We live in uncertain times, for sure. Events can shift in earthquake fashion as Americans in the United States have seen with the elections of 2016. But elections in other lands as well as seismic shifts that are real earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, wildfires, and human violence whether in the form of war or of civil discord or even street mayhem, remind us that our hold on civilization and sometimes even life itself is tenuous. We are too easily lured into thinking that we do have an abiding city here on earth, even though the witness of scripture argues against it.
And so we turn to the Word of God for light, hope, and reassurance that the City of God awaits. But the New Jerusalem has yet to descend from on high. In the meantime, patient endurance and the daily struggle to preserve peace, love, and justice continues.
Occasionally, there are signs that such hope is not illusory. And that was not unheard of in ancient Israel or even the Palestine just before the birth of Jesus.
Even though he was afraid to ask for one, a sign was given to Ahaz, and a sign was also promised to all humankind. A young woman, just a girl – almah – was with child who would in turn be a sign of God’s presence and favor in our midst. A pregnant girl, the birth of a child in poverty and exile. What kind of sign is this? What kind of God gives such signs to kings and presidents and premiers? A God hungry for justice and peace and love among women and men. A God weary of war, oppression and the great lie.
It is not recorded whether Jesus cried when he was born, or whether his young mother suffered in her labor to give birth to the Word of God. But it could hardly have been otherwise. Jesus cried out when he left this world in death and was first-born into a wholly new life. And of his mother it was said that a sword would pierce her soul. From the time of Eve, mothers suffer to give birth.
Perhaps it was some premonition of this suffering that caused Mary to be afraid at the angel’s word. Perhaps it was just the angel himself — they have a way of scaring people. But the angel’s message — not only to Mary, but to Joseph, to the shepherds, to the women at the tomb, to Peter and to all of us — is not to be afraid. There is good news to tell in a world of sadness. There is hope against the gathering darkness. Like Mary, if our hearts are clean of the world’s clutter, of the selfishness, greed and bitterness that beget the world’s pain, we can hear the angel’s word and keep it. We can conceive the Word of God in our hearts and give birth in our lives to Emmanuel — God with us– in our words and actions, those sacraments of God’s presence on earth, now and always. Amen.