Pardon the Interruption
Two years ago, the National Geographic magazine’s December issue ran the headline: “How the Virgin Mary Became the World’s Most Powerful Woman.” The article talks about the impact that the Virgin Mary has today upon societies and cultures around the world. Who would have thought of the impact this young woman would have upon succeeding generations when her life was so traumatically interrupted by the angel telling her that she was to bear the Messiah.
One of the places that this impact can be seen is at Lourdes in France. In 1858 the Virgin is believed to have appeared to a peasant girl. The site of that apparition is now visited by six million tourists a year, making it the third most popular Christian tourist destination after the Holy Land and the Vatican. Over 7,000 miraculous cures have been claimed at that site. The pilgrims who go to Lourdes display much of what we have been talking about during Advent. Some are hoping for a miraculous cure. Some are looking for peace in their souls. Some of looking for joy of spirit. They come to Lourdes looking for divine light to shine in a corner of darkness in their lives. Perhaps the reason the Virgin is so popular around the world is the hope that she provides.
Mary was not so popular when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her she was going to give birth to a son. Mary would not have been popular with her family and we know that her fiancé Joseph seriously considered breaking off the engagement. The angel must have seen the fear in her eyes as he says to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” The Jewish activist and noble prize winner Elie Wiesel says that if an angel ever appears to you saying, “Do not be afraid,” you better watch out! A major job is on the way.” Everything in Mary’s life is thrown up in the air. Wiesel goes on to say the angel must have come across as saying, “Dear Mary, Pardon the Interruption, but I have good news for you. You are favored by the Lord. So favored in fact, that even though you’re still a virgin, you’re about to be pregnant, making you an immediate outcast, destroying any good standing social reputation – redundant – to correct you have, possibly sabotaging your upcoming marriage, and in all likelihood leaving you a poor, destitute, unwed teenage mother, responsible for raising the saviour of the world. Congratulations!”
Yet this young woman, this courageous Mary, says yes. “Let it be done to me according to your world.” The reason Mary has been held up throughout church history as a model of Christian life is due to her courage and faith. She is someone who hears God’s Word and says “yes.” With that “yes” Mary’s life is suddenly interrupted.
Whenever someone knows that they are going to be having a new child they do all kinds of preparation for the new arrival. There are pre-natal vitamins to take, birthing classes to attend, the nursery to paint, the latest parenting books to read, ultra-sounds to be had, and so on. All good. All important. But Mary has none of this. The only things she has is herself and the angel Gabriel’s word.
Mary allowed her life to be interrupted. We know that life is full of interruptions. Is life what happens between the interruptions or is life the interruptions themselves? Often those interruptions bring good news. On the spur of the moment an old friend drops in for a visit. A Christmas card arrives in the mail from a distant relative. Someone I know was recently contacted by a head-hunter and offered the job of his dreams. Great interruptions. But interruptions can also bring heartache. The doctor diagnosing a major health issue, the sudden loss of a loved one, the market downturn that changes retirement plans, an email from a child’s teacher saying things are not going well, management cutting back and a loss of a job. Interruptions are a part of all our lives.
If we are honest, many of us construct our lives so that we cushion or shield ourselves from interruptions. We try to fill our calendars to keep busy to fend off the interruptions. Most of us have enough money that we don’t have to rely on the generosity of others. We have the kind of social networks in place so that if something unexpected does happened, people are there to support us. For many of us most interruptions are merely a brief diversion from daily routine. Just something to be dealt with.
What about people like Mary who don’t’ have resources and social networks to protect them. Did her vulnerability, her exposure to interruption make her more dependent on God? Sometimes in our twenty-first -century lives we are so insulated from interruptions, that we don’t need God. When something good or bad happens to us we deal with it. But Mary had to rely on God. It was an opportunity for her to draw closer to God and for God to draw closer to her.
December can be a painful month for many. There are times when the festivities and cheer of the season are being constantly interrupted, interrupted by the memory of a loved one who is no longer here, interrupted by events in the news, interrupted by another round of lay-offs, interrupted by broken relationships and corroded associations.
A number of years ago, a member of a congregation I was serving in fell off a ladder. He severed his spinal column. I was sitting with his wife when the doctor came and told us he would never walk again. Talk about an interruption in life. A few days later, I was sitting with Jack in his hospital room. Jack’s daughter was getting married the following summer. Jack looked at me and said, “Michael, next summer, I am going to walk my daughter down the aisle.” Jack was a person of faith. This was his prayer every day. Let me tell you that there was not a dry eye in the church the next July when Jack walked his daughter down the aisle. No, it wasn’t a miraculous cure. Jack was on two crutches, supported by his daughter, every pain-filled step of the way. But Jack did it. Yes, this was a horrible tragedy, but Jack’s yes to all of the possibilities with God was far greater than tragedy’s “no.”
So if this season, at times, you find it hard to get into the holiday spirit because there has been an interruption in your life, if something is hurting in your life or the life of a loved one, or because the news is almost too much to bear, then listen to Mary, stay close to Mary. Stay close because Mary’s yes to God and God’s yes to Mary is also God’s yes to you and to me and the whole of creation, that God’s yes is greater than tragedy’s no.
The interruption in Mary’s life was God coming close, coming down here, born in a particular life, and into a world of joy and sadness, a world in economic tatters, full of violence and war, and a world of hopes and dreams and longing. For Mary, the interruption in her life became for her the place to grow close to God, to be with God, to literally share in God’s life, not in her strength, but in her weakness and confusion, in the mystery of what would happen to her, and in the frailty of a newborn child.
After Mary says yes, she sings. We call it the Magnificat, or Mary’s song. In her song, Mary praises God for another kind of interruption. Mary proclaims that God’s brining about new life in her is linked to God’s offering of himself in Christ and bringing new life in us. Mary sings of what her child will do. Her song expresses the idea that God is for those who are hurting and who are struggling. Mary’s song is about God’s holy interruption, interrupting not only our lives but the whole cosmos. Christmas is the story of God’s interruption, pushing past our busy schedules and coming close. It is about God interrupting a world gone astray and bringing it back to what God envisioned when God created it.
The real power in this story of Mary lies in Mary’s response to God’s interruption. This is why so many today find comfort and solace in her. Despite her surprise, Mary finally comes to the powerful place of openness to the interruption as she responds saying, “Let it be.” She provides us with an example of how we too might respond to the interruptions in our own lives. Can we, who love to control situations, just be open to God’s workings in our lives? Can we have that type of faith? Can we come and peer into the stable at Bethlehem and let the story be what it is this Christmas. Can we come with awe and wonder and just ponder these things in our hears and allow God to do what God needs to do with us, in us and through us?
The angel says to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Amen.