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Fourth Sunday of Advent: “Yes”
Luke 1: 26-38
Every year, when I was a child, there was a small, wrapped box in my pile of presents. I immediately knew what it was—and what it was for. Stationery for my thank you notes. Yet I tore off the paper in anticipation. Because in her choice of appealing colors and designs, my mother made these note cards a happy gift. Through this tradition she created, Christmas was not complete until I wrote, stamped, and mailed my thank yous.
It was easy to write enthusiastically about the presents on my wish list. But what about the unexpected, odd surprises that came from distant relatives? What could I say about them? Some were mystifying but delightful: like the zither from my grandmother. And some were downright crazy and incomprehensible: like the ski mask from my cousins in Chicago. When I lived in Miami.
But my mother conveyed to me the art and the meaning of this kind of letter writing. Receiving well is as important as giving well, she said. Think about the intention behind each gift—whether it is what you wished for or not. Use this small note as a way to deepen a connection—to say Yes, you touched me; Yes, you reached me; Yes, I recognize this as an opportunity to express love. Thank you.
This practice of my childhood came back to me this year as I read the Magnificat—The Song of Mary—what I believe is the most beautiful thank you note to God ever composed. Let’s remember the setting for this song: Gabriel has announced a shocking pregnancy to the young maiden Mary: something definitely not on her wish list.
She and Joseph were on a strictly defined path forward: a teenager and an older man in a contract to be married. They were betrothed, a social arrangement between families so formal that it could only be broken by the equivalent of a public, painful divorce.
And in this moment, young Mary knows very well the terrible consequences of pregnancy before marriage. Joseph, her betrothed, would be within his rights not only to break his contract with her. He could also publicly and cruelly shame Mary and her family for an obvious act of sexual betrayal. She could even be vulnerable to stoning.
In this acute situation, facing a frightening unknown, how did Mary respond: to her emotions, to her future, to God?
Mary said Yes to this cataclysm like a gift: an unwanted and unimaginable gift that could barely be explained to herself, to her betrothed, to their families, to their society. She had the astonishing strength at a very tender age to accept what she had received in life with grace. To recognize the opportunity for good in this shocking turn and how God could work through her.
I believe this is why this Song rings with such power for us to this day. Why Mary’s voice stands out in the chorus we’ve heard in Advent proclaiming the coming of Christ. Isaiah calling, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist exhorting us to repent. Mary’s voice is simply saying Yes.
Mary is saying Yes, I am worthy to be God’s agent in this world. Humble, with no illusions about who I am or arrogance about where I stand in the world. Like you and me, an ordinary person who is nevertheless capable of bringing great love into the world. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”
Mary is saying Yes, I am willing to face whatever wounds and blessings come from bringing Christ into the world. Because I am not alone. I am part of a long chain of ancestors before me and generations to follow who are connected to God. Yes, I will let love flow through me at all costs. “He has shown mercy on those who fear him in every generation.”
And Mary is saying Yes to her reality, without hiding in fear or shame, anger or denial. She faces the truth of her situation. She says: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” Choosing to embody the Son of God. Choosing to be transformed and to change the world with her choice.
Will we ever have such a moment in our lives? An angel barging into our well-planned future? Delivering a shocking gift we can’t refuse?
I humbly suggest that these moments happen to us daily, whether we recognize them or not.
Every day, difficult situations
appear that we didn’t plan for, wish for, or ever want. Some that have the
potential to change our lives forever. Some that challenge us to bring the
spirit of Christ’s into the world—or not.
A late-night phone call from a child in trouble. A text asking if we can pick up a stranded friend. An angry breakdown of a marriage. The sudden loss of a job. A threatening health diagnosis. The death of a spouse or parent.
And our choice, like Mary’s, with immediacy and suddenness, is how to respond. Will we shut down in fear, anger, or resistance? Or will we live with what the spiritual teacher Tara Brach calls the power of Yes? “When we develop the capacity to say YES, no matter what our experience,” she writes, “we discover the openness and freedom of Radical Acceptance.”
Radical Acceptance is to be with the truth of “what is” in your life without minimizing, escaping, or fighting. Even the fear; even the pain; even the reversals. You are not agreeing that something is right or wrong; that you need to resign or indulge anything; or that the situation will go on forever. You are simply acknowledging what is arising your life and agreeing to meet each experience with the wholehearted presence of Yes. And, I believe, when we open our hearts to this attitude of Radical Acceptance, the Holy Spirit empowers us, as it empowered young Mary. Christ comes into the world through us.
I spent years in a locked-down attitude of No. Of the four siblings in my family, I was the one living near my aging parents as their health, ability, and resources declined. As the complexity of their care and the weight of my responsibilities increased, I hardened in resistance to my role. I had a sister who was a geriatric nurse; a brother who was a lawyer; a sister who was a social worker. Why was I the one saddled with this life burden? Why the one with young children; with the fear of hospitals; with the anxiety about money management? I moved through the world with the charged resistance of No—in an adversarial relation with my life as it was. With scenarios of disaster in my mind and a knot in my stomach.
Then one day, my visiting oldest sister reached across the table, took my hand, and said, “You are not alone. I will come help you whenever you need me. You can do this.” I still hear these words as a message from an angel. And my heart astonishingly shifted from fear to Yes in that moment. To a Radical Acceptance of the reality of my situation. To a willingness to be a humble, imperfect, but worthy agent of love in my parents’ lives. And to let Holy Spirit enter in.
And it did. As I unlocked my resistant attitude of No, I truly did become deeply grateful for the chance to be an agent of compassion in my parents’ last years. To say in my heart, as I did in those notes my mother encouraged me to write years ago, “Yes, God you touched me; Yes, you reached me; Yes, I recognize this gift as an opportunity to express love. Thank you.”
I wonder what might shift in your life in the hours, weeks, and months to come if you reached for the power in Mary’s graceful example. If, in your most difficult times, you took one deep breath to say her simple word of Radical Acceptance. If you said with her, “YES. Here I am, Lord; let it be.” Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada
December 22, 2014