Author: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Reflection: v. 19, ‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’
As I read Luke’s words I feel the extraordinary excitement of a story that brings angels, shepherds, and new parents together through an inconvenient census and the urging of celestial beings. Between the last minute trip late in Mary’s pregnancy and the couple’s inability to find shelter, to the heavenly chorus that summons shepherds and their resulting surprise visit, there is a lot of action in Luke’s busy birth narrative. That is why it stands out to me that at the end of all these many happenings, it’s as if the story pauses to note that Mary ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.’ In the midst of this grand origin-story style tale, Luke takes a moment to focus on Mary’s response. It is almost as if in the midst of this life-changing, world-changing joyful (but also stressful) chaos, Mary’s feelings mattered. Because they did. If the scene I am describing were a movie, right before this part happens the camera would pan out to really show the grand-scale significance of God-coming-to-be-with-us. Our view would zoom out, out, out past the pilgrimaging shepherds, past the singing angels and their constellations, and all the way along to the vast universes that expand. We would see the endless foreverness of it all and realize the magnitude of God’s majesty. But then the camera would zoom back in. Way back in. It would focus on the face of a poor girl who gave birth out of wedlock and was staying the night in transitional shelter. The camera would focus in on just her, with our suckling, squirming Christ just out of view for the briefest moment. And we would look upon the face of this ordinary poor woman while she held and pondered her words in her heart. And you and I, the viewers of my imaginary film, would think, ‘Oh! She matters! She matters to God! What she thinks and feels in this moment matters!’ Because we ordinary humans matter. The significance of this moment is big and astounding, yes, but it happens in the heart and womb of an ordinary human like you and me. We matter, friends. We matter to God. This is how the God who created the universe and commands choruses of angels comes to be with us: zoomed right in and centered at the margins.
Prayer As we remember your birth, O Lord, help us to remember why it matters: because human beings matter to you.
Author: Steve Smith
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
Reflection: v. 44, ‘the child in my womb leaped for joy!’
An angel appears on earth to Mary and tells her to go and see her cousin (related by blood), Elizabeth. Elizabeth was going to be the mother of John the Baptist, who died first before Christ. Elizabeth’s nephew was Jesus, who took the price of the cross for us all! When Mary visits Elizabeth while she is pregnant, the baby moves–they knew each other! From womb to womb they knew each other, as if the babies were talking!
I was named Steven after a martyr who died for Christ. When I read this passage I remember my own blood kinship to Jesus. We’re all united by Christ–we’re all his family, his children. We’re not perfect, but he doesn’t even care about that! He found for us a word called forgiveness, and its for all of us. Right now I’m wearing the rosary that our friends the Sisters of Charity (who come to pray with our community) gave to me. If I’m playing music I perform with it on. I always say the Lord’s prayer before I play music, too, because Jesus taught us this prayer when his disciples asked him how to pray. I guess God told him what to say. I don’t know, but I agree with it. These are all the ways that I feel and know that I am a part of God’s family.
Prayer God, you claim us as your own. We are your family! Thank you for choosing us, and for choosing to be with us.
Author: Jimmy Holbrook
Reflection: v. 7, ‘Restore us, O God’
This psalm says ‘restore us, O God of hosts, let your face shine that we might be saved.’ It says that twice, and so I think that’s what the whole thing is about. God’s face shines on us that we may be saved and understand what God wants us to do.
It also says ‘O Lord, God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?’ That’s an interesting thing to think about. At this church we don’t think of God as angry. So what does that mean? With my background in the church, I sometimes think God is angry. Sometimes people do things that are wrong. And sometimes people pray for the wrong things–they pray for selfish things instead of praying for understanding and wisdom. So, I think God gets frustrated by their prayers. I have experienced a lot of hurt in my life because of other people. Sometimes it is hard for me to understand how God loves even those who hurt others.
I understand why in this church [Mercy Church] we preach very differently than in other places. Our group is down and out already–the world has already kicked them down and out, so you don’t need to preach the Hell thing or God’s anger. But when you’re sitting with a group of people who has so much more than us and they’re still cold-hearted toward their neighbors? Maybe they need to hear that God is frustrated. God save us. Save us from the ways we hurt one another.
Prayer Restore us, O God. Save us from the ways we hurt one another.
