Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Luke 1:39-55; Canticle 15
December 19, 2021
Rev. Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain
May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts and the actions of our lives be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer.
Good morning St. Aidan’s.
Whenever I hear the Song of Mary from the Gospel of Luke, I am immediately transported to an association I will never forget with the Hail Mary prayer that is drawn from this text. Some of us might know this prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
It’s a beautiful prayer related to the touching moment recounted in our Gospel. The moment when Mary’s friend Elizabeth loved her and reassured her upon learning that Mary, a young unmarried woman, was pregnant with Jesus. Instead of shaming Mary at what had to have been a very scary time in her life, Elizabeth did the equivalent of putting her arms around Mary and saying that she would be with her as she awaited this birth. And this gave Mary hope and strength.
I preached on these readings at St. Aidan’s in 2015 – I looked back and found my homily in fact. And I told you about my association with the Hail Mary prayer. I don’t expect that any of you will remember that homily, but just in case, I’ll abbreviate my story about the Hail Mary prayer a bit since I’ve told you about it before, but I just have to share it again because it is still as clear in my heart in 2021 as it was in 2015. The way I think about this story – 6 years later – has changed a bit, as happens often with time, and so I’ll share that too.
Most of my life I had only a passing acquaintance with this prayer. And then, as a volunteer at Sojourn Chaplaincy, I met a family at San Francisco General who would forever change my relationship with this prayer and with Mary’s story.
I met the family as they rushed into town upon hearing that their daughter – I’ll call her Rene – had been hit by a car while riding her bicycle through a busy San Francisco intersection. Rene was unconscious, with severe brain trauma. She was a beautiful young woman, a talented art student, and she was in very critical condition. Later I also met Rene’s siblings who joined their parents in keeping vigil at her side.
All of us at Sojourn got to know this family quite well – they were at the hospital for weeks and weeks as they waited and watched and hoped. Rene’s father and mother, every time I visited, asked for prayers – and so we prayed together. One day Rene’s father mentioned that he would like to pray the Hail Mary – and I had to admit to him that I didn’t know it by heart. He graciously walked me through it. We were on our knees beside Rene’s bed in the busy noisy ICU room. We prayed the Hail Mary over and over again – I don’t know how many times – it seemed like hundreds.
We chaplains marveled at the faith and hope and optimism of this family. They told us stories about Rene’s bright spirit and her life, and they invited us to an art show that her friends put together at a little gallery in the Tenderloin while she remained in the ICU. We all so wanted Rene to wake up, for the trauma surgeons to achieve a miracle for her injured brain, for her to walk out of the hospital and back to her unfolding art career. And so we did our best to be with her family. We looked for the grace and blessings mentioned in the Hail Mary prayer, and we waited.
Waiting is one of the hardest parts of life I think. And we’ve been steeped in waiting through our extra long Advent season. We’re nearly at the end of this church season that focuses particularly on waiting, but we know that waiting never really ends. Pregnant Mary awaited the birth of Jesus without any clue of what would come next in her life. Rene’s family, day by day at San Francisco General, had no idea of what new challenges would present themselves. In our lives, we await news of where the pandemic will head, what might happen next in our divided country with so many heartbreaking problems. We are fearful of what the future might hold. In 2015 when I preached on this day, we were preparing a parish profile and updating our website and thinking about interview questions for rector candidates. Remember that?
I have recently come across some observations by the theologian Henry Nouwen, about this challenge of waiting. These observations have evolved my thoughts about waiting, about the story I’ve shared with you, and about the story of Mary. The first is about the idea of “active waiting” and the second is about “radical waiting.” So I thought I would try these ideas out on you this morning.
About “Active waiting,” Nouwen wrote:
Most of us consider waiting as something very passive, a hopeless state determined by events totally out of our hands. It is not difficult to understand the irritation people feel when somebody says, “Just wait.” Words like that push us into passivity. But there is none of this passivity in Scripture. Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing. Right here is a secret for us about waiting. If we wait in the conviction that a seed has been planted and that something has already begun, it changes the way we wait. Active waiting implies being fully present to the moment with the conviction that something is happening where we are and that we want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, believing that this moment is the moment.
As I think about Mary, and what she was living through in her life ---- and as I think back to Rene’s family at San Francisco General, these words of Henry Nouwen ring quite true. They speak to me, also, of where we are in this time. “A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, believing that this moment is the moment.”
And what about Radical waiting? Nouwen’s wisdom on radical waiting goes like this:
To wait with openness and trust is an enormously radical attitude toward life. It is choosing to hope that something is happening for us that is far beyond our own imaginings. It is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God molds us in love, holds us in tenderness, and moves us away from the sources of our fear. This, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.
When I think about Mary and radical waiting, I can’t help but wonder how she had it in her to proclaim the greatness of God, to rejoice, and to say that “the Almighty has done great things for me” --- at a time when it would have been completely understandable to be terrified and overcome with fear about what her future might hold. And when I think about Rene’s father, on his knees on a cold ICU floor, praying the Hail Mary over and over again, I feel that I witnessed faith and hope more radical than words can ever convey. And I wonder about us – what does radical waiting mean for us, here and now?
And so, to me, these concepts of active waiting and radical waiting have been helpful in making sense of the world. And I think that’s because they point so directly to our relationship with God – a relationship that requires tending and prayer and that is built on a foundation of hope. Amy preached about hope so compelling last Sunday, about the hope that comes from a God who surprises. Henry Nouwen’s wisdom reminds us that, in the waiting, seeds of hope are planted and he also reminds us that they will grow. These seeds of hope urge us to remember that every moment is important. They urge us to trust in God – to give up our human preoccupation with control and to just “be” – to pause, to breathe, to pray, to quiet ourselves, to find small rests in the race of life.
None of this is easy, of course. There is unpredictability and heartache all around us. We live in a world full of harsh realities. A world where many many years ago Jesus, the son born of Mary, was brutally crucified. A world where Rene didn’t walk out of San Francisco General and back to art school, but instead died with her family, at home in Texas. We cope with sadness that is unsurmountable and in the context of loss that threatens to overwhelm us. And yet, through it all, we strive as people of faith to not lose hope.
The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman wrote:
"Hope in gospel faith is not just a vague feeling that things will work out, for it is evident that things will not just work out. Rather, hope is the conviction, against a great deal of data, that God is tenacious and persistent in overcoming the deathliness of the world, that God intends joy and peace."
Which brings me back to our story of Mary, because it is really a story of hope in most uncertain times. A story full of the love of God, which reminds us of the need to be on the lookout for God’s grace and care. A story of mercy. May we, like Elizabeth in the Gospel of Luke, reach out to love those, like Mary, who need our compassion and who may be afraid. May we, like Mary, feel that love and be made strong. May we, like Rene’s family at San Francisco General, hold onto prayer and hope – no matter what - as we wait. May we, as a community, as we move from Advent into Christmas, point out to one another those moments of active and radical waiting when we find ways to deepen our relationship with God. May we share God’s grace with our neighbors in our community and our world, and may we be ever be mindful of the fact that God is with us always.