This Tweet is where my sermon prep for Advent 4 started. I was grateful for the engagement it generated and the ideas it spawned.
I have been guilty, too much and too often, of using the promise of Emmanuel (God-with-us) to leave my privilege unchallenged. I am quick to hear and offer the cosy reassurance of a Renaissance Nativity scene: pale-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Madonna and child huddled in the straw – peaceful, serene, comfortable. Just like me.
When life is a little tough, it’s ok – God is with us. God is like us. God is for us.
Nothing wrong with this, of course. Except for the reinforcement it gives of my unconscious bias. My failure to see God in those who are different. And to see those who are different in the history of God-with-us.
Told uncritically, the ancient narratives of these holy mysterious become, without our awareness, a toxic us and them. God-with-us-not-them
One of the questions I took to the pulpit today was this:
How do we share in Mary’s vocation to be the God-bearer, without reducing God to be made in our image?
Advent 4 is not really about Mary at all. Mary’s vocation, as with all vocations, points us on to Christ. The one who began life alongside us all, in the dark comfort of the womb, in the trauma of the birth canal, in the cold comfort of swaddling cloths, is the one we are each called to bear to the world.
Except we don’t carry the baby. We carry the Light in the darkness, the Word made flesh.
The deaths of four people – one a teenager – and the rescue of 39 others – eight of them children – was given 48 seconds of time in Prime Ministers’ Questions last week, hours after a rubber dinghy full of desperate migrants, some wearing only thin t-shirts, sank in the freezing waters of the English Channel last week.
What good is the promise of God-with-us, if God was not also with those people, on that boat, under that water?
I couldn’t show a photo of a rubber dinghy this morning. It felt too taboo, too close to home, maybe too challenging? While I’d shown images of the Holy Family from around the world, challenging how we understand God-with-us, this slide remained blank.
Mary’s role as the God-bearer brings comfort and challenge. Mary bears the Christ Child on behalf of us all, to show us that God is not found only in the softly-lit stable scene, nor the rousing carols, nor the stillness of Christmas night.
Christ is found, too, in the darkest, most awful of places:
Perched on an overcrowded rubber dinghy
Dashing frantically across a protected border
Inside a migrant camp, where the tents are trashed and the women are too
Queueing with a crumpled voucher at a foodbank
Waiting in the relatives’ room of a hospital ward
In the deathly crush of a terrified crowd
Under the ice of a frozen lake
In the empty side of a double bed
In the back of a queueing ambulance, an empty field of failed crops, a shelled-out building with blood staining the walls
What good is God, if God is not here?
The Nativity is not the story of triumphalist white pro-natalism that I am tempted to make it.
The appearance of the angel to Joseph heralds the truth of the incarnation: this baby is Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus – Saviour – the one who liberates us from the miry, dark, life-wrecking power of sin.
God with us.
God in us.
God for us.
All of us.
So if that’s where God is – in the places where sin hurts – then where are we? And where are we called to be? How are we working, with Mary, with God, to alleviate suffering, to minister justice and work for truth? Because joining in this work of God-bearing – this is what it means to say Emmanuel – God-with-us.