Author: Chad Hyatt
I get it. At this point in the pandemic—as if we even know at what point in the pandemic we are—all of us collectively long to put this uncertain season behind us. The pandemic may not be over—but we are certainly over it. So it wasn’t strange when some of our neighbors asked, as many of us have been asking from time to time, ‘When can we get back to normal?’ But by ‘normal’ they meant not having to see poor folks in their neighborhood. Thank God, Mary wasn’t the kind of woman who wanted things to get back to normal: she knew deep down in her bones, felt it in her guts—and probably in her womb, too—that ‘normal’ means nothing good for poor people. And she also knew, just as deeply and just as instinctively, that God wants radical good for those of us who are poor and shunted to the margins—the ones who are rendered invisible beneath the shadows of our individual and communal privilege and power. And so Mary sings: ‘God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed… remembering his mercy.’ (vv 52-54) Like a prophet, Mary is singing, adding her knowing voice to the song God has been singing from the creation of the world. God doesn’t want normal for us, either—that idolatrous status quo that benefits some at the expense of everyone else. God wants justice and mercy within a creation awakened to its own grace.
Prayer Song of Mary, help us know in our bones we need a new world.
Author: Chad Hyatt
There was only one other person she could think of—one other woman in all the world—who might have some idea what God was suddenly doing in their lives. It’s hard to say what was on Mary’s mind when she left Nazareth, making her way through the meandering Galilean countryside to the Judean hills where she would find Elizabeth. We know Mary had been perplexed at the arrival and greeting of the angel. She had begun pondering what it all meant. She had certainly been confused by the assertion she would bear a son since there is only one way that commonly happens and it had never happened with her. And yet Mary had ultimately embraced the upheaval of her radical call, saying yes to liberation for all human beings—and in so doing, challenging the powers that be and irrevocably putting her own life at risk. Even before giving birth to him, Mary was the first and most faithful of Jesus’ disciples. When the two women meet at last—Mary worn out from travel and trembling in hope, Elizabeth having endured a life-time of shaming at the hands of others—perhaps they just stood there for a beat. Maybe they shouted, enraptured in jubilant homecoming, tears wetting their eyes before they could scarce take it all in. To my mind, this scene ought to be considered the beginning of the church, perhaps even more so than that other Spirit-filled story that Luke tells in Acts. Because the community these two women create with and for one another is the kind of community our churches could be. Ought we not to be a gathering of those who have been overlooked and cast aside? Shouldn’t we be a place where women are honored as prophets and liberators, where all those whom the world shushes and silences find their own full-throated voice and prophesy? Isn’t church where we should come together, surprised and frightened and excited that God has seen us, really and truly seen us, and called us to work together for the liberation we had begun to fear might never come but now dare to hope just might? Mary and Elizabeth help me to believe that the church could be the kind of community where those who have heard the strange call of God or who wonder if such a thing could even be possible gather to hold one another, hear one another, shout for one another, care for one another—a community God puts together at the margins but welcomes everyone to find.
Author: Chad Hyatt
Reflection: v. 4, ‘And he shall stand and feed his flock’
Five days a week in the wee hours of the morning, we pull up to the grand old church with its steeple kissing the sky, our trailer hitched to my pickup and packed wall-to-wall with the holy tools of our ministry: tents and tables, generators and a grill, a faithful old coffee urn and dozens of farm-raised eggs. Brittany calls it ‘church in a box.’ And it kind of is. We set up in the parking lot and the meadowy-green grass beneath the trestled trees, tents and chairs arranged and people slowly gathering. It seems a little like an everyday festival. Passers-by on Ponce must think to themselves, ‘That church sure parties a lot!’ The scene looks pastoral—and it is in the truest sense. But it is far from bucolic. We’re there when it’s sunny and bright and temperate, but also when it’s scorching and sweaty. We’re there when it’s stormy, windy, rainy, and freezing. We’re there cooking and cleaning, singing and praying, preaching and theologizing. We’re there caring and calling, loving and challenging, making art and making a mess—and generally just holding one another together. Some time ago, I heard an Episcopal priest respond to a reporter’s curious question,’Why are you working behind the counter in a soup kitchen?’ ‘Because it’s my job,’ he said, ‘lt’s the vocation of every priest to break bread.’ And it is the work of every church to share food. We get angry emails and threats of legal action, but also support and encouragement. Yet it’s still hard—sometimes harder than it seems like it ought to be. We find ourselves wanting no more than to be good pastors, caring for our beloved and broken community. Advent is promise, but it’s also a command. Let us do the same work Jesus did and find the same messianic hope: ‘And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD… and they shall live secure.’
Prayer You who feed your flock, teach us to share our food with one another so that every one of us may live safe and secure.
Author: Isaiah Lewis
Reflection: v.5, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone’
This passage is interesting to me because it comes immediately after responding to two church leaders who are in conflict over something. Paul says that we should rejoice in the Lord and know that God is near and that we should pray instead of getting anxious. He also specifically says to show gentleness to others. It can be hard to remember to remain gentle when we’re in conflict with someone else or when we’re anxious, and it’s doubly difficult to be glad while doing it. But Paul says that the combination of gentleness and prayer will lead to a peace that ‘will keep [our] hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.’
