Sunday, 23 December 2012

Advent 4: The power of one

Two women in a land under brutal occupation learn that they are pregnant. One is unmarried and knows that bearing a child will expose her to rejection and judgement, perhaps even violence, from her community. The other has been childless for years, and has probably been shamed and scorned because of it. Though this child will be welcome nothing can wipe out those years of anguish. And neither child will survive long enough to care for their parents in old age, in any case. Both will have been brutally executed by their mid-thirties, victims of the political and religious suspicions and hatreds of their time. The mothers of course, are Mary and Elizabeth, and we met them in today’s Gospel reading.

It is easy to miss the darkness in the Christmas story, amid the golden glow of the nativity plays, carol services, glitter and candlelight that surround us at this time, but it’s there loud and clear in the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is born amidst the chaos of a Roman census, a forced mass migration demanded by Caesar with no apparent thought of the human cost involved. He is telling us that this will be a story set in a world where rulers with great power do  what they want and the “little people” just don’t matter. There’s no historical evidence for this census, but clearly Luke felt it wasn’t an unlikely scenario and neither did his readers, who lived a generation or so later in a world still governed by Rome. Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Herod, the jealous king of Judea, who is prepared to slaughter anyone who gets in his way. Again, there is no independent evidence for the massacre of the children of Bethlehem, but we do know that Herod killed some of his own children and that he had a reputation for being paranoid, so it is a story that would have been consistent with the facts, and in writing it Matthew is warning us of dangers to come. Fear lurks in the wings of this story from the beginning. Mary sings of God who has “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”. Her dream for her child is that he will be the instrument of this revolution, but her words ought to send a shiver down our spines. Doesn’t she realise that anyone who attempts this is sure to be heading for trouble?

From the beginning the Gospel writers seem to be setting us up to expect failure. How can these two insignificant children – John and Jesus – really make a difference? Isn’t it all a bit ridiculous, hopeless, to think that they will? And yet both mothers-to-be rejoice at the news they are to bear children in these difficult times. If we don’t find that odd, then perhaps we haven’t been paying attention. Do they really think that anything good can come of this? Are they just being carried away on a tide of maternal feel-good hormones?

But there is something very important that we must remember when we read these stories and that is that the Gospels were written backwards not forwards, so to speak. Today many parents record every little detail of their children’s lives from the first fuzzy pictures on their scans during pregnancy right through to their graduation days. But that wasn’t the case for children in the past. All but the most high-born came into the world and left it without leaving a trace of their existence. Only the births and childhoods of the really important would have been documented. The births of John and Jesus certainly wouldn’t have been recorded at the time, and Matthew and Luke probably never intended us to read the stories they tell us as literal truth. If they did then those who compiled the New Testament certainly can’t have, because the stories don’t fit together – something that doesn’t seem to have concerned the early church at all.  These are imaginative reconstructions designed not so much to tell us what happened, but to prepare us for what will happen when these children grow up. Matthew and Luke are signalling the dominant themes of their ministries, what kind of people they’ll become, drawing on the memories of those who encountered them in adulthood, the testimony of people who knew first-hand the very real and life-changing impact they’d had then.

Through their ministries people who’d regarded themselves as part of an exclusive, chosen race would learn to see God at work in those who were way outside it. People who thought they were beyond the pale of God’s love would find themselves drawn into a new community, assured of their place, sharing and proclaiming that love together. People would find healing for what ailed them, purpose for lives which had seemed meaningless, forgiveness for things they thought were unforgiveable, a new start when they believed it was all over for them. The message of John and Jesus lived on because those who’d heard it discovered that it changed them utterly. If it hadn’t they would both have quickly been forgotten, just another couple of crack-pot prophets peddling dreams that dissolved into nothing in the glare of reality. 

The joyful words of Elizabeth and Mary aren’t some foolish maternal fantasy; they are bold assertions that what you see is not necessarily what you get, that God can work and does work through people and situations that look completely hopeless to any rational person. Their children really did go on to change the world, and two thousand years later they are still doing so through the lives of those who follow them.

What I particularly like about this story is that these declarations of hope are made by a couple of soon-to-be mothers. They aren’t looking for some great army or grand political theory. It is the children they carry within them that will bring this new future, tiny, helpless , weak babies  - so that no one’s hands will be too small to hold them - and yet also limitless in potential and promise as any baby is.

One of the most popular religious images on Christmas cards – to judge by those I’ve received anyway – is that of the Madonna and Child. It seems a particularly powerful image to me for a time of austerity when many people are feeling fearful for the future, wondering what will happen to them and those they love, perhaps affected by cutbacks in public services or threats to their jobs, feeling the pinch and looking around at a world where many others are in the same or even worse predicaments. And that is without considering the threats of climate change, global terrorism and all the rest. I know that the Mayans were wrong and the world didn’t end on Friday, but for many the realities of life are very desperate – perhaps that’s why people are so susceptible to rumours of the apocalypse. In times like these it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed, to think that the challenges that face us are just too great to deal with. What difference can we make? What do we matter? But that image of the Madonna and Child – like the one I’ve printed on the pew leaflet – which picture Mary simply gazing at her child shouldmake us think again.

The point it makes is that far more comes into the world when a child is born than simply another human being. Hope is born. Love is born. Joy is born. A commitment to the future is born. All these expectations seem to hover in the space between mother and child in the picture – a whole new world has just arrived for them both. I’ve seen this same sense that a new reality has dawned again and again when I prepare parents for the baptism of their first child. Nearly always it turns out that life has changed for them in far deeper ways than they anticipated. Suddenly, they’re aware of the world in a new way, aware of its threats but also of its joys, aware too of their responsibility for the world, because it is the world that their child will have to live in.  Of course those without children can and often do feel these things just as intensely, but there’s nothing like holding a baby in your arms to  concentrate your mind on things beyond your own narrow sphere of interest. Here is the future and it is in your hands. It is not some grand scheme devised by a politician, or some bold military campaign led by generals, it is a child, just one child, new and as yet unknown, but a child who might just change everything.

The story we heard today, and the image of the Madonna and Child are really all about the power of one. Mary and Elizabeth each have one child who changes the world.  Their story reminds us of the power that lies in each individual person – you and me. It reminds us of the power that lies in each individual act and decision too – the thing that we do today, here and now. It is enough, it says, to look steadily at this one thing we are called to pay attention to, this one moment we are called to use aright. We don’t have to save the world. We don’t have to do it all. We don’t have to get it all sorted out. Just gaze on this one thing that God has given to each of us to do and to care about, and we will find God within it, just as Mary finds God within her own son.

If we can do that honestly and lovingly and faithfully, then perhaps we shall find, as Mary and Elizabeth do, that those apparently impossible dreams of healing and peace and justice for which we long, those dreams which can seem so ridiculous in the face of all that opposes them in our world, can come to reality after all and hope can be born in our hearts just as it was in that stable in Bethlehem.

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