A study in Absurd Love, and Lovely Absurdity.
Mary wiped down the tables in the corner of the bar, as she pondered the events of the last 24 hours. She had been awakened after a dream so vivid, so real, she knew that it meant something profound. In the dream, an angel had told her that she was pregnant. As soon as she woke up, she knew it was true. But just in case, she scraped together all the cash she could find and bought four pregnancy tests. All four showed that the angel was right! She should have been terrified, but she was surprisingly at peace. It meant that she would lose her job, maybe lose her fiancé, and it definitely meant that they were going to have to go on food stamps. But in that moment, she couldn’t stop singing. There was a song that she couldn’t quite remember the words to, but it poured out of her. She had to tell someone!
She could tell Joe, yet. She wasn’t sure what he was going to say. She wasn’t going to tell her parents. She didn’t need another lecture. Liz. It was a bit of a haul down to her house in the country, but she would understand. Wouldn’t judge. Would sing with her. So when she got her paycheck at the end of the shift, she cashed it, filled up the car with gas, ran home and packed a bag, and headed south.
She thought about calling Liz first, but decided against it. She would just show up on her door and see what she said. Technically, Liz was her cousin, but you couldn’t tell by looking. She was much older, somewhere in her 40’s – easily twice Mary’s age. But their relationship was deeper than peer connection, or even tenuous blood ties. Bottom line is that she was a friend, and she would take one look at her and say…well, whatever she would say, it would be the perfect thing. It had been a hard year for Liz. She and Zach had sunk just about every penny they had into fertility treatment, and it hadn’t worked. They had given up on having a family, and it was hard for both of them. Maybe the reason why Mary thought of her first is that she suspected that Liz needed a way out of her isolation and marginalization, too. As she pulled into the drive, Mary hoped that she could help her a little, too.
She opened the door and Liz squealed at the top of her lungs. And so Mary squealed at the top of her lungs. And they both just stood there squealing. Until Mary looked down and saw something she never would have believed – Liz was pregnant. Really pregnant. So she squealed louder. And Liz took one look at Mary and stopped mid-squeal. She looked Mary in the eye and said, knowingly, “and you are, too.” Mary’s eyes got as big as saucers as she nodded. Which caused another squealing fit – even louder this time.
It was about then that Zach came up the stairs with a fireplace poker in hand, ready to defend against whatever intruder was attacking his pregnant wife. Terror in his eye, he quickly sized up the situation and went back downstairs, wisely saying nothing about crazy pregnant women, even though that is exactly what he was thinking.
Over cup after cup of green tea, they talked it all out. Liz’s news. The fact that they wanted to keep secret as long as they could, in case something happened. Mary’s dream. When to tell Joe. Morning sickness. Mood swings. They talked for hours. Zach would poke his head upstairs every once and a while and check on them. The fourth time he ventured up, looking for dinner, they sent him on a pizza run. From head to toe, it was an evening of joy and love.
In fact, after they had been talking for hours, Mary erupted in a manic, excited part-rant, part-prayer, part-freestyle poem. Mary would say that she finally remembered the words to the song that had been on the tip of her tongue all day! She had always gone to church, but this was different. More raw and emotional. She felt closer to God than she ever had before, and wanted to explode with love for God! It was like her story and God’s story overlapped in a way that they never had before.
It was all about the love of God. The love of God was so big, that she could hardly begin to express it. The love of God was in her, epitomized in this baby. But the love of God was bigger than even that – it was so big, it enveloped the whole world. God’s love was going to turn everything upside down. Her relationship, her job, her town, her country, the whole world! This baby was going to represent a great reversal! And she acknowledged how absurd it sounded coming out of her mouth, she had absolutely no doubt that it was true. Finally, after a long time, she grabbed Liz by both shoulders and with a huge smile on her face proclaimed, THIS, this is what love looks like!” Here they were, two women on the margins of society, afraid, isolated, feeling largely unknown and misunderstood by everyone, finding one another, and in each others’ midst, finding that their story is fully caught up in God’s story!
A study in Absurd Love, and Lovely Absurdity.
This passage is so profound that sometimes the only thing you can do is re-tell it (perhaps with a new spin.) But even a modern re-telling falls short, doesn’t it? Because it’s not just a story, it’s the story. It really is the moment that everything else has hinged on. The song that Mary sings – the Magnificat – is indeed a study in lovely absurdity. Even the grammar is absurd. Luke records this song using verbs in the aorist tense, which is something that is hard to translate in English. It sounds like the past tense:
The mighty one has done great things…
He has shown strength in his arm…
He has brought down the powerful…
Sounds like past tense, right? But these verbs are actually in the aorist tense, which explodes beyond the boundaries of time. It happened, and it is happening, and it absolutely, positively is going to happen. Past, present, and future are all tied up in each verb. Fred Craddock explains it, “so sure is (Mary) that God will do what is promised that it is proclaimed as accomplished fact.” There is no question here. It will be. God will overturn all of the assumptions and institutions and explanations of our time, bringing about a new reversal, a new reality. Don’t hang onto anything too tightly, because it is about to get overturned.
