Do I Have Room in My Heart for God?
December 6, 2015
John Irving’s 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is set in 1950s America. The title character is the son of working-class parents, permanently small in stature and with a damaged larynx that causes him to speak in a high-pitched shouting voice, which Irving indicates in the book by putting his dialogue in all caps. The narrator of the book is Owen’s friend Johnny.
One Christmas, Owen convinces the church rector, Rev. Wiggin, and the rector’s wife, Barb, to let him play baby Jesus in the church’s Christmas pageant. Mary is being played by Mary Beth Baird, a socially awkward young woman who dotes on Owen. Johnny, the narrator, plays Joseph.
As they rehearse the pageant, Barb Wiggin, who deeply regrets having allowed Owen to play Jesus, and Owen engage in endless negotiations. But…
Mary Beth Baird [saw] a larger problem. Since the reading from Luke concluded by observing that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” – and surely the “things” that Mary so kept and pondered were far more matterful than these trivial gifts – should she do something to demonstrate to the audience what a strain on her poor heart it was to do such monumental keeping and pondering?
“What?” Barb Wiggins said.
“WHAT SHE MEANS IS, SHOULDN’T SHE ACT OUT HOW A PERSON PONDERS SOMETHING,” Owen said. Mary Beth Baird was so pleased that Owen had clarified her concerns that she appeared on the verge of hugging or kissing him, but Barb Wiggin moved quickly between them, leaving the controls of the [spotlight] “pillar of light” unattended; eerily, the light scanned our little assembly with a will of its own – appearing to settle on the Holy Mother.
There was a respectful silence while we pondered what possible thing Mary Beth Baird could do to demonstrate how hard her heart was working; it was clear to most of us that Mary Beth would be satisfied only if she could express her adoration of the Christ Child physically.
“I could kiss him,” Mary Beth said softly. “I could just bow down and kiss him – on the forehead, I mean.”
“Well, yes, you could try that, Mary Beth,” the rector said cautiously.
“Let’s see how it looks,” Barb Wiggin said doubtfully.
“NO,” Owen said. “NO KISSING.”
“Why not, Owen,” Barb Wiggin asked playfully. She thought an opportunity to tease him was presenting itself, and she was quick to pounce on it.
“THIS IS A VERY HOLY MOMENT,” Owen said slowly.
“Indeed, it is,” the rector said.
“VERY HOLY,” Owen said. “SACRED,” he added.
“Just on the forehead,” Mary Beth said.
“Let’s see how it looks. Let’s just try it, Owen,” Barb Wiggin said.
“NO,” Owen said. “IF MARY IS SUPPOSED TO BE PONDERING – ‘IN HER HEART’ – THAT I AM CHRIST THE LORD, THE ACTUAL SON OF GOD…A SAVIOR, REMEMBER THAT… DO YOU THINK SHE’D JUST KISS ME LIKE SOME ORDINARY MOTHER KISSING HER ORDINARY BABY?
THIS IS NOT THE ONLY TIME THAT MARY KEEPS THINGS IN HER HEART. DON’T YOU REMEMBER WHEN THEY GO TO JERUSALEM FOR PASSOVER AND JESUS GOES TO THE TEMPLE AND TALKS TO THE TEACHERS, AND JOSEPH AND MARY ARE WORRIED ABOUT HIM BECAUSE THEY CAN’T FIND HIM – THEY’RE LOOKING ALL OVER FOR HIM – AND HE TELLS THEM, WHAT ARE YOU WORRIED ABOU, WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR ME FOR, ‘DID YOU NOT KNOW THAT I MUST BE IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE?’ HE MEANS THE TEMPLE. REMEMBER THAT? WELL, MARY KEEPS THAT IN HER HEART, TOO.
“But should I do something, Owen?” Mary Beth asked. “What should I do?”
“YOU KEEP THINGS IN YOUR HEART!” Owen told her.
“She should do nothing?” the Rev. Mr. Wiggin asked Owen. The rector, like one of the teachers in the temple, appeared “amazed.”
“Do you mean she should do nothing, Owen?” the rector repeated. “Or that she should do something less, or more, than kissing?”
“MORE,” Owen said.
Mary Beth Baird trembled; she would do anything he required. “TRY BOWING,” Owen suggested.
“Bowing,” Barb Wiggin said, with distaste.
Mary Beth Baird dropped to her knees and lowered her head; she was an awkward girl, and this sudden movement caused her to lose her balance. She assumed a three-point position, finally – on her knees, with her forehead resting on the mountain of hay, the top of her head pressing against Owen’s hip.
Owen raised his hand over her, to bless her; in a most detached manner, he lightly touched her hair – then his hand hovered above her head, as if he meant to shield her eyes from the intensity of the spotlight (“pillar of light”).
The shepherds and kings were riveted to this demonstration of what Mary pondered in her heart; the cows did not move. Even the hind parts of the donkeys, who could not see the Holy Mother bowing to the Baby Jesus – or anything at all – appeared to sense that the moment was reverential; they ceased their swaying, and the donkey’s tails hung straight and still.
Barb Wiggin had stopped breathing, with her mouth open, and the rector wore the numbed expression of one struck silly with awe. And I, Joseph – I did nothing, I was just the witness.
God knows how long Mary Beth Baird would have buried her head in the hay, for no doubt she was ecstatic to have the top of her head in contact with the Christ Child’s hip. We might have maintained our positions in this tableau for eternity – we might have made crèche history, a pageant frozen in rehearsal, each of us injected with the very magic we sought to represent….
