And Mary Pondered

This sermon was delivered at Northlake Church of Christ for Christmas 2019. At the time, I was 3 weeks pregnant with our first baby, whom we would lose in March 2020. I’ve thought back to this sermon so many times throughout this year as I understand the fragility of life – and the hope of Advent – in a deeper way than I have before. To listen to the audio recording, visit:

As I look back over my life, I think about all the times that it would have been so easy to let fear keep me from living with open hands. And most of it goes back to one night that would change my life forever: the night my son was born. I was exhausted after days of traveling. I was away from my family in an unfamiliar place. And when the contractions began, there was no room in the inn for me to give birth. And so I gave birth in a stable, my fiancé as my midwife, although he had no more idea what he was doing than I did. I was filled with terror, but with every push, holding on to the promise that there would be a future for me and for this child

I remember leaning against the wall by the manger, completely spent, feeling the ache in muscles I didn’t even know I had, barely able to keep my eyes open from exhaustion and yet unable to look away from his. From Jesus. It always feels like you can see a person’s soul through their eyes – their humanness, their aliveness. And as I gazed at him in wonder, utterly captivated by his squishy little face, I marveled at the fact that somehow I had brought this new, tiny little spark of life into the world. I remember being so amazed at his tiny hands and feet. So small. So delicate. So fragile.

That’s what I remember thinking when our first visitors hesitantly ducked through the door of the stable – a ragtag band of shepherds. My first instinct was to reach out and shelter my baby, protect him. Joseph’s was to step in front of the manger and block him from view. But the shepherds spoke up, “Is it true? An angel of the Lord appeared to us, and the glory of the Lord shone around us…” At the mention of the angel, Joseph and I exchanged looks. It was not all that long ago that an angel of the Lord had appeared to me to announce the conception of this child. Or that another angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream, confirming that it was true. Asking him to stay with me. And as I remembered that, I offered a silent prayer of thanks that Joseph stayed. That I wasn’t alone in the stable that night. But if an angel had now appeared to these shepherds…all this must mean something. Joseph looked at me questioningly, and I nodded slightly. He stepped aside, allowing the shepherds to see the manger, and me slumped beside it. 

Their eyes widened, their jaws dropped as their eyes fell upon my child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, just as they had been told. The open-mouthed disbelief of one of the shepherds began to curve upward into a smile so big I thought it wouldn’t fit his face. He set down his crook, resting it against the wall. He stepped forward and reached out his dirty, weathered hand to stroke my baby’s fresh, newborn cheek – as soft as down. And I fought the urge to reach out and smack his hand away, to save my precious child from sheep germs and a stranger’s touch. 

You know how it feels when everyone wants to touch your baby, to hold them? And you can’t help wondering, have they been sick lately? Do they know how to hold a baby? It’s like all your muscles are tensed, just waiting for them to give your child back. I think it’s particularly hard right after giving birth. For nine months, it’s been just the two of you enjoying the intimacy of the mother-child relationship. The mystery of their growth, the rhythm of their movement and stretches and kicks, is a secret only you know. But the moment they’re born, the moment they enter the world, they’re no longer yours alone. They can be seen and touched and held and kissed by others. And now, just hours after my labor, it was strange shepherds that wanted to hold him. Everything in me was crying out, “Oh…oh, my son. He’s so fragile. Don’t touch him. Don’t touch him.”

But I bit my lip and held back. And as I saw the pure joy on the face of the shepherd reaching into the manger, I remembered the words I had sung just nine months before, and the words that would become my life’s refrain: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” There in that stable, in Bethlehem, that night, God was turning the world upside down through the promised child in the manger. For me to reach out and protect this fragile baby from a dirty stranger’s touch – to turn away the lowly – would fly in the face of that proclamation. Because they, too, had been visited by an angel of the Lord. And as a poor unmarried girl quite literally covered in blood, sweat, and tears, with nowhere better to give birth than with the animals – well, maybe I was not all that much cleaner than the shepherds. No, I realized that night, the Christ child couldn’t stay in the manger, hidden away from the world, hidden away from those at the margins of society who rejoiced at his birth. After all, he was born for them. He was mine, but as I learned for the first time that night and would continue to learn throughout his life, he wasn’t mine to keep. He was mine to give away.

