December 24, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Advent
A month or so ago I was sitting around a conference table at OSU with some other teachers. We were talking about a program we wanted to start, and after a while I realized that no one seemed to know I was there. No one had once asked me what I thought. It was as if I’d become invisible. After all these years I’ve achieved a sort of “senior” status, I guess, weirdly, but not in a good sense–in the sense of being seen as out-of-date, irrelevant.
At one point a new colleague, a young woman, turned to me and asked in a kind of puzzled voice, “and what is it that you do?” and I could feel my ears burning and the top of my head tingling, I was so mad, so embarrassed.
And this was a moment of grace, it was a kind of Annunciation, because I was being “overshadowed,” as Mary is in the gospel today–though unlike Mary, I didn’t accept it. Not at all.
When Mary is told that she will be the mother of Jesus, that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her and come into her, she struggles, too, and she asks questions, but in the end, with a tremendous act of will and of faith, an act that makes the Incarnation possible, that saves us all, she says yes, let it be done.
I was saying: what? Don’t you know I am?
And that was the gift of that moment: that sudden, sharp awareness of how self-centered and egotistical I still am, deep down.
The word “overshadowed” is a really interesting word, really evocative, partly because it’s got the word “shadow” in it, and shadows are elusive, insubstantial, impossible to get a hold of. We can see them but we can’t weigh them. We can see them, but when they come over us we’re in the dark, and we can’t see what’s around us, nothing is clearly visible, and that’s how religious experience usually is for us, elusive, subtle, hard to pin down.
The word “shadow” also invokes the darkness that we all have to face in our lives, as Mary has to face the darkness in hers, darkness in the sense of the suffering she will have to endure at the foot of the cross, and before that, all through the growing up of her son and his public ministry, when she is often confused and unsure.
And she does face this, she does live with this, the uncertainty, the struggle, in ways we just don’t want to.
For us the word “shadow” suggests a sinfulness Mary didn’t have. She was born without sin, while we are born into it, and we have to admit this and face this and deal with this every day. What rose up in me at that meeting was my pride and my envy, those habitual sins I tell myself I’ve overcome but haven’t, and never will, no matter how senior I become, and so I thank God for the sting of that young woman’s question. What is it that you do? It was a good question, and I have to answer it, and part of the answer is: I try to make things about me. I pout. I have my feelings hurt. That’s what I do.
But the most important implication of the word “overshadowed,” its most challenging aspect, is that when we are overshadowed we are “exceeded in importance,” we are made less, first in the sense of being called to care about others, to put their needs before our needs. But more even than that. Far more. Because the real challenge here is to put God first, to surrender ourselves completely to Him, and that’s something we can never really do, none of us, without grace. We pay lip service to that idea all the time. Yes, we follow the way of the cross, we say, yes we trust in Jesus–but put us under the slightest pressure in our everyday lives, take us out of church and put us around a conference table or any other table, and we abandon our faith in an instant. It all falls apart.
Even in our spiritual lives we do this, Ruth Burrows says, in her terrific little book, To Believe in Jesus. “Over and over again,” she says, “we must realize how, in what we think of as our love and service of God, lurks a ravenous self-seeking which would use God to inflate self.” “When we come to the spiritual life . . . what we are wanting is that it will make us feel good,” she says, we want glory and reward, and we want to be in control, in charge, and that’s not at all the message of the gospel. What is the Christmas narrative about if not God emptying himself out completely and becoming a baby in a womb, entirely helpless, entirely powerless? What’s the story of the Crucifixion about if not God emptying himself out completely and becoming a man on a cross, entirely helpless, entirely powerless? The central fact and the central idea of our faith is that God lets himself be overshadowed–by us–by our own sinful humanity–and that’s our model, our template, and yet again and again we try to turn the gospel into an excuse for arrogance and smugness and a nice, safe identity for ourselves.
Even at this silly little meeting I couldn’t put that young woman first, or accept being ignored, because it wasn’t God I loved and cared about the most, it was my own reputation, my own image.
And that was the gift of it: that sudden, sharp awareness that without grace I am nothing, that I can’t do any of this on my own—just as Mary doesn’t achieve her sinlessness but is given it, from birth, saved by her son before she is even pregnant with him.
Just admitting that was enough. Seeing it. Being aware of it. Even then a certain freedom comes. Even then, with just that, a real joy begins to break through.
There will be other kinds of joy this Christmas, this evening and tomorrow, the joy of laughter and of giving gifts and of eating good food, and we can accept that joy and trust that joy, because it’s from God, as are all good things. That’s grace.
But that’s easy. That’s obvious. The challenge is to accept the shadows, too. The challenge is now and then to look at the darkness outside the window, beyond the Christmas lights.
If you are sitting around the table at Christmas dinner with your family and friends, and you start to feel invisible, unappreciated, overshadowed, ask for the grace to put the needs of others before yours, ask to be given a love for the others, a concern with their well-being, and ask even more for the grace to see this moment as a reminder of Mary and of the “yes” she says, and as a small way of sharing in that yes.
“Only in God be at rest my soul,” Psalm 62 says. “He only is my rock and refuge. . . . I shall not be disturbed.” Imagine the freedom that would come if we really believed that, if we really could let go like that, as Mary does, and then ask for that freedom, pray for it, for that joy, that true and unshakable joy, to be that open and that free, entirely without fear, even in the darkness.
What is it that we do? We say yes.
And then God comes pouring into us—God comes pouring through us. God does it all.