“Hopes and Fears”
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
December 19, 2021
We have arrived at the fourth week of Advent. Soon, the baby Jesus will be born. Soon, the angels will trumpet the news from the heavens. Soon, the star will guide Wise Ones from afar to the manger bed. Today, we spend a few moments with Mary—as she goes to spend time with her kinswoman Elizabeth after the extraordinary news from an angel. And Mary sings her beautiful song. A song of joy firmly trusting that God’s promises for all of us are coming true.
Mary is often seen one of two ways: either lifted up on a pedestal—made the forever virgin queen and saintly mother/ or shoved into the background, not given a prominent place at all. What we rarely do is try to see Mary for who she was, a young woman like you, like me—a very young woman whose life had been blown off the normal course. What was she feeling? Confusion? Elation? Fear? All of the above and more?
We aren’t told why she went to see Elizabeth. Was it to get her out of her hometown before she started showing (since she was not yet married)? Was it because she thought Elizabeth might possibly understand her heavenly situation (for surely the story of Zachariah meeting something in the Holy of Holies that struck him dumb had circulated in the family)? Was it just that she saw Elizabeth as a kindred spirit, another pregnant woman experiencing the full breadth and depth of feelings—hopes and fears.
I was taken by an Op-ed by the Episcopal priest Tish Harrison Warren who said, “To me, Mary embodies an idea in the Eastern Orthodox tradition: “Bright-sadness.” This phrase names how gladness and grief are never easily disentangled, how we taste both longing and delight, simultaneously, in every moment of our lives.” (NYTimes)
Gladness and Grief. Longing and Delight. That seemed to strike a chord this year. This year when we thought we could have a Christmas unlike the last year of isolation and anxiety. This year when we hoped we had gotten past the political madness of populism and idol worship. This year, the supposed beginning of a return to “normal.”
And as I thought about Mary’s song, I realized that not all the songs we sing this season are “Angels We have Heard on High” or “Joy to the World.” There are plenty of “blue Christmas” songs. Songs that tell heart-felt stories about “when Mommy meets Jesus tonight.” Songs that come to terms with moving on from Christmases of the past. And when I began to think of the carols we sing—from the standards to some of the more modern ones, it seemed to me that they too recognize that there is a two prong nature to Christmas. This is a special time, a luminous time, a sacred time, as the light drains from our days and the calendar gets ready to roll into a new year. It is a time for starting over. A time for dreaming new dreams. It can also be a time of sadness and loneliness. A time of regret. A time of fear.
God has promised to come be with us, Emmanuel—in all of what it means to be human. From the highs to the lows to everything in between. And since there is a 24/7 cacophony of “holly/jolly” surrounding us—I wanted us to have the time to sing some of those carols that remind us we are not alone in our multitude of feelings as we approach the Advent of God’s coming.
So, let us come. Let us lift our voices. Let us magnify the Lord. Let us speak of hope, and peace, and joy, and love. But let us not forget the rest of being human—those other emotions that can seem “not in the holiday spirit” but are very much wrapped up in what Christmas is all about.
Let’s start with the first verse of the carol that helped inspire this musing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah, one of the backwaters of the Jewish world, foretold in Micah to be the birthplace of the Messiah, showing once again God’s preference for the last and the least. Listen to its words:
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Let’s sing it together. (#121) “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (verse 1)
Or take the beautiful carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” It is set “in the cold of winter.” So how did a rose bloom in that desolate time? Isn’t that the point? Instead of the contrast of light in the midst of darkness (as Little Town of Bethlehem used “yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light”), the writer of this old German carol, uses the splash of color, a rose, in the midst of the grey, barren winter landscape. And roses are not just beautiful—they also contain thorns, reminding us of the pricks and wounds of life. As the carol puts it, God comes to us “to show God’s love aright.” And that love is with us through thick and through thin. Let’s sing the first verse of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” (#129)
Lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung,
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, by faithful prophets sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Christina Rossetti also lifts up the image of how cold and tired and bleak the world can be in her words to “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The whole first verse attempts to paint the picture of a world in need of God’s love, God’s light, God’s warmth. “Frosty wind made moan.” “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” “And there is snow upon snow upon snow,” the twinkling crystals covering everything—but also endangering anything that is covered by too much, or stays out too long. This is our world, Rossetti says. It is to this place that God comes to reign.