But the choir master; whose eyesight was failing, assumed he had missed the cue for the final carol, which the choir sang with special gusto.
Hark! The her-ald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mer-cy mild, God and sin-ners reconciled.
Mary Beth Baird’s head shot up at the “Hark!” Her hair was wild and flecked with hay; she jumped to her feet as if the little Prince of Peace had ordered her out of his nest. The donkeys swayed again, the cows – their horns falling about their heads – moved a little, and the kings and shepherds regained their usual lack of composure.
The rector, whose appearance suggested that of a former immortal rudely returned to the rules of the earth, found that he could speak again. “That was perfect,” he said. “That was marvelous, really.”
“Shouldn’t we run through it one more time?” Barb Wiggin asked….
“NO,” said the Prince of Peace. “I THINK WE’VE GOT IT RIGHT.”
For our purposes, Irving’s Christmas pageant scene is premature. It illustrates the time just after Jesus’ birth, and our Scripture passage this morning is of the time many months before it. But as Owen said, Mary held much in her heart, from the day of the Nativity and afterwards, and before it.
When the angel Gabriel appeared out of nowhere and said to her: “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
“She was confused by these words,” the text says, “and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.”
Notice that this is before Gabriel delivers any further news about a pregnancy. What Mary wonders about here is his greeting: “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
She hasn’t done anything. No heroic act, no remarkable sacrifice. She is…simply…favored. Regarded. The angel Gabriel comes to her. Maybe she was washing the dishes, or weeding the garden. She didn’t seek this encounter out. God sought her out.
How would we respond? Would we stick around, despite our confusion and fear? Would we find a way to avoid the angel and his message? Would we hide in whatever physical or psychological place we hide when we want to remain uninvolved? Would we find a way to let God know that we are not worth the effort? We are not a chance worth taking?
The NRSV translation says that Mary was “perplexed,” and that she “pondered” the angel’s greeting. The Common English Bible translation says she was “confused.” No kidding! If you experienced anything close to this sort of encounter, I’d bet you would feel perplexed too.
- Who me?
- Why me?
- Why now?
Reading this very familiar passage, it’s easy to underestimate the impact of truly knowing that God is present. Here. With us. Doesn’t God have better things to do? Bigger things to take care of? More major issues to maintain besides me?
Mary is perplexed by Gabriel’s greeting and ponders it. So Gabriel says what angels always seem to say in these situations: Do not be afraid. And then he gives her news that would frighten even the sturdiest of hearts:
“God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
If she was confused before, surely now Mary is overwhelmed with confusion. But unlike Zechariah - who was also surprised by an angel and who also was confused by the news told to him about his wife’s pregnancy – Mary does not demand proof.
Zechariah - you will remember from Bill’s sermon last week and from our Advent Study Book, if you are reading it – responded to the angel’s message by asking a question of trust and power: “How will I know? How will I know that this is?” Zechariah’s question implies that he believes he is the one who holds the power in this relationship.
Mary, on the other hand, is not a priest of the Jerusalem Temple. She has never held any power and she assumes she never will. Her life has always been vulnerable to decisions made by other people about her. Her question reflects honest confusion: “How will this be?”
“God will overshadow you,” Gabriel says. And as Timothy Clayton, the study book author says, he uses the same word (verb) that the Old Testament uses to describe God’s presence in the tent of meeting that was God’s portable home during the wilderness wanderings of God’s people. After the escape from Egypt, God promises to lead the people on their journey to the Promised Land. They build the travelling tabernacle and then a cloud overshadows it - the presence of God in a particularly intense and significant way makes its home there.
Now Mary becomes God’s home; she makes room for God’s presence in her body.
“Here am I,” she says. “The servant of the Lord.” Like the prophets of old, she commits herself to the God who chooses her.
- She entrusts herself to a new self.
- She is willing to bear within herself the future,
- to embrace a new identity for herself of which she has little knowledge or understanding but to which she willing to commit.
- She makes room – psychologically, spiritually and even physically – for God in her life.
It is not only Mary who must respond to the angel’s message. You and I are also asked to make room for the Christ within us. The soul is the dwelling place, the hidden room where God abides. For, as Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21); and as Paul wrote “We are the temple of the living God.”
A prayer from an 8th century worship book reads “that your Son at His coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” Joy to the World, one of our most treasured Christmas hymns, written by Isaac Watts in the 18th century, guides us to sing “Let every heart prepare him room.”
The 13th century mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart said it this way: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”
Your heart is the inn, the resting place for the Christ.
Each day, and especially this day, at this table,
a Presence on the Threshold
announces “Rejoice, favored one!”
And you – yes, you – are blessed.
Each day, and especially this day, at this table,
God honors you.
And asks to be invited in.
Each day, and especially this day, at this table,
The angels hold their breath
Waiting to hear whether you might say,
“Yes, Lord, there is room here.
Let it be done according to your Word.”
Karoline Lewis. Advent as a Way of Life. Sunday, December 14, 2014. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3462
Suzanne Guthrie. Soulwork Toward Sunday: Self-Guided Retreat. Advent 4 (Year B). "find in us a mansion." http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/advent4b.html
Timothy Clayton. Exploring Advent with Luke: Four Questions for Spiritual Growth. Ave Maria Press, 2012.