And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. –Luke 1:30
My car died.
You have to understand that it was a highly unreliable model, to the extent that the car manufacturer stopped making it after only a few years because they realized what a mistake it was.
It was the week before finals – appropriately termed “reading week” – which I had intended to spend writing papers until my left brain could produce no more words and reading until my eyes could no longer make out even the serifs on the small typefaces. [Incidentally, I did end up spending the week doing both of those things.]
Instead, I began the week in the waiting room of a garage that could only be described as dismal. The tiny Christmas tree in the corner did nothing for my Christmas spirit, as it was adorned with clever little ornaments fashioned from pistons, air filters and wrenches, none of which would be able to fix my hopelessly broken engine.
I cried. I had just begun a new job thirty minutes from where I lived. It was the week before I had to take three of the most impossibly challenging exams. It was the same week that a friendship which had slowly dissolved over several months finally came to a bleak conclusion. It was the week leading up to several important responsibilities waiting for me on the other side of those finals. It was the very week when news broke out about all that was happening in Aleppo, and the very week I could barely stomach the images of a city of innocent civilians levelled by a war that few remember the reason for. And my car died. So I cried. A lot.
After sharing my tesitmony with my spiritual formation group just a few short days before, a fellow student had described me as “full of peace.” In the moment, I very much felt the truth of that statement. My story, like most stories, is full of chaos, brokenness, struggle. And yet there I was in a circle full of seminary students calmly explaining how that chaos and brokenness and struggle had led me to seminary, where God was continuing to call me into a ministry that I still don’t entirely understand. Despite the pain and uncertainty of my story, I really do feel a sense of peace about it.
And there I was, not four days later, glaring at the ugly, car-part Christmas tree, crying into my sleeve and trying not to draw any attention in the cramped room.
I’ve had worse days. I’ve had worse weeks, too. Somehow, though, factors beyond my control converged for a kind of perfect storm of stress. In a moment of frustration, I cried out to God in prayer: “What else!?”
There comes a moment in every seminary student’s life when she realizes this decision to give up everything familiar and comfortable for a challenging life of transience and heartache does not mean that all the pieces will all fall into place.
Obviously, I knew in my brain that this would not be so. Deciding to attend seminary is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. That decision is not a guarantee that the rest of life will be perfect. In fact, its almost certainly a guarantee that the rest of life will be imperfect. Ministry is messy and demanding and hard. It only follows that preparing for such a task is similar.
Still, in my heart I hoped for better, and that moment in the garage served to confirm my worst suspicions.
This had to be the way Mary was feeling even in the very moment that Jesus was born, only worse than I could even imagine.
At a young age, younger than I am now, she submitted to the will of God and the promise of God’s favor. As a direct result, she became pregnant. She would have been shunned by her entire family and the surrounding community. She would have been dismissed as sinful and crazy anytime she tried to explain what had happened. Her entire life would have been in shambles. She would not have felt like one who had found favor with God.
Then, she and her fiancé (who at this point would also have been socially cast out) had to journey 100 miles during the peak of her pregnancy at the whim of the Roman government, a government that feared an uprising from the rapidly multiplying Jews in Judea. The resulting census called for everyone to return to the town of their ancestors, and so Mary and Joseph rode to Bethlehem where she would give birth to the Son of God in a barn.
Meanwhile, an order was given by Herod for the murder of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two. Mary would live the rest of her life with the death of those little boys on her shoulders while she escaped with her little boy safely tucked in her arms.
That little boy would grow into an incredible man who many believed would wage war to free them from the oppression of rulers who killed their children without a second thought. She would be subjected to witness his violent execution in between desperate cries that would have no doubt brought her to her knees.
At the moment of his death, she had to have gone back to that first moment. She must have wondered if it would have been better if she had just said no. She had to question if this were truly the life of one of God’s favored ones, and consider why in thirty years since that moment she had never felt favored.
Friends, this is the life of the promised Prince of Peace. Even in utero, his presence on earth wrought turmoil and violence. Even before his birth, he did not come to bring peace but a sword. Even as he took his first breath, many other little boys took their last.
And yet, he truly is the Prince of Peace. In another moment, mere hours before his own death where he would be led silently as a lamb to slaughter, he reminded his best friends that those who live by the sword also die by the sword.
Instead of military insurrection, this redeemer brought deliverance from sin and its eternal consequences. This savior brought healing and restoration and new life. This Prince of Peace brought a peace of the soul, in the midst of the very real and seemingly endless suffering and tribulation that assaults us from every direction.
As we move into the days just before Christmas, as cars are dying, as financial stresses mount, as time does not heal all wounds, as responsibilities loom, as entire cities are wiped off the map, rest in the peace of Christ and extend it to everyone you can.
Remind yourself that Emmanuel was not what we all expected, that he was infinitely better, that he did not come to promise freedom from tyranny or war, but that he came with salvation from all the worst that we as human beings can do to one another and to God.
Finally, remember Mary, the one who found favor with God and woke up every morning after with no proof of such a promise. Perhaps even until her death, I imagine that Mary questioned what it meant to be God’s favored one. And yet, through Mary’s own sacrifices and her son’s ultimate sacrifice, the world will be brought to salvation.
This Christmas, I pray the peace of Mary for you: the peace of one favored by God, of one who cannot even imagine how such a promise is possible or true, yet to whom is given Emmanuel – God with us.
All glory to God in the sky,
And peace upon earth be restor’d!
O Jesus, exalted on high,
Appear our omnipotent Lord:
Who meanly in Bethlehem born,
Didst stoop to redeem a lost race,
Once more to thy creature return,
And reign in thy kingdom of grace.
Grace and peace,