Let us sing the first verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” (#144)
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
How different the midnight is to Edmund Sears who wrote the words to “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” The angels seem to overwhelm any frostiness, any hardness, or barrenness, as they touch their harps and sing those timeless words: “Peace on the earth.”
Let’s sing the first verse of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (#123)
It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to all, from heaven’s all-gracious King”:
The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.
You have to get further down in the carol to hear that the midnight clear can’t last forever, the angel voices dim in our memory, and “life’s crushing load” can bend our forms low. Yes, the carol reminds, all that is true, but don’t lose hope, those who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow. Remember those angels, remember the news they bring. And rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.
I was taken by a new stanza (the hymnbook says it was “restored”) right in the middle of the carol. It says,
“Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and we at war on earth hear not the tiding that they bring;
O, hush the noise and cease the strife to hear the angels sing.
What a wonderful prayer for our world in this time. What a recognition that WE have had a part to play in the two thousand years of wrong—from war to more personal aggressions. For a minute, for a season, we pray that we can hush the noise, cease the strife, and hear the message—a message seen by prophets of old, a message coming in the ever-circling years, the message, when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.
With each passing year, I am coming to see more and more that Christmas is a serious story. The world waits for God’s coming—because our world sports so much pain and suffering and grief. Christmas isn’t trying to sprinkle tinsel and glitter and make everything all shiny and new. Christmas is God’s answer to our predicament. It isn’t a wave of a fairy godmother’s wand. It isn’t the stand-offishness of a far away, uninterested creator. Christmas is about God becoming one of us. Spending time swimming in Mary’s womb. Having to make an entrance into the world in a smelly, dirty, animal stall. Growing up. Finding a calling. Inviting others to come along beside. Following the road to where it leads, even if we don’t fully understand.
As Rev. Tish says, “The pain of the world cannot be papered over in a sentimental display of tamed little angels and a cute, chubby baby Jesus. The emptiness in the world and in our own lives can’t be filled with enough hurry or buying power or likes or retweets. We wait for the birth of Jesus, who was called Emmanuel, God with us. We wait with Mary for our hunger to be filled.”
And that leads me to our last hymn—a more modern one, and one of my favorites. Called “Born in the Night, Mary’s Child,” it was written in 1964 by Geoffrey Ainger. In our hymnbook it isn’t in the Christmas section because even though it starts out as a nativity hymn “born in the night, Mary’s child” by the third stanza (as the hymnbook writers comment) it widens out “to the full arc of the Incarnation: birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, return.”
It is fitting to be singing about “Mary’s child” on this Sunday when we have heard about Mary, about her conversation with Elizabeth, and especially as she adds her voice to all those throughout the ages who have found a way to magnify the Lord. It is fitting, that along with titles like King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Prince of Peace, Jesus is also Mary’s child. For the one born to us might have been there “in the beginning,” but Christmas brings God to earth, and heaven becomes an earthling. So Jesus truly does hold our grief and our hope, our longing and our laughter. I invite you to sing “Born in the Night, Mary’s Child” with me.
Born in the night, Mary’s Child, a long way from your home;
Coming in need, Mary’s Child, born in a borrowed room.
Clear Shining light, Mary’s Child, your face lights up our way;
Light of the world, Mary’s Child, dawn on our darkened day.
Truth of our life, Mary’s Child, you tell us God is good;
Yes, it is true, Mary’s Child, shown on your cross of wood.
Hope of the world, Mary’s Child, you’re coming soon to reign;
King of the earth, Mary’s Child, walk in our streets again.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.