Because it is Christmas, I thought I would post a chapel talk that I wrote and gave during my last year at college. I went to a private Lutheran college (university for non-USers!), and we had daily chapel. About once a month or less, depending on interest, a senior student would give the “sermon” – usually talking about their own faith and what being at Luther had meant to them. Mine was kind of like that, but a little bit different. I was an English major, and my advisor (who was also one of my favourite professors) had arranged for the first week in Advent to be “poetry week” in chapel. (It was all part of a chair-ship she had, where she was focusing on poetry and making poetry more prominent in everyday campus life, etc.) Anyway, she asked me specifically to give a talk during her week. I could not have felt more honored – or more overwhelmed. Writing this talk was more stressful for me than any essay, including my recent MA dissertation. Professor Gilbertson had asked ME to do it – I did not want to let her down!
Anyway, she provided the poems, which were amazing and I love them, and I got the thing written and gave it on my mom’s birthday, eight years ago. As soon as chapel was over, the editor of the campus journal, Agora, asked my permission to publish it in the winter issue. You can find Agora online – search for my name and you’ll get this and articles that I wrote for the newspaper, etc.
I’ve changed a lot in the last eight years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that I’m still pretty proud of this chapel talk. It’s one of the things that gives me hope that yes, I can write well and someday I will be able to write things that people want to read.
What is your call? So many people have come to this podium this year and asked that question. What is your passion? What is your vocation? What does God call you to do? In today’s Scripture reading, and in the poems that I will be reading in a bit, we find out Mary’s call, Mary’s passion. A passion for God, to trust and to serve God. Not only that, but we hear about God’s passion – passion for us, passion for this world, a love and a desire to come to us as a child, as a human, in the form of Jesus.
What is your passion? How do you find it? How does God reveal the call to you? It’s different for everyone. For me, it came in a dream. I can’t tell you what the dream was – the details were gone as soon as I opened my eyes. But I woke up with the absolute certainty that God had spoken to me, and that I would be spending the rest of my life in God’s service, writing. Mary’s call came in the form of an angel, of Gabriel, coming directly to her and revealing to her the will of God. It’s not that obvious for everyone. It doesn’t have to be. Not everyone has to be hit over the head with God’s plan for their life, as I was. Not everyone has a calling like Mary’s, that affects the future of the entire world. All a call has to be is something that makes you see the ordinary – your ordinary surroundings, your daily life – in the light of God.
Mary’s call came through Gabriel, a being that I always associate with light. Every time I read this passage from Luke, I see light – blinding light that overwhelms you with its very presence. How terrifying. But somehow Mary was able to stand up to the light, even question it. “How can this be?” she asked, or in an all-too-familiar phrase, “Why me?” And the light answered her, illuminated her calling. “Nothing is impossible with God.” And Mary drew on her passion, her passion to serve God, her love and desire to trust God, and answered the call.
Edwin Muir’s poem “The Annunciation” describes the mutual love and passion that leads to the conception of Jesus.
The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time. Immediacy
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their grace would never break.
Wow. This is the part of the story that the Bible doesn’t really tell you, the part that you must read into the Scripture yourself, the part between Mary’s acceptance of her call and the angel departing. Can’t you just imagine the street in Nazareth, people going about their daily business, while inside a house, just like any other house, Mary is being overwhelmed by the power of the Most High? Can’t you just picture the two figures – the girl and the angel – standing still, in the middle of the room, and just glowing with the light and the glory of God? This is the perfect moment. This is the moment when earth and heaven become one to create Jesus. The angel had to come “from far beyond the farthest star,” traveling across space and time to earth, “the only meeting place,” in order for this to happen, in order for the girl and the angel to come together. This is the moment when earth becomes part of heaven and heaven becomes part of earth, through the reflection – the shining light of God – in both of their faces. This is bliss, this is rapture. This is the beginning of the amazing grace of God through Jesus to redeem the world. This is Mary’s passion, to serve, to trust, and to accept God, a call and a passion that not only changes her life but all of our lives. This is God’s passion, to come to us as Jesus, a passion so intense that even the messenger of God trembles with wonder. This is what love is, this is what love should be for us – a meeting of equals, discovering earth and heaven together.
The end of e.e. cummings’ poem “from spiralling ecstatically this” talks about the passions and power that come from such a mutual relationship.
mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been,and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child;nor shall
even prevail a million questionings
against the silence of his mother’s smile
–whose only secret all creation sings
Destructive power is possible without soul, without passion – we see that every day on the news and even in our daily lives – but this kind of power without passion can do nothing to stop Jesus, the embodiment of God’s passion and power combined with Mary’s passion. It cannot stop even one heartbeat of this child, our God, the expression of God’s passion for us and Mary’s passion for God. He is the heartbeat of our world. He is God, come to us on earth, as a human. This is Mary’s secret, the love and passion she shared with God. This is the secret that she tells us through the Magnificat, that God had enough passion for us to come to earth, to come to an ordinary girl, to become human, to live and die just as we do. God became Jesus, the heartbeat of the world, the pulse of our lives, the steady presence that not even a million questionings or the destructive force of mind without soul can overcome, the strength that comes from loving and knowing that you are loved. This is the secret that all creation sings, that God loves us enough not only to become human within Mary, but within all of us, with all of us, and for all of us.