In the Dark
Text: Luke 1: 39-45
A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery
December 13, 2009
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “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.”
A girl sits crowded at her desk, her head weighted against her propped arm, hand poised to write. Around her, a small class of misfits – each a young teenage girl who has been expelled or dropped out of other schools, each writing furiously their hopes, dreams, events of their day. But today, this day, this girl, doesn’t feel like writing. She has been able to scratch out only two words, “Why me?”
The girl is Clarice Precious Jones, the lead character in a new movie in theatres now titled “Precious,” based on the novel “Push” about the author’s experience teaching literacy to young girls in Harlem in the 1980’s. To be fair, by the time we reach this point in the movie Precious has borne more than any human should ever have to bear, let alone a young teenage girl. At this point she has recently given birth to her second child at age 14, she has been abused in the most awful ways by both her parents, she is morbidly obese, homeless, battered, battling illiteracy.
And on this morning, she has learned about one more shattering thing, one thing that feels like the last straw in a series of let downs and insurmountable obstacles. “Why me?” she asks, and when her teacher continues to push her to write it all out – write out the pain and sorrow, the abuse the affliction – the scene culminates in a confrontation about the true nature of love and whether or not there is any hope in the darkness which surrounds us.
Our story this morning is another story of questions – although it happened in a time and place very different from the story of Precious Jones. Still, in it we meet another pregnant teen who wonders at her predicament: “How can this be?” She asks Gabriel. Mary’s wondering is weighted with the cultural dynamics of her own time; even then a teenage pregnancy out of wedlock was a situation of struggle and pain, confusion and despair. With no power of her own, a young woman cleaved to her husband or father for both financial and physical protection. A woman found to be pregnant before her marriage was subject to being cast out, even stoned for adultery. And so if we are honest about it, in the annunciation story, there is this brief, breath of a moment when Mary could receive the news as good, or as very, very bad.
Mary says, “How can this be?” and her question is different than the question Zechariah asked Gabriel in our text from last week, “How will I know that this is so?” Zechariah’s question smacks with a tone of arrogance as he doubts the validity of Gabriel’s claim that his aged and barren wife is pregnant. Zechariah’s punishment is 9 months of silence, giving him time to think over that initial response.
If Zechariah’s question was out of arrogance, then Mary’s question seems one of the soul. As Gabriel explains the power of the Holy Spirit, we can feel Mary’s mind turning, wondering, dreaming, coming to terms with this miraculous pronouncement and promise. Not entirely devoid of doubt, Mary must have been aware of the consequences of Gabriel’s message – both good and bad. She must have been filled with all sorts of questions – even if this is the only one she asks out loud: It must have been a liminal moment – hanging between dark and light, fear and hope.
Our own lives are riddled with questions during this Advent season: Will I get it all done? Will this busyness ever end? What do you want for Christmas? Can I afford it? Have I packed everything I need? Did I forget anything? It is a constant barrage of activity and action as we prepare, prepare, prepare for that wonderful and magical night.
But amidst the lights and festivities, there are other kinds of questions that linger in the dark, questions of the soul, that seem to move gently below the surface through this time: Why me? What would it be like if he were still here? How could she do this? Why didn’t it work out? Will the kids be okay? Will mom be okay? Will we make it?
Christmas is not always a season of cheer and joy for everyone. It can be a time of hard and profound questions for many of us, as we stumble along through these short days and long nights. Our joy is precarious – as we struggle to find balance between the hope of Christmas and the darkness of Advent. It seems that every year at this time we face more stories of beloved ones facing terminal diagnoses, stories of shattering loss and grief, hardships that are beyond reason or bearing. These times too bring up in us our deepest memories, of times that seemed and perhaps were simpler, more joyful, filled with ease and laughter – times for which we long in our heart of hearts.
The story of Clarice Precious Jones is haunting in some of the most terrible ways, and it is not for the faint of heart. In it we find questions of the darkest sort. But there is also a glimmer of light – as this young girl responds to her own pain and suffering with courage, hope, and responsibility.
In one of her most hopeful lines she describes how some people shine with a light that is both in them and apart from them, she says, “Some folks has a lot of things around them that shines for other peoples. I think that maybe some of them was in tunnels. And in that tunnel, the only light they had, was inside of them. And then long after they escape that tunnel, they still be shining for everybody else.”
It is only through that light and love that Precious finds her way out of that tunnel, somehow transforming the horrors she has experienced into something endurable by the grace of God. When these horrors come up against the nature of true and real love – the love of her teacher, the love of her own child, that love somehow pulls her from the pit and gives her hope.
When reminded of that love Precious finds her way through, saying “yes” to her calling into motherhood and her pledge to be a different kind of mother than the one she had. Saying “yes” to the path out of illiteracy, out of pain, out of sorrow and grief. She says “yes” without knowing the way forward, without knowing how it will end up, without knowing the end. But in that “yes” she proves that the darkness does not, cannot overcome the light of that love.
Mary, too, is caught in the question. She is perplexed by Gabriel’s words, she wonders “How can this be?” Her fear is palpable and very real: Fear of what would become of her, of what was happening, of how she would bear not only the hardship of motherhood but bear the Son of the Most High to the world.
Gabriel tells her, “Do not be afraid.”
In her answer she responds to her own fear and questioning with a hope and grace that marks a path for us going forward. “Here am I,” she says, and in holding both her questions and her calling together she finds strength and purpose. When Elizabeth sees Mary she says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Blessed is she who said “yes” even without knowing what that “yes” will entail or where it will lead; Blessed is she who said “yes” to love and life, to hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds; She who said “yes” to faith even in the midst of the hardest questions of life.
That “yes” which is the light shining in the darkness, illuminating the way through.
May it be so for each of us in this season of hope in the dark. Amen.