The second time I remember having that protective instinct – and having to let it go – was not long after Jesus’ birth. It was when we went up to the temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice for our purification. When we entered the temple, there was an old man lurking in the shadows just inside. I would later learn that it was Simeon, a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit. He had been led into the temple by the Spirit, who had told him that he would see the Messiah while he was living. So knowing what I know now, to say he was “lurking” is probably not fair. Standing – he was standing there, off to the side, waiting for someone. But he startled me, because the moment we entered, his gaze was fixed on Jesus. He stared for a moment or two, then purposefully strode toward us, his long legs swallowing up the floor with just a few steps. And without so much as introducing himself or explaining that the Holy Spirit had spoken to him, before I could even process what was happening, he took Jesus from my arms into his. I could only sputter and protest, “Aaah, aah, but…my sonMy son. So fragile. So fragile.” Joseph immediately stepped forward as if to take Jesus back, but just then, Simeon began to speak, looking upward, praying. “Master,” he said, “you are now dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” We paused and held back, staring at him in amazement. Then he blessed Jesus and blessed us – and much to my relief, began to give Jesus back to me. But as he did, Simeon spoke directly to me and said to me, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Then, he looked me straight in the eye and said quietly – knowingly, somehow – “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

I didn’t understand what he meant, but it sounded so ominous it sent a chill down my spine, and I nervously broke his steady gaze as I settled Jesus back into my arms, tucking his blanket underneath him. If I had understood at the time just what Simeon meant, it’s very possible that I would have taken Jesus and run far, far away. But Jesus could not stay in my arms, hidden away from the world. As Simeon prophesied, Jesus was for all peoples. Not even just my own people. No, even the Gentiles. The angel Gabriel had told me he would be the Davidic king of Israel, the long-awaited Messiah. But a light for revelation even to the Gentiles? Salvation for all peoples? Just how far would his reach go? Joseph and I were both amazed at Simeon’s words. It was hard to imagine, standing there in the temple, looking down at Jesus and wondering exactly what his life would look like, and how this would come to be. This baby, for all peoples? My child, for the whole world? My son, so tiny and fragile?

As it turned out, the shepherds and Simeon were only the beginning. People wanted to see Jesus, to be near him, to touch him, his whole life. And of course as he got older, I had less and less say in the matter. Sick people, desperate to be healed, just reaching out to touch the hem of his cloak. Sinful people, desperate for acceptance, embracing and kissing his feet. Self-righteous people, wanting the status of his company. Samaritans, the people we didn’t associate with at all, drank from the same cup as him. Parents of young children – they reminded me of myself all those years ago – they crowded around, bringing their children to my child to be touched, to be blessed. And the ones who made me the most nervous – people who were ceremonially unclean or even had contagious illnesses. It seemed Jesus himself had no hesitation about risking his own skin in touching them. 

It made me uncomfortable more often than I’d like to admit, but I also couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of pride in my son, as I saw people come away from their encounters with him full of new life, full of hope, restored to community. He was living out God’s care for the oppressed in the tradition of the Exodus, of the prophets. Through my child, God was doing what I had prayed about, what I had sung about, what I had taught Jesus about: lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, helping God’s servant Israel. But not everyone loved my son. Because, as it turns out, the powerful resist the reversal the Gospel demands, because it is not good news to them. The mighty do not like to be brought down from their thrones. The rich do not want to be sent away empty. Caring for the oppressed is a threat to the power of the oppressors, and they do not go down without a fight.

And so, ultimately, it was not the hands of the sick that finally took my son away from me. It was not the touch of those who wanted to be well, or the embrace of those who wanted to be near him, but the hands of the religious leaders that were lifted up against him and the hands of the soldiers that carried it out. They reached out their hands not to heal or be healed, but to inflict harm. Not to receive life, but to take it. The lips of Judas kissed the cheek I had kissed so many times. They crowned his head with thorns, the same perfect fuzzy head whose shape I had memorized from spending countless hours looking down at it as he fed. The hands of soldiers beat the body that grew inside my womb, that I had tenderly swaddled and cared for and held. He was a man now, but stripped naked and utterly at the mercy of an unwelcoming world, he was just as fragile and helpless as the night he was born.

And as I collapsed at the foot of the cross, it all came back to me so vividly, from that first night in Bethlehem. Labor was the most painful thing I had ever endured, but even it paled in comparison to this moment. I knew, then, what Simeon meant when he said a sword would pierce my soul. My heart was breaking, my world shattering, everything inside me screaming in agony. And as the soldiers raised the mallet to drive the nails, all I could think as I wept was, “Oh…oh, my son… Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him.” 

