Today we are three weeks into the advent season preparing for Christs coming. Christmas, for Christians, is not simply a remembrance and celebration of history (though it is certainly that), it is more importantly a proclamation of reality. The father of Quakerism, George Fox, wrote in his journal of his present and personal experience of Christ when he said: Jesus has come to teach the people himself, meaning that for Christians there is no waiting for the return of Christ is some distance future, Christ is here with us and among us now. When we talk about the Light of Christ, who is the Inward Light, this is what we mean. Therefore, if Christ came two thousand and nine (or so) years ago, then Christ is also born every year at Christmas and he is born in us every time we make the space in our wombs for the divine gestation to take place.
[I used a wrapped Gift Box to illustrate] One way to picture this might be with this: What is it? What can you tell about it just by looking at it? Any guesses as to what is in it? [What are you asking for this Christmas? ] What about knowing, or not knowing who it is from, how does that change things? How do expectations shape our reception of the gift? What are the feelings you have when it is what you expected? What about when it isnt what you expected? (What if it was something you like even more?) [It was empty]
For now, there is nothing in that space, like an empty womb waiting for something to be formed within it, to go through the process of gestation. Whatever this gift is to become, and we cant know ahead of time, it will first require that we stop and allow time for it to be formed. In other words, there is preparation that must take place: both for the formation of the gift, like a baby in a womb, and for the reception of that gift. And this is an analogy for us today. Like Mary, whose womb is blessed because of the fruits growing inside her, we too have wombs of the divine, Christ is growing, or wants to grow in us. The question is can we stop long enough and prepare ourselves for the process to happen and to be ready to truly receive whatever (and whoever) it is that is born.
So this morning I want to invite all of us to consider what it means to prepare a space for what will be born on Christmas morning.
Blessed is the Fruit of Your Womb
The Christmas story is about the gift of God arriving here ON EARTH (as the Disciples prayer mentions), but the gift of God comes in a way that truly baffles and dumbfounds. For instance, Jesus was born in tiny, vulnerable village called Bethlehem, which had been exploited by many army foray (WB). The point of the biblical narrative is to say, of all the places you might expect the messiah to arrive, Bethlehem is probably not on your list. Surprise! And the Jewish people hoped and longed for a Messiah who would be the heir to Davids throne, who would ride into Jerusalem and return to his rightful power once again [Tolkein anyone?]. In other words, the Jewish Messiah was a long awaited political, religious leader who would lead Judaism back into a right relationship with God and set things right in their country, lead them into battle, and push out infidels (currently Romans) out of their country. But Instead they got Jesus a very different kind of political and religious leader.
Because of all this there really is something about Mary, as they say. How was it that she was prepared to receive a gift that was so unexpected and radically different from what common wisdom at that time thought the Messiah would be like. How did she accept this? How are we to accept this?
Listen to what Elizabeth says about Mary:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. (Luke 1:41-45 NRSV)
Blessed is the fruit of your womb, she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
How does Mary respond to all this? What I like about Mary is that, in a sense, she really does nothing. In our story so far, she really is a (before all this stuff about a virgin birth) a nobody, she was the kind of person who people didnt know about, you couldnt search her name on google, if she had a facebook page she probably didnt have many friends (obviously, I’m editorializing here, but the point is that God chooses a nobody, a young virgin teenager to carry out his plan), and when the angel comes to her and tells her what is about to go down, she doesnt really DO anything but have the faith to believe. She simply offers her body as a space for Gods seed to grow, she says yes! And yes, of course, she believed that God was capable of anything, even the impossible and yes, Mary knew deeply the love of God and trusted that even in the midst of what must have seemed like complete chaos, but there is a sense in which she does noting, and was simply present to that moment when God called upon her.
[How would you have responded? Some of us might have said we a better house, a better job, done with school, God cant grow up in this neighborhood, in this country, etc.]
Loretta Ross writes:
To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge may mean not knowing much of anything else [was this Mary?]. With the peace and quiet of recollection may come the stark edge of fear that this doing nothing, this being, this offering oneself for God to be the actor, cannot possibly be enough. It all seems so passive. Do something, produce, perform, earn your keep. Dont just sit there. It may be good and well for Mary to offer space in herself for God to dwell and be born into the world, but few of us posses the radical belief such [doing nothing] requires (Watch for the Light, 96-97).
And so Mary prepared her womb for the divine, by allowing it to be used for whatever God had in mind. She didnt hold onto her rights, career, status, etc. She let go of whatever expectations she had, and let that seed form. And because of this, Elizabeth says, blessed is the fruit of your womb. Both Mary and Elizabeth knew that a womb of the divine is one that is truly prepared, open, fully hospitable for whatever and whoever comes.
We too as the church have wombs, all of us. You are wombs of the divine.
Jesus observed, Without me you can do nothing (John 15:5). Yet, we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing. We think we have to make Christmas come, which is to say we think we have to bring about the redemption of the universe on our own. When all God needs is a willing womb, a place of safety, nourishment, and love. Oh, but nothing will get done, you say. If I dont do it, Christmas wont happen. And we crowd out Christ with our fretful fears (98-99).
