One Sunday morning, when I was a teenager, the service was very, very different. I guess the pastor had invited elders to suggest and take part in planning worship. On that particular Sunday, one of the elders sat down front, with the pastor, in folding chairs. And they talked about Mary. (I’m guessing this service was either in Advent or close enough to Christmas for Mary to have a significant role.) They talked! It was a conversation. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in church — and I thought it was great! The elder spoke about Mary being a pregnant, unwed teenager, and what that might have meant. The “sermon” was relevant in a new way. It was accessible. It was in language I understood. The young people were amazed and energized! It was church re-invented. We loved it!
But, most of the congregation did not love it. That minister spent days and weeks dealing with the aftermath. Much to my surprise, the biggest complaint was not the format. What upset folks was that the elder noted that Mary was pregnant — pregnant. It would have been okay for him to say that she was “with child,” but, apparently the word “pregnant” was unacceptable. Or maybe it was the combination of the word pregnant with the description of her as an unwed teenager. I guess people were afraid that lifting up that reality would promote bad behavior among young people — particularly young women.
It’s so easy and tempting to sanitize the Christmas story — and, perhaps, the faith story in general. Our Christmas cards portray sweet scenes of an immaculate family in a stable with clean animals surrounding them. The shepherds that come look like they found showers on the way. One French carol speaks of the sweet aroma surrounding the Christ Child. So, we took the Biblical story and cleaned it up. We made it a sweet fairy tale — without the hardships of poverty or the threats of a tyrant king.
Pregnant — Mary was pregnant. (Or she would soon be pregnant.) Our world has changed. We don’t hide or deny pregnancy the way society once did. It was a big deal when I Love Lucy showed the world that Lucy was pregnant. I guess network executives had long discussions about whether or not they should show her pregnancy — and she was married, both on TV and in real life!
So, we use euphoniums: she has a bun in the oven; she’s in a motherly way; the rabbit died (that one’s dated!); and the Biblical, she is with child. It struck me as odd, when informed of the angry reactions to that service, that there would be an objection to speaking clearly about Mary and what was happening to her. The fairy tale was preferable to reality. The word pregnant was too real for worship.
Hmm. For some reason, we avoided the word pregnant—when applied to women. The word got used in other ways — a pregnant pause, a pregnant moment. The word points to possibility, to potential, to a future that is full of life.
The angel Gabriel came to a young woman, the story tells us. He told her about God’s plan, about God’s intent. This was a pregnant moment, filled with potential and possibility. The Biblical account emphasizes what God will do. But it also seems to indicate that Mary had a choice in this. She might have said “no!” She might have heard the news and thought of all the obstacles to being part of God’s plan. Actually, she named one. “I am a virgin. How can this be?” No complete answer was given to her — only the assertion that God doesn’t see the obstacles human beings see. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Time and again, the Biblical witness speaks of pregnant moments — of God’s intervention in ways that promise hope, in ways that offer life anew. There are many stories that highlight actual pregnancies. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah — the list goes on and on in the Hebrew Scriptures— all experienced barrenness until God intervened and gave them children. The Hebrew Scripture also speaks of life emerging anew in deserts and of a nation being restored. In the beginning of Luke’s gospel we are told of Elizabeth’s barrenness. Her unexpected pregnancy came first. Mary’s unexpected pregnancy was not because she was barren, but because she was a virgin.
That service, so long ago, taught me that our faith conversations need to connect to the world we know. I still don’t object to the conversation that lifted up the plight of an unwed expectant mother; I do know that we continue to struggle with speaking of faith in ways that ground it in the realities of the world we inhabit. It’s always tempting to look for a fairy tale message that’s all sweetness and light, yet has little connection to life.
Yet, when reality—when what we can see, know, touch, manage, control and predict—is all we will accept, we miss God’s pregnant presence.