Mary tells us it has happened. It is happening. It will happen.
But if you are anything like me, it doesn’t take much to see why Mary’s song is so absurd. As I look around the world, my eyes tell a different story.
My eyes look out on the world and I scratch my head and ask, “when was this supposed to happen? When were the proud supposed to be scattered? When were the hungry to be filled? When were the powerful to be brought down and the poor and downtrodden to be lifted up? When was this supposed to happen, because according to what I see, it hasn’t happened yet.”
My eyes look out and see a different picture:
My eyes see the hungry showing up to our food pantry and with their heads hung low as they put ‘number in household’ as 5 or 6 or 10 or 12. When were they supposed to be fed?
My eyes see the working poor in our community, the 1-job, the 2-job, the 3-job at a time working poor in our community having to choose between a bedbug-infested house or a move away from their job or family or school because they simply cannot afford to live in Lawrence. When were they supposed to be lifted up?
My eyes see the powerful on their thrones, standing behind their podiums in both the Republican and Democratic debates, all but four of the candidates multi-millionaires, if not billionaires, explaining from their place of privilege and comfort how they are here to help the little guy. When were they supposed to be scattered from their thrones?
That’s what my eyes look out and see.
And that’s why I need Mary. Because Mary sees something else. Mary says with the aorist tense, “this has happened. This is happening. This will happen. Don’t let your eyes deceive you. There is one God and only one God. There is one Savior and only one Savior. God is still overturning our assumptions and institutions and explanations of our time.”
Bishop N.T. Wright explains this absurdity of time and expectation in terms of what he calls the “Jesus project”:
The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term in the future. And what he was promising for that future and doing in the present was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose – and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that large project.
Mary gets us to open our eyes and tells us to look out and see examples of that Jesus project in our world.
She gets us to hear the story of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Agnes was born in Albania, and became a nun and a teacher when she turned 18. She taught in Calcutta, India, at St. Mary’s High School, but as she looked outside of the walls of the convent, she saw the plight of those of the poorest caste in India, the Dalit, referred to as the Untouchables, and it broke her heart. So she asked permission to leave the relative safety of those walls, and began working with those in need, which she did the rest of her life. And just this past week, the pope declared that Agnes will named as a saint, by her more well-known name, Mother Teresa. She once described herself thusly: “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” Absurd Love, and Lovely Absurdity.
Mary tells us to look out and see the story of the First Baptist Church of Chicago, Illinois, the church that many of our youth and leaders served at just this past summer. In 1947, the church took an unprecedented stand for love. Think back to 1947, just a few years after Pearl Harbor and the end of World War II, a time when many Americans were terrified of anyone of Asian descent. Asian-Americans – over 100,000 – were placed in internment camps because of our country’s fear of what they might do. One of those Asian-Americans, Jitsuo Morikawa, was a Baptist minister and missionary. Denied placement because of his race, and forcibly placed along with his wife in an internment camp in Arizona, he pastored those in the camp for 18 months. But then, in 1947, with this fever pitch of fear and racism and discrimination, the First Baptist Church of Chicago, Illinois chose to call Morikawa as their pastor, in a radical move of both absurd love, and lovely absurdity.
Mary tells us to look closer to home. Last week, I chaired the second meeting of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Advisory Board, and it is a humbling experience to look around the table and see individuals representing organizations who have been working to care for the least of these for years, even decades in some cases. Perhaps you have heard that state and federal financing for housing for the poor has been cut year after year recently, and the people around the table would have every right to compete with each other for those precious few dollars left. But here they were, sitting around the table, supporting one another, encouraging one another, helping one another. It was an experience of lovely absurdity, and absurd love.
Mary reminds us that this is what love looks like, and pleads with us to see how God is at work, saving the world here and now and then and always!
For generations after the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the church would hold a feast in honor of the Magnificat. It was called the Feast of Fools. The Feast of Fools was an opportunity for the people of God to act ridiculous at Christmastime. It was a literal acting out of the Magnificat. Fine, upstanding churchgoers would cross-dress, put on masks of animals, put foul-smelling incense in the censors, and bring a donkey down the center aisle of the church. They would dress up like the priests and the bishops and the popes and the patriarchs and make fun of those in power and authority. They saw Christmas as a chance to act out the upside-down absurdity of the Magnificat.
Because they saw the absurdity that a poor unwed mother and a too-old, barren woman who had no business giving birth – that these two marginalized women would usher in the coming of a vision where the arrogant and powerful were torn down and the low and poor were lifted up.
They understood the absurdity that the Savior of the world would be born in a stable and laid in a feed trough.
They understood lovely absurdity, and absurd love!