What God needs is a willing womb. This is what Mary understood. Who among you are living as willing wombs? I think Quakers understood this need to offer willing wombs of the divine so that God does not get crowded out better than many Christians throughout Church history. We have an entire structure created around the fact that human nature tries to crowd God out. From our open worship, to our business meetings, to our views on (pastoral) ministry, Quakers have a structure that is formed with the conviction that we do not want one person to take up too much space in our meetings. Even with all the inefficiencies that our process can sometimes lead us down, even with the chaos that can ensue, we believe deeply that God needs the willing wombs to remain open, for that space to be truly available, if God is going to come and be born among us. The other day a friend said, People take up so much space that God barely even has a chance.
And so the question is, do you have a willing womb for the divine? Are you creating that space for the process of conception, gestation, and birth to occur? Christ is coming to be born in you.
[Trans] What are the ways we prepare to God to come and be born in us?
There is no right answer to this, what it looks like for you to create space for God has to be genuine to you and your life. That you become a willing womb of the divine is what matters, how is less important. But whatever it is it will involve doing serious personal work. Think about John the Baptist, his call for the people of Israel to be prepared. He challenged them to hard work as well, every tree that doesnt bear fruit will be cut down, if you have two cloaks give one away, dont take more money than you need, and stop using your position of power to steal, were some of his suggestions. Then people were baptized in water, also a sign of preparation for new life.
[Get M] Now personally, Emily and I, and L too, have been preparing the last nine months for M. When we found out that Emily was pregnant with M we knew that there was the period of gestation that we had to go through. There was no way to rush it (nor would you want to). There is the long slow road Emily had to go through to allow for M to be formed in her womb. Preparation cannot be rushed. Even though it took its toll and was very trying on her physically she could not short circuit the process.
We also, in preparation, educated ourselves. We learned about what kinds of schools of thought there are birthing procedures, would we do Bradley Method, Lamaze, would the birth be all natural as was our first, or will medication be involved? We even discussed the small details of diapering, would it be cloth or a something more like a compostable diaper (who knew there were so many options). Then of course, the perennial questions around parenting and nurturing styles, what is attachment parenting all about and what are other theories? What will be our blend?
Then comes the more relational things we thought about. We announced to all our family, friends and community the arrival of our new child, we invited all those close in our lives to join us in this birth. Other questions abounded: What will we call her? How will she and L get along? What kind of space can we create in our family, in our home, and in our day-to-day lives for this coming child? Who will she be? What are the hopes she brings?
For me, as a father, I had other preparations to go through. Sure my body was going through changes…Im working off my third trimester as well, but I was really preoccupied with a new job, school, learning about a new city, buying a home, etc. Then early in November Emily woke me up and told me she thought she might be in labor! I thought, oh no, please, not yet. Im not ready! (How ridiculous right?!). But this was the first time it really hit me, at a deep level.
I am not prepared. I dont have any space for this child yet.
And on Monday night, the week that M was born. I got sick. I had a fever and cold sweats. I couldnt sleep and I my stomach was upset. I realized that buried beneath the physical sickness, I was also struggling with deep anxiety about Ms arrival. I still wasnt ready, and I knew she was coming soon (I did after all predict she would be born on the 27th months before!). I didnt have space for her yet, because I hadnt allowed for that space to be created. I literally wrestled with this before God. Why am I anxious. What causes anxiety in me? Im not the one giving birth here, yet youd think I was. I realized for me I was worried about all the things that could go wrong, I was worried about how I would perform on that day. Would I be able to be present for Emily, really ready for this baby? And that night, while I was praying, I had to do some deeply internal, emotional and spiritual work. It was hard, but through the process I handed it over to God [palms down, palms up]. I was comforted by the fact that it was out of my control; whatever happened, it wasnt up to me. What I had to do was nothing but simply be there, as fully present as I could be. That night for the first time all year, I felt prepared, ready for the gift of this life.
So whatever preparation is for you, I think it will include this kind of work. Will you take this on this week? We need to step back, stop, and contemplate how we will be wombs of the divine, how we are creating space for God.
Kester Brewin writes:
Only if I am still. Only if I have stopped what I was doing to listen and hold my breath and enter some spiritual apnea and wait. The perception of the new step will come only to those brave enough to stop dancing the old. The realization that we must descend this low peak will come only to those prepared to stop and take stock of their position. We fear that if we stopped for a week, a month, a service, a moment, we might be forgotten, or lose our momentum, weaken our profile, appear ill-thought-out and failing (46)…So the truly free, the brave who truly seek God, will always have periods, commas, full stops, punctuation marks, pregnant pauses, breves and semi-breves of silence where those around them are given the freedom to walk; given space to deconstruct structures, to reimagine and rethink. Blue-sky thinking cannot happen while we rush around under thunderclouds of busyness (Signs of Emergence, 47).
I think this is the line that Mary takes. Mary was truly free. Whatever happened, it isnt up to me. Whatever the impossibility, God is a God of the impossible. This kind of preparation, this openness to whatever God was about to do, the space Mary created, allowed her to be open to whatever radical shift the story was about to take. She was ready for the change because she was prepared for the formation of the gift, the baby in the womb, and the reception of baby Jesus, God’s gift to humanity.
And this is what Christmas is, it is the full-stop, the pregnant pause, the holding of breathe, waiting for the gift of something new, the gift of light to be born into the darkness, the empty box to be filled with our wildest kingdom imaginations, our willing wombs to be filled with the divine.
So the question this morning for you is quite simple: how are you preparing to receive this gift? And will we let there be enough space for God to come and be born among us?