Can You Believe? Mary Did.
I am not sure how many of you are familiar with the Alberta writer Will Ferguson, but my wife came home with a book from the library of Will’s called, Coal Dust Kisses.
In it, Will recalls a time when he spent Christmas is Japan. He discovered that the people had taken some of our traditions and used them to their advantage. For example when asked why there was cake everywhere, he was told…well it’s a birthday right. At birthdays we have cake. Also many people consummated their relationships on Christmas Eve. Why? Because it is about love! Right! Will thought this was a tradition dreamt up by men.
But as unusual as these deviations from our traditions might sound, ours, when explained, are not much better. So, he writes, Christmas is when you spend lots of money you don’t really have on presents you don’t really need. And to truly get into the spirit of the holidays you need to find the largest turkey known to man and spend the next several days cooking it. And then you spend a month and a half gnawing on its carcass until you are so thoroughly sick of turkey that you never want to see it again as long as your live-or until next Christmas, whichever comes first.
Will says, my Japanese colleagues asked, so you make yourself sick on Turkey as a Canadian tradition?
Yes, he replied. You should eat until your belt snaps and gravy is oozing out of your pores.
That explanation was nothing compared to their faces when he explained the concept of stuffing a turkey.
“You put it where”, they asked?
And then when it was discovered that he had a paper tree in his apartment, he was asked about Christmas trees. He assured them that back home real trees are preferred. He learned that his Dad used to go out on Crown land and cut one down…illegally of course.
“But why a tree?”, he was asked.
Because they symbolize everlasting life. So we hack it down, drag it inside and cover it with cheap tinsel.
What do you do with it when Christmas is over?
Oh we throw it out!
In the garbage?
“Oh yes but with great reverence”.
So much for a sign of everlasting life!
Christmas is celebrated around the world in many ways, often with distorted understanding and misunderstood traditions.
And while there were, of course ,no traditions around the first Christmas ,there was much misunderstanding.
Growing up, we did not have the United Church creed. Rather the creed that was used was the one used by a variety of denominations and churches…the Apostles’ creed.
Some of you might remember it…
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended to the dead
On the third day he rose again
He ascended into heaven and he is seated in the right hand of the Father and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Many a week I repeated that statement of belief and then as a teenager I stumbled over one phrase….Born of the Virgin Mary
There was something in me that refused to believe in a Virgin Birth. I could not utter the words
Any of us that know about human reproduction know that there just had to be a human sperm.
It is that simple. Who was it? Saying it was God, just did not make sense to my questioning and more juvenile mind.
And so this season became a process of belief and disbelief, of understanding and misunderstanding and finally of a leap of faith.
To this day for most, Advent is a season of mystery and wonder, of doubt and of questions.
If you ask those who have been pregnant, they would likely refute the statement that the baby inside Elizabeth leap for joy. At 6 months the baby most likely gave one really swift, painful kick.
When two pregnant women get together, especially under unusual circumstances do they talk theology or more likely about swollen ankles, stretch marks and morning sickness?
But Luke tells the story not of two ordinary women but most importantly of God being at work.
Luke admits that one –Elizabeth is old and married to a seemingly sterile priest while the other is young and not married at all.
Now both women neither intended in be pregnant nor really know what was going on except through the voice and angels.” Congratulations, Mary, you are going to be the mother of the Messiah”.
Elizabeth says two things to Mary that are important.
1. Blessed are you among women. We, as Protestants have no idea what that really means. Catholics, of course, have taken to praying to Mary and raised her to sainthood . We do not give her that high a regard. However, as Protestants we do recognize that something special happened to Mary and that she was indeed the mother of Jesus.
2. The second thing that Elizabeth said is the focus of where I want to go today.
Elizabeth said,” Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Elizabeth was the wife of a priest. She would know here scriptures as well as her husband Zechariah. She would know of the longing of Israel for a Saviour. Elizabeth would know that there were signs and predictions abounding. Isaiah would see from an old dead stump, a shoot growing out of it. Micah would say that in little old Bethlehem, a Saviour would be born. Isaiah would say that someone from David’s house and lineage would be this Saviour.
If we have trouble believing in the Virgin birth, Mary had just as much or more.
Mary had a lot to lose with this baby. Mary did not ask for a baby. Mary did not expect a baby. Mary did not know what to do with a baby. And the baby came anyway. Mary was warned that this would be painful.
And so Mary had a choice and a difficult one, as do we.
Do we accept this child as God’s own child or is this an illegitimate birth?
In a sermon, Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer said, three miracles happened when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
1. God became a human being
2. A Virgin conceived
3. Mary believed.
According to Luther, the greatest of these three is that Mary believed.
Regardless of her low estate as a female in that culture, as a woman of low class standing, as an engaged but unmarried woman, her human fears, Mary believed. That is why Elizabeth called here blessed.
One day, before the United Church creed came out which nicely avoids this discussion, I once again was able to say … I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.
Do you have to believe this and say it? Perhaps not, but do you believe at all?
Most importantly do you believe that God is able to do wonders in the universe that are beyond our conceivable explanation?
Do you believe that God is in charge of the universe and that this same God limited a part of self to be with us on earth for a period of time?
Do you believe that, as with Mary, God has a purpose for your life that might be beyond your understanding and comprehension and that only by opening yourself to God and believing can that purpose be fulfilled?
If Mary had not believed, as difficult as that was, if we do not believe then our world is the lesser for it.
God fulfills God’s purpose in making this a better world but using Mary and Joseph and you and I in perhaps simple, maybe miraculous, maybe beyond belief ways.
My prayer for you this season is that you could and would and do have the belief of Mary so that wonders and miracles might happen right where we are, so that God Kingdom can indeed be on earth as in heaven.
Rev. Doug Powell is the minister at the Banff United Church, Rundle Memorial United. Learn more about our current activities, our Thrift Shop, and how to get married in Banff.