Strong, Humble, and Kind Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:39-56
Krista Tippet, in her book: Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, shares this creation story, that comes from the Hasidic tradition of the Middle Ages:
“In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke.
“The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day. Now, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.
Krista continues: “It’s a very important story for our times. This task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”
“We are all healers of the world.” I love this story because it affirms that each of us, no matter how talented or educated or wealthy or handsome or beautiful – has a calling by God to heal this world. Each of us are tasked to seek the deeply hidden fragments of light found in everyday things and events – and to release that light, to return this world to loving order, harmony and God’s peace. It’s not just about power in high places; it’s about you and me. It’s about a poor peasant woman named Mary, who has a profound calling from God to bring to birth God’s presence and God’s plan for justice and equality. It’s about an older woman named Elizabeth, who was infertile for decades, suddenly finding that she is carrying a prophet who has prepared the way for God’s holy plan. Even people of no account in the eyes of the world, can reveal the divine and be bearers of the light.
The place to start is not in town hall or Washington DC – but in our own inner selves. Mary’s Magnificat is not only a rallying cry for equality and liberty from oppression in government and among nations. It is first a call for us to discover our own inner strength, our own humble vision of healing and service. And it is a call for us to dethrone our inner tyrant and egotist, judging who is worthy and who is to be condemned – sending out thunderbolts of rage. First we find our own inner justice and balance, and then we are able to move out as healer and reconcilers for a world torn and bleeding.
This story speaks of the brokenness of this world. Things fall apart. The center does not hold. Divine light is fractured, splintered and divided – scattered to the winds and deeply buried in the confusion and muck of existence. Like another creation story – the one about Adam and Eve – we learn that we don’t live in the Garden of Eden, with ideal circumstances and low-hanging fruit. No, we exist in a reality that is skewed, flawed, decaying, unjust, and out of kilter; and it is our job, in our own humble ways, to seek healing, harmony and a return to God’s peace.
These pictures (show slides) illustrate this spiritual split. We see God’s luminous story of the holy family and wise sages and shepherds – juxtaposed against the violent and brutal realities of weapons of destruction. These are Christmas cards put out by “Doctors of the World” – which sends out medical teams into war-torn countries to offer care and healing. Like Doctors Without Borders – they take seriously the call of tikkun-olam – to heal the world.
It is easy to despair in the darkness that is around us. I’ve talked with people recently who are frightened for the future – about whether they will lose medical coverage, or will face increased prejudice and exclusion and loss of civil rights. I’ve heard from those who are worried about finances and health; or fear falling into despair as the ground shifts under their feet. In the dark of our times, we don’t know what lies ahead, or how to find a safe and secure life.
This is what we long for during Advent. We seek a path back to a way of living that God intends for us, a Way that Jesus teaches us over and over again. Each of us, even the least of us, have God’s light within. But we humans tend to be so greedy, sloppy and selfish what we just don’t get it. We don’t seem capable of open-hearted kindness and respect for others, with sharing and not resorting to violence. We find it hard to just be content with simple pleasures, and enough. So we need Advent and Jesus’ re-birth into our midst to remind us – year after year – of our calling to heal this world, and to return to the light.
Evelyn Underhill uses this image of how our human nature needs to be transformed in order to truly welcome the birth of Christ in our hearts:
She writes: “Human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.”
So perhaps we each have the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice within us. We need to tame them, and have kneel them before the manger. Animals were the first to see the newborn Christ. I love this sense that part of the Advent journey is to seek some measure of inner discipline and transformation in order to tame our inner animal nature. The struggle of the human spirit is to reconcile the two, ox and ass, and to quiet the rage, passion and ugliness inside. St. Paul calls it this ‘divine training.’ It is a way of living into our calling to change inside, to mirror more closely the strong compassion, patience and justice of Jesus.
Mary certainly exhibits this. When the angel Gabriel confronts her with God’s plan for her life, in all of its disturbing invasion – Mary restrains her own egotism and kneels before the angel: “Let it be with me according to your word.” Yet, she is no shrinking violet; she has amazing courage and fortitude to stand up to Joseph’s doubts, and the village gossips and slanderers after her belly started to show. She journeys alone to visit with Elizabeth, and voices her astounding Magnifcat: calling out a vision of courageous justice and liberation. She was more a spiritual revolutionary than a timid maiden. She must have done the ‘divine training’ in her own way, and come out stronger and wiser.
Krista Tippet talks about this divine training in terms of learning to listen – and not just to assert our own opinions and ideas. She writes: “Listening is an everyday social art, but it’s an art we have neglected and must learn anew. Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say….. Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.”
That is what Elizabeth offered to Mary – and vis-versa. They listened generously – symbolized by the leaping of the child inside. Being a guy, that’s tough for me to imagine. But I can relate to the idea of inner awareness and openness – authentically allowing another person in to my heart. We are all a bit cracked and off-kilter – and it is important that we respect each other enough – and discipline ourselves enough – to offer ‘generous listening.’ This is a key way to discover splinters of light within the souls of others, and to bring healing.
UCC Pastor & teacher, Mary Luti talks about healing in this way:
“The truth about human beings is that we’re broken. The larger truth is that we heal. The even larger truth is that we heal each other. We have the power, often by the simplest of acts, to help each other heal. The gospels’ most vivid stories are about healing. We call them ‘miracles,’ and they are, but not just because the lame walk the blind see, and the deaf hear. It’s the way those things happen, so close, so human. Jesus lifts people to their feet, applies salve to their eyes, touches their ears. The miracle isn’t the healing. The miracle is that one person decides not to stand aloof from another person’s pain. The wonder isn’t that people are healed, it’s that they’re loved like that. The greatest need we have is to be treated with care, treated like human beings, but because that’s so rare, when it happens it seems miraculous.”
The wonder of this story of Mary and Elizabeth is the way they care for each other, and the intimacy they share; they do not stand aloof from each other’s sorrows or hopes. They relate with astounding honesty and awe, and embrace each other’s pain. They treat each other as divine.
Pope Francis has this quality of healing through listening and respect. In his book The Name of God Is Mercy, he describes an episode from his time as a priest in Argentina. The parish church sometimes helped out a woman whose husband had left her, and who had turned to prostitution to feed her young children. He writes: “I remember one day — it was during the Christmas holidays — she came with her children to the College and asked for me. They called me and I went to greet her. She had come to thank me. I thought it was for the package of food from Caritas that we had sent to her. ‘Did you receive it?’ I asked. ‘Yes, yes, thank you for that, too. But I came here today to thank you because you never stopped calling me Señora.’”
We are called to respect each person, no matter how poor or how humble. Each of us carries a fragment of divine light hidden deep inside. We are called to respect that, and to bring it back up to the surface, to let it radiate and bring us back to health. Each of us are called to tikkun-olam, to heal the world. And we do this by finding the light in each person, in each event and even within ourselves.
In this season of light, like Mary & Elizabeth, let’s be strong and kind to each other and find the divine in the everyday details, creatures and the beauty around us. Let’s reclaim and release God’s light and offer hope and healing. Happy Advent. Amen.