It is the season of gift-giving, of presents. The angel Gabriel offered Mary a present — a child. But the gift was not just a child. He offered her the opportunity to participate in God’s work. He offered to her God’s very presence in her life and in her work of raising the child whom she would bear. The encounter with Gabriel was filled with that presence of God — it was pregnant with possibilities. And Mary said “yes” to all of them. She knew the realities of her world. She knew, probably, how people might or would react. But, she embraced God’s promise. She embraced that pregnant moment in and through which God offered new life.
Mary saw the reality of her situation. She saw the potential obstacles. Yet, she said “yes,” because she also saw the possibilities, the potential — God’s life-giving presence. In the church, we get caught up in the realities. We’re very good at seeing obstacles — size, budgets, a changed and changing world. Perhaps, Advent offers us the opportunity to see — to see— our world differently. I don’t mean that we ignore or deny the realities of this world. But, we begin to see, in the midst of them, that God offers us pregnant moments — moments that are filled with potential, with promise, with life. We are offered, each and every moment, the gift of being more fully involved in God’s work, of bearing God’s presence so that it may be born again and anew in a world that needs that presence.
Each year, as we hear these stories, we are challenged to hear them afresh in ways that connect to our own lives and to the world in which we live. The Christ child came — in history —in a particular time and through the willingness of a particular woman. But, we can continue to embody and emulate Mary’s willing “yes.” That yes invites us to see the realities, to know and name them, yet, at the same time, trust that the world’s assumptions and consequences are not the last word. In the midst of all the harshness of our world, God offers pregnant moments. God continues to break with transforming hope, peace, joy and love.
Mary’s story tells us that embracing those pregnant moments is not, nor will ever be, easy. The gospels don’t tell us much about the rest of Mary’s journey. We are given glimpses. Matthew’s gospel speaks of being a refugee in Egypt. Luke’s tells us of a lost child in Jerusalem. Matthew’s gospel tells of the time that his mother and brothers came to see Jesus, but he focused, instead, on the crowd. John’s gospel tells us that she was at the crucifixion. We might guess that saying “yes” to the angel led her not to some Disney-esque happily ever after ending, but into the midst of difficult times and circumstances. That is always the way.
Let’s be honest, there is an aspect of the story of Mary that is offensive. We don’t expect God to act outside of the norms that we carefully construct, the norms that give us a sense of power and control in our world. There is still something that is troubling about the story of an unwed mother being called by God to accept a pregnancy that could and would change the world. So, we tidy up the story by re-phrasing its central element. But God’s pregnant moments do disrupt our norms. They topple assumptions. They upend conventions and traditions. For God’s transformation confronts the brokenness of the world. There is still something scandalous about what God does, because it defies what the world thinks is acceptable and best. So, if we are to say “yes” to God’s pregnant presence, we are to understand that we are saying “yes” to the scandal of being God’s people who name and confront the ways of the world that work against God’s good intent. We see and celebrate those saints who have gone before us who did just that — those who said yes to God’s transformation, and, often, suffered consequences. We could think of those who spoke out against slavery and worked for its abolishment. There are those who spoke out against child labor in the west, and worked for not only its end, but for educational opportunities for all. We should remember those who see injustice around us, speak out against it, and work for new systems that are fairer to all. Voices still cry out, as they should, against racial bias, calling society to eradicate it. Our society has been hearing and responding to the outcries about sexual misconduct and harassment.
The reality is that these cries for change are not always met with joy. In fact, they are often resisted and condemned. Many who cry out pay a price. They are condemned by those who say that speaking out upsets the carefully constructed ways of our society that keep an uneasy peace or support an economic system. The world and its societies still resist the ways of God, and those who embrace God’s ways, proclaim them, and work for them may find themselves disdained and rejected.
That’s the reality. But the promise of Advent, the promise fulfilled in the Christ child, is that God chooses to be present in the midst of that reality. The world’s obstacles may appear to have the power to deter God, but they, ultimately, do not. God’s pregnant presence offers the fullness of life. Amen .