2 Samuel 7:1-11 and Luke 1:26-38.
Tonight, the Winter Solstice, is the longest night of the year. Tomorrow, the days will start getting longer again. But many of us have come to church this evening because we’re struggling with our own darkness, with sorrow and loss.
If we’re sad, Christmas can feel like nothing but duty. Store displays, advertising and inescapable holiday music insist that we must be happy, surrounded by festive family and friends. If we’re grieving broken relationships or departed loved ones, the holidays can be a constant reminder of what, and who, we miss. All too often, the people around us don’t want to hear any of this, even if we feel like sharing it. Weeping into the eggnog is unseemly.
When I was a kid, I loved Christmas. It was a magical season, one my parents worked very hard to make both fun and beautiful. But my parents are dead now, and our family Christmas traditions died with them. The season became even darker when my husband’s father died right before Christmas six years ago. These days, I dread the weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Whenever I hear the song, “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” I feel homesick. I can’t go home for the holidays. The home I long for no longer exists.
And so today’s lectionary readings comfort me. They remind me that God meets us where we are, not where we -- or others – think we should be. In the passage from 2 Samuel, David frets over the fact that he lives in a nice house while “the ark of God stays in a tent.” He feels a duty to build a nice house for God, too, until the prophet Nathan passes along God’s message. “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? . . . the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.” God says, in effect, “It’s not your job to provide for me, David. I provide for you, as I always have and always will; what’s more, I will provide for your descendants for generations to come.”
The most famous of David’s descendants is Jesus, whose birth we hear announced in today’s Gospel. The angel comes to Mary where she is -- comes to an unmarried young woman in an obscure town in an occupied territory -- and delivers decidedly unseemly news. Although the Christian tradition has always made much of Mary’s obedience, I wonder how much of her meekness is really shock. Her life has been turned upside down. She has just learned that the darkness of her womb houses a completely unexpected, and socially scandalous, miracle.
This story reminds us of the value of darkness. Children grow first in darkness; so do seeds. Life begins in places we cannot see, and bursts into the light only when it is ready. Darkness offers rest and healing and growth, if only we can allow ourselves the time we need for rebirth, and if only we can recognize and welcome the angels who bring us good news.
The angels on greeting cards have never done much for me. The same culture that demands joy during the holidays has turned angels into lovely, fluffy beings, all sequins and glitter. Even before Christmas became so hard for me, I couldn’t imagine such a creature holding me while I cried. I’d dribble tears on its pretty white robes. I couldn’t imagine it visiting my house; its wings would become befouled by dust bunnies and cat hair.
And then ten years ago, visiting my father for Thanksgiving, I found this statue in the gift shop of the George Ohr Museum, a pottery museum in Biloxi, Mississippi. This angel, wearing a quizzical expression and covered with wounds and bruises, fascinated me. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He made me think immediately of the angel who wrestled with Jacob in Genesis, and who must have sustained his own scars in the process. I carried him around the store with me for at least half an hour, while a woman who was buying everything else in the shop told me that if I didn’t buy him, she would. I finally handed over my credit card, fretting about how I’d get the angel -- with his fragile, brittle wings -- home safely on the plane.
The shopkeeper had told me that the artist, a woman named Dina O’Sullivan, was Director of Education at the museum. Back in Dad’s apartment, I found her e-mail address on the museum’s webpage and sent a note asking if there was a story behind the angel’s creation. She wrote back very quickly. She’s Jewish, and to her, this angel symbolizes all the stories of struggle in the Hebrew Bible. My instinct about the Jacob story had been right.
I swaddled the angel in bubble-wrap and cradled it on my lap during the long, bumpy plane ride back to Reno. Then I started doing research. According to one tradition, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was Gabriel, the same angel who appears to Mary in today’s Gospel. And Gabriel, in many of the sources I read, is called “the angel of incarnation and consolation.”
Incarnation and consolation, mortality and comfort: they’re two sides of the same coin. Incarnation is the miracle of God become naked, vulnerable human flesh, of God growing a body. But bodies are fragile, and need to be healed and comforted. Two thousand years after the first Christmas, we know how the story ends. We know that the God who was born a mortal baby to an outcast mother, the God who heals and comforts us, will be executed as a criminal. We know that he will be bruised and wounded. We know that this is a story in which God’s love cannot be separated from hard work and pain. The ultimate comfort, Christ’s resurrection, comes only after the embodied agony of Good Friday.
As I grow older, there are days when I think that resurrection is the only thing that makes incarnation bearable. Our embodiment inevitably subjects us to loss. As Christians, we trust in resurrection, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve and need comfort. We rejoice whenever a baby is born, but we also know that all babies, as they grow, will meet trouble, will be bruised and wounded. We long to spare those we love from suffering: we try to swaddle them in bubble-wrap and hold them in our laps to protect them from turbulence, and sometimes it works, for a little while. We do everything we can to keep what we love from breaking. But Lent and Good Friday await all of us, as surely as Easter does. Ultimately, we cannot assure safety for those we love. Our only sure promise lies in God, for whom nothing is impossible.
And so we need Gabriel, the angel of incarnation and consolation. He meets us where we are: he appears in the darkness of our most difficult labors, as we bring forth new life and as we face death. He’s not afraid to get dirty. He tells us, “Look, I’m scarred too; I’m wounded, too. I’ve struggled all night with fierce adversaries who refused to release me. I’ve sat with women as they labored in childbirth. I am the angel of everything that is bruised and broken but stubbornly survives, and I am here to tell you that for every pain there is also joy, joy at the end of everything, joy and the peace that passes all understanding. From now on, you will not suffer anything that your Lord has not also suffered. You are no longer alone, no longer poor and outcast: you are the Lord’s beloved, cherished and whole.”
On this day of darkness, let us trust in the return of light. Let us have faith in the new life that is even now growing where we cannot see it. But even as we trust the future, let us take comfort in the present. Emmanuel has come. God is with us, now and always, meeting us where we are: in the humble dirt and straw, the dust and tears, of our unseemly lives.