What does it mean for our hearts and minds to be safe in Jesus? This verse reminds me of a song that we sing at Mercy: ‘Ain’t no harm in having your mind stayed on Jesus. / Ain’t no harm in having your mind stayed on freedom. / You gotta walk that walk and talk that talk all the way to freedom.’ I don’t think this safety in Christ means that nothing will ever make us anxious or in conflict again. Instead, I think it means that the more we approach our conflicts and anxieties with gentleness for ourselves and others, the more likely it is that we can embody an invitation to God’s freedom.
Prayer Guide us, O Lord, to be gentle with ourselves and others as. Help us to embody your love.
Author: Gregory Brown
Reflection: v. 2, ‘surely God is my salvation’
‘Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.’ The image that comes to my mind is from a different translation, but it makes me think of God as guiding our steps toward salvation. God makes the journey toward salvation possible and we can put our trust in that even if it feels impossible. I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord will guide my steps–he will multiply my steps. Reading this chapter in Isaiah put me in the mind of a story I heard when I was younger about a team of expeditioners who went on a hiking expedition. This particular hike could take more than a month to complete. It was a 250 mile hike and there was a competition to see who could complete the hike the fastest. There had never been anyone to complete the journey within a month. But there was one man who did it in two weeks. Everyone asked him, ‘How did you do it? This is impossible!’ And he said, ‘Yes, but instead of just walking 250 miles, I walked 250 steps.’ This brings me back to Isaiah–the God of Isaiah is the God who guides our footsteps and multiplies our steps. Where the scripture says ‘you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: give thanks to the Lord,’ I think of how if we let God guide our steps, he will lead us to thirst-quenching water that lasts forever. God will lead us to salvation, and in that we can trust.
Prayer Guide our steps, O Lord, toward salvation. Help us trust you.
Author: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
Reflection: v.18, ‘he proclaimed the good news to the people’
We have already established that John the Baptist isn’t pulling any punches with his preaching. He is using some pretty startling imagery to call the people of God to account. He calls them vipers and tells them they need to change their ways and stop being so complacent. John’s preaching is not a pleasant or easy word, and yet scripture tells us that what he proclaims is ‘good news.’ How could it be that what challenges us, sometimes upsets us, and calls us to account could also be ‘good news?’ Good news for the poor will not feel so good for those who exploit for wealth. Good news for those without housing will not feel so good for those trying to make a quick buck in the current market. Good news for the downtrodden will not feel so good for those who find their identity in putting others down. Good news for the oppressed will not feel so good for the oppressor. So if we feel unsettled by John’s harsh words–good. Let us sit with that this Advent season as we prepare our hearts for Jesus. Let us remember that the good news that John proclaimed and Jesus embodied was good news for the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. Let us repent of our ways that we may hear it, embrace it, and live it.
Prayer Open our hearts to accept your good news that we may embody it as you did, Jesus.
Author: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
Reflection: v. 10, ‘And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
You have to admire the crowds listening to John. He literally calls them a bunch of snakes and (at least some of them) stick around to ask him how they can change their ways. At least some of the people gathered there accept John’s critique and want to do better. I find this desire for a change of heart impressive. My personal experience with good church-people is that we can be as defensive as they come when asked to change. We are happy to read our pre-written liturgically appropriate prayers for forgiveness. We’re comfortable with taking a quiet moment each Sunday to silently (and metaphorically) self-flagellate for some personal sins before we remind ourselves that Jesus forgives us and then blessedly move on. But what about when we are tasked with taking a cold hard look at the ways we neglect the poor, judge our neighbors, and cling to our racist and classist pasts? What about when we are asked to admit the tangible ways we could change or do better on personal and communal levels? In my experience we Christians tend to throw up our best defenses and hide behind our very best ideals that seldom lead to practical justice-making. We refuse to do anything that would actually change or transform us. When faced with critique we refuse to ask the question, ‘what then should we do?’ because we’re afraid of the answers. So kudos to the crowd that stayed and listened to John rant and did not decide that he could not be talking about them. Kudos to those bold and vulnerable enough to ask John what do to and receive the answers. Kudos to the ones who followed through. Beloved church-people, fellow followers of Jesus, maybe we too should be asking this question. Instead of defending ourselves, maybe we should be asking how we too can be transformed by the gospel in tangible ways that bring justice and equality.
Prayer Transform us, O God of justice, show us what we should do.