by the assurance that we are loved by God.
Methodius, a Bishop who was martyred in 311 AD, offers this stunning poetic tribute to the implications of Mary’s pregnancy:
Thou art the circumscription of him who cannot be circumscribed;
The root of the most beautiful flower;
The mother of the Creator; the nurse of the Nourisher;
The circumference of Him who embraces all things;
The upholder of him who upholds all things by his word;
Thou hast lent God, who stands in the need of nothing,
That flesh which he had not
Thou has clad the Mighty One with that most beauteous panoply of the body by which it became possible for him to be seen by my eyes
Hail! Hail! Mother and servant of God.
Hail! Hail! Thou to whom the great Creditor of all is a debtor.
What a beautiful poem. Do we realize that we all share in this original blessing? Through our baptism we are taught that Christ dwells in us? Paul teaches us this repeatedly:
“ Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you?” 2 Corinthians 13:5 ….“so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love” Ephesians 3:17 “I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”--Galatians 2:20
We now are like Mary, lending God flesh to carry out the acts of Blessing in the world.
As we prepare to enter the Christmas story, we need to enflesh Jesus more clearly in the world than as we care for our neighbor in need right now, particularly in the flight of refugees, especially in the plight of the rising anti-Islamophobia, we are called to respond with Christ’s incarnate love.
This need is especially pressing given the growing political climate of our country. We have major political candidates who have recently called for a ban of allowing Muslims to enter the United States or stating that Muslims should never be allowed to run for president. We have candidates on record for stating
Christians shouldn’t rent space in their churches to Muslims. This same candidate called Islam “a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet.” Not al-Qaeda, or ISIL, or jihadists or terrorists, but Islam itself (by the way, ignoring Christianity’s bloody and violent history). Another local California Councilwoman said at a demonstration objecting to the speakers at a Muslim community charity fundraiser: “What’s going on over there right now, make no bones about it, that is pure
unadulterated evil ... I know quite a few Marines who would be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in Paradise.” “ Over there” was the community center which Muslim families (many with small children) were entering. "
The result since the most inflammatory speech on December 7 has been 19 attacks nationwide against individual Muslims or mosques. This includes a food store owner in New York City being attacked by a man who said he would "kill Muslims," and a man breaking in to and vandalizing the Islamic Center of Palm Beach in Florida. This past Monday in Michigan a robber put a gun at a store clerk’s face and called him a “terrorist, “ and “I shot people like you in the Middle East.” 52% of Americans are convinced that Islam is a violent religion. Yet 75 percent of Americans believe that self-identified Christians “who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christian.” Clearly, Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” have never been so more prophet, needed to be studied and followed.
We like Mary and Joseph, travel the road to incarnating blessing and love of Jesus alone – apart from statements from our Presbytery or from our denomination. They will come, in time. But we must incarnate that love now. We must bless, now. How shall we do this? How we will we get to know our Muslim neighbors here in Bay Ridge as our Christmas journey and well into the New Year? That is our challenge, one as confusing and joyful as Mary and Joseph faced. How do we become blessing makers right here?
We begin by acknowledging that blessings come in disguise. a sudden pregnancy that put a life in danger. An unannounced journey, no accommodations, everything going wrong, but everything becoming right for us in the end. Love transforms it all into blessing.
So it is with us. With the challenges we face in our lives. To get to know and stand up for our Muslim neighbors in the challenges they face here in Bay Ridge, here in New York City. So we can be blessing creators, peace makers..incarnators of love around us. In this we continue the journey of Jesus, of Mary and Joseph, and we shall lend flesh to the longed-for peace, and rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, we can embrace all our neighbors as brothers and sisters, and bring new meaning to the angels call so long ago:” Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor – his- blessing -- rests.” Amen.