Texts: from “Lifesigns” by Henri Nouwen * Luke 1:26-45 (the birth of Jesus foretold)
When I dream about Christmas, I find it easier to imagine feeling joy next year – Christmas 2021 — than this year; probably because many of us hope and expect that by next fall, the COVID-19 pandemic will be behind us.
Vaccination started last week in Britain and will start in Canada this week; and even if some of the many vaccines in development don’t turn out to be as safe or effective as we hope, and even if the huge challenge of distributing them leads to some snags, there are still the best practices from jurisdictions that have contained the virus without vaccines, which Canada could adopt.
But who knows what a year will bring? One year ago, not many people predicted that a pandemic would dominate life in 2020; nor would many have been so pessimistic as to accurately predict how badly most governments would stumble in the face of it. So, even if the pandemic is halted next year, we don’t know if another unsuspected shock will shift things in 2021. Will climate change bring more weather disasters? Will more racist and sexist leaders gain power in unlikely places?
Then there are the vicissitudes of our individual lives. Personal triumphs and losses meant that for some of us, COVID-19 was not what dominated our hearts and minds in 2020. As a New Year approaches, we wish each other health, happiness, and every kind of success in the year ahead, but who knows what will befall us?
Still, we live in hope. Even though the winter solstice is still eight days away, I have decided that — vaccines or not, and effective public health measures or not — I will greet spring 2021 with unbridled enthusiasm and unalloyed joy. I am confident that with support from each other we will get through a difficult winter. And as the days start to lengthen — beginning next week — and as warmer weather arrives in April, I am sure we will greet flower buds and warm sunshine with even more joy than we usually do here in the most northerly metropolis in the Americas.
But what about Christmas 2020? Can we feel joy even in the middle of a pandemic and with restrictions on our normal Christmas routines?
In the Luke’s Christmas story, Mary is a model of joy. When the Angel Gabriel first commands her to rejoice, she is deeply troubled. But as the angel tells Mary that she is blessed by God, that she will conceive and bear a son, and that he will be called God’s only begotten, she accepts his pronouncements and hurries to her cousin Elizabeth’s town, where she is met with joy.
Joy is a common emotion felt by pregnant women. But it is not the only one. Nothing impacts one’s life more than becoming a parent, and bearing and delivering a child is an awesome process, and one fraught with danger.
Every Advent, the church encourages us to prepare for the rebirth of love at Christmas despite how risky and life-altering birthing can be. And this year, we prepare for Christmas with restrictions on family gatherings; the cancellation of concerts and parties; and with grief over those who have died.
Mary feels joy despite her poverty, her unwed status, and the challenges of living under Roman occupation. We trust that her joy is warranted even though her life will include the heartbreak of the execution of Jesus. Despite such pain — in Mary’s life and in our lives — love conquers death; and joy conquers fear in the face of the many personal and social burdens we encounter.
In my life, joy has sometimes followed painful grief. This morning, I am thinking of an important instance of this following the death of my mother Mary three years ago this Christmas.
So, I now offer the words of a eulogy I delivered at her memorial, which was held in Toronto on January 13, 2018. Here is what I said on that occasion: “Grieving helps me to accept reality; and yet I struggle to express it, probably because it’s painful. I’ve expressed some grief about my mother, especially when my sister Catherine phoned on December 28 to say that she had finally died. I hope to express more today.
So, what am I struggling to accept? Not just that Mom is dead, which means I no longer have to worry about her; or wonder what she is up to; or talk to her on the phone for a few minutes each day. That is part of it, of course. But I also struggle to accept that Mary and Clare were the parents we had; that this is the time into which we were born; that we have accomplished the things we have; and that we have failed to accomplish many other things.
One week ago was Epiphany, a day on which the church celebrates revelation. Last Sunday, I marked Epiphany at Mill Woods United by talking about the world into which my parents were born and of the revelations bequeathed to them by World War I. I talked about 1915, which was ten years before Mom’s birth, and eight years before Dad’s.
In 1915, the man who would become my mother’s father, Mackenzie Rutherford, was wounded in France. In that same year, on the other side of the trenches in France, the Rev. Dr. Paul Tillich worked as a Lutheran chaplain for Germany. He would become Dad’s teacher in New York City in 1948.
For both Grandpa Rutherford and Rev. Tillich, the horror of the First World War revealed the nature of empire; and for both of them, along with millions of others, the rebellions that ended the War revealed the potential of ordinary people to unite, which could create a world of abundance and peace beyond empire.
Mom and Dad lived their whole lives somewhere between these two revelations, a kind of no-man’s land between the trauma of imperialist violence and the dream of liberation. My grief lies buried somewhere in this no-man’s land, I believe.
I was glad to spend five days with Mom before Christmas as she was dying. In her funny quips and surprising vitality, I saw my own hoped-for vitality. In her struggles to know and express feelings, I saw my own struggles.
Our lives are filled with innumerable moments of beauty, enlightenment, and love. But to best embrace these moments of Grace we have to embrace ones we don’t like — times of sickness, pain, and confusion.
Our bodies are fragile and mortal even as they give us exquisite delight and joy. Our minds are partial and conflicted even as they open us to endless flights of imagination, connection, and understanding.
At the social level, we are burdened by multiple divisions — the terrible gifts of monarchy and patriarchy.
At the same time, we can often taste the delights of a humanity freed from those constraints, one that in its knowledge and productivity points to the dream of greater peace, equality, and sustainability.
I am so glad to be alive today, even though I have to face Mom’s death. I am thrilled to be a minister in the United Church of Canada even though it is a sinking ship with a leadership that seems incapable of accepting this reality. I am so grateful that I am married to Kim, even though I am sorry it took me so long to find her in order to finally experience love at first sight. I am filled with joy that I can experience this terrible day with my brothers and sisters even though I can see my own twisted knots so clearly in each of you. I love you dearly even as I am sometimes filled with fear or pain as I watch us struggle in our own ways.
For me, one of those struggles is expressing grief, a struggle that I believe I shared with Mom. So today, I have decided to end by singing a hymn.
On Sunday December 17, I told the people at Mill Woods United that Mom was dying and that I was travelling that night to Toronto to say goodbye to her. This was the Sunday in Advent in which we focused on Mary, the mother of Jesus. And as we sang “Dreaming Mary” that day, I cried. If I am lucky, I may do so again today.”
And, that was my eulogy, except for “Dreaming Mary,” which I then sang. And despite my fear of not expressing grief, I experienced a tidal wave of it as I sang, for which I was deeply grateful.
My question today is what we need to grieve this Advent to clear the way for the joy of Christmas? As the essay by Henri Nouwen that we heard today suggests, sorrow, grief, and pain can be old, but joy is always new. What sorrow do we need to express in order to open ourselves to the joy of new life this Christmas?
In this year of pandemic, I am so glad that we get to journey together again this December even if it is virtual and not in-person. Yes, we have our sorrows. But beneath and beyond them is an inexhaustible Christmas joy that is ever-new.
Friends, watch out! Christmas is coming; and I fear it’s going to be awesome.
May it be so. Amen.