But nothing came out except a wordless groan. Instead, the voice I heard was his. “Father, forgive them.” With those words, my son reminded me of the truth I’d lived by, that I’d reminded myself of so many times when it got hard: that the Christ child was for all people, and I couldn’t hide him away. Not from shepherds or sinners. Not even from those who laid hands with the intent to harm. Even for them he was born. 

I was still numb with grief when Mary and Joanna burst in, breathless, that first day of the week. They had gone to the tomb early, to anoint his body with spices. But when they got there, they realized that someone had been there before them. The stone had been rolled away, and his body was missing. Likely stolen. A decent burial was the last thing I could do for the body of my son, and now he had been taken from my arms yet again. It was too much. It seemed too cruel. But then they told me about two strange men who spoke with them at the tomb, who were dressed in dazzling clothes. And I remembered the dazzling clothes of the angel Gabriel who had appeared to me to tell me that I would be the mother of the Messiah. And I remembered the way the shepherds described the angels that appeared to them the night he was born. And as a small spark of hope began to swell even in the midst of my confusion and grief, they told me what the men had said: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen.” 

I could not hold onto him, but neither could the grave. I had learned the often-painful lesson that Jesus was for the world, that he was mine to give away. But I learned something new that day. I learned that I didn’t have to be so afraid all those years. I learned that giving him away did not mean I had to lose him. Because in the Kingdom of God, everything is turned upside down. The last are first, and the lost are found. The one who seeks to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, save it. In the Kingdom of God, it is not what is kept that lasts forever, but what is given away.

            And yet it is still so easy to cling to what we have out of fear. It’s so easy to keep Jesus – the values he stood for, the good news he embodied – to ourselves. It’s so easy, when unworthy people want a place at the table… or even just to touch the hem of his garment… to withhold from them what they seek. We withhold Jesus every time we choose to withhold love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, or welcome, from anyone in need. Because you see, the Gospel is not just that Christ was born for us, or that Christ died for us. The Gospel is that Christ was born for the world, for all peoples. For the shepherds in the fields, for Simeon in the temple, for those on the margins of society, for the sick and the poor and the sex workers and the ones whose theology was all wrong, and yes, even for corrupt religious leaders and pagan politicians. But when any of these people knock on our door, wanting to see and touch the Gospel we’ve received, the Jesus we’ve been given, we instinctively grasp him a little tighter. We fear what might happen if we give him away. We fear that he is too small and too fragile, that his love is too scarce, and that if we give away the love of God instead of holding onto what belongs to us, there may not be enough for us. As if there is not enough to go around. But Jesus and everything he represents is given to us, not as ours to keep, but as ours to give away – to the people we consider the least worthy. When we share with others what we have been given, it does not matter if they deserve it, if they can give something in return, if they know the value of the gift or even if we consider that the gift is wasted. From the shepherds who marvel to the soldiers who crucify, all are freely given the love of God in Christ Jesus.

            People have heard about this child, this man, this Savior, from far and wide, and the whole world is coming to see if the promise is true. To catch a glimpse of him, to reach out a trembling hand to touch him. And yes, some will misunderstand him. Yes, some will use him. Yes, some will even crucify him. And I have had to make peace with that. I have had to learn the hard lesson, over and over, that I could not keep Jesus to myself. But I have also learned…I have also learned that he was not as fragile as I’d feared. That when sick people touched him, he didn’t get sick, they got well. That when he loved unworthy people, his love made them worthy. That even when he was put to death, when I thought it was over, when I thought he had finally given everything, he didn’t stay dead. That no matter how much he gave, he always had more to give, and that the Gospel is infinite and that the table is big enough for all. Even when enfleshed in the body of a human being, the love of God is not fragile, and it is not scarce. It cannot be used up, and no matter how or where or when it is given, it is never, ever, wasted. Not even – and perhaps especially even – when it is given to those we consider unworthy. No, the love of God, even when it is as small and fragile as a newborn infant, is the most powerful thing in the universe. And when we give away the love we’ve been given, we need not be afraid, because perfect love casts out fear.

Give Jesus away to the hands needing a healing touch, to the mouths needing food, to the bodies needing shelter. Welcome those whom others have turned away. Give love to those who have not known it. Seek justice for those to whom it is denied. Forgive those who don’t deserve it. And do these things – open your arms to others – even when it is hard. Give when everything in you is crying out to protect what you have. Love even if it costs you dearly, as it did him, and as it did me. Share the love of God freely and extravagantly and without reserve, even if it means a sword will pierce your soul, too.

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