December 10, 2009 We are in our Advent series, what we are calling Monsters Inc., a look at how fear is addressed and overcome within the Christmas story. This past Sunday we considered how Mary might have experienced the fear of chaos (one of anthropologist Donald Brown’s five universal fears).
There is a deep respect that the church has traditionally paid towards Mary, and not simply because she was the natural mother of Jesus (as significant as that was). It is the way that Mary responds to the angelic announcement that makes her a primary model of Christian spirituality. If Abraham is our father in faith (Romans 4:16), then Mary is our mother: “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). Her faith emerges when nothing is visibly normal, or safe. But she places her fear of chaos against the trustworthy character of God, and she takes time to see the beauty and goodness of what she has been called to participate in. Mary sings a song, writes a poem.
Recently I told the story of my visit with a famous Benedictine scholar, Kilian McDonnell. After all these years of writing scholarly books and articles, he told me that in his old age he had come to the writing of poetry. It was almost as if he had come to the end of his analytical language, and that the deeper he went into the mystery of God and grace, the more he had to use another kind of language, the language of beauty, the language of song. And so he was now writing poems. He gave me a volume that he personally signed. It is really good.
I have known a little of this dynamic in my own life, not that I am am a poet by any means. But I have had those moments when I realized my ability to define the undefinable would be forever frustrated, and that all that was left to me was, in effect, to stand with my jaw dropped and say the best thing: “will you look at that!”. Poets are always trying to say “will you look at that” with new and interesting words.
One of the most famous and repeated passages in Scripture is Mary’s song/poem in Luke 1:46-55 (traditionally called the Magnificat for the first line: “my soul magnifies the Lord”). We shouldn’t miss the connection between what Mary’s story offers us and what Kilian McDonnell was trying to say to us, that there is a point at which all one can do is find the words of beauty and worship, the trust that surpasses the fear. Mary said:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.
As we journey towards Christmas, as we name the fears that we all share, let us realize that these stories also demonstrate how our fears are broken when we fully abandon ourselves to God and his good purposes. Maybe the only way to express that we have glimpsed something of the new world God is making is to speak poetic words, words with music, perhaps even a Christmas carol. I always listen for this line at Christmas: “the hopes and fears of all the years, are met in Thee tonight”. Listen for it, it comes so beautifully. And do not fear.
This Sunday we continue our series with a look at Joseph and the fear of the outsider.
For further personal engagement with the story of Mary, read it in Luke 1:26-56 and think about the following:
- How would Mary have experienced her God-given task as a kind of chaos? What is the nature of the chaos that you face right now? How would you describe the fear that is found in chaos?
- Reflect on Luke 1:34-38. How would you describe the character of Mary’s faith?
- Have you ever tried to write poetry? How did it go? Why did you try?
- What Christmas song means most to you? Is there a line or phrase that you are often mindful of?