December 20, 2015

A Force Awakens

            I credit two things with nurturing my spiritual life when I was growing up. The first was the children’s choir program at my church, which is why I’m so glad we have a children’s choir here at Grace. The second was the Star Wars trilogy . . . and its concept of “the force”. Now, I’m not going to try to align Christian theology with the cosmology of Star Wars. But I will say that the Star Wars movies helped to awaken something in me—a sense of a faith that I could feel, that could strengthen and challenge me, and that could change the world around me.

            I was reminded of all those childhood feelings of faith this Thursday night at a showing of Star Wars episode VII: “The Force Awakens.” I remembered that sense that there is some kind of spiritual force in the cosmos that surrounds and inhabits us. It’s a gift, but it’s also something we can strengthen and train. It gives us courage and power to do things we never thought possible before. It challenges us to fight institutionally-embodied forms of evil, although it works best when we rest in a deep, non-reactive peace. It quietly calls to us and constantly draws us toward goodness and light.

            When I first encountered this concept of “the force” before I was ten years old, I suddenly realized that faith might be something I could feel at the core of my being, transforming myself and the universe around me. In today’s gospel, we meet two women whose pregnancies appear to give them a similar feeling. Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. Her kinswoman, Mary, is pregnant with Emmanuel—God with us. When they visit one another, something awakens, something stirs. It’s this sense that, at the core of their beings—at the core of their bodies—something is transforming them and the world as they know it.

            For Elizabeth, it happens when Mary enters her house and greets her. On hearing Mary’s greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” So moments of sudden joy can trigger that flood of the spirit, that force that should be in gentle command of our lives. What moments of sudden joy can we welcome and savor in our own lives this season? Seeing the face of a friend or relative after a long absence? Smelling the fragrance of a favorite holiday recipe in progress? Watching someone open a gift or take in a surprise? Moments of sudden joy can break us open to the force of goodness and light that is awakening.

            For Mary, her sense of something stirring comes in response to meeting Elizabeth. We heard her words this morning in our canticle called The Song of Mary in between the first and second readings. The text itself comes from the gospel of Luke, right where today’s gospel passage leaves off. With these words, Mary proclaims that the birth of her son is the beginning of a series of reversals that will make the world more just. A force is awakening, and it’s a force to be reckoned with.

            In Mary, God has chosen to do great things through someone lowly. By choosing Mary and sharing her human nature, God has shown his strength and dispersed all the proud of this world. He has lowered the powerful and raised up the lowly. He has filled those who were hungry and sent away empty those who were rich. Just as the adult John the Baptist will proclaim in his preaching, this is the action of God: to fill and raise up empty valleys and low places, and to humble and even strike down the powers of this world. This process of reshaping the world was proclaimed by many prophets and is still in progress, but an incredible reshaping force awakens with the coming birth of Christ.

            What Mary gives us in her song is a sense of confidence that God will accomplish his promises and fulfill his desires to create a more just world for his people. As we know, that world may sometimes feel like a distant planet—in a galaxy far, far away from where we live now. And the wait for that world is incredibly agonizing. But Mary’s song gives us, and gave her own people, a tantalizing preview that made them all eager and desperate for the sequel to all that God had done for them thus far.

            I think it’s significant that this sense of awakening is felt so powerfully when two women meet together. This meeting of Elizabeth and Mary is called the Visitation, and the Visitation actually gets its very own feast day on May 31. Calculating back from Christmas Day, May 31 would be a good approximation of when this visit would have taken place. But remembering the Visitation has an important place here as well, just a few days away from Christmas. In this visitation, two women—Elizabeth and Mary, one old and one young—meet together and feel God active within and around them. There is a new era of salvation history about to begin. And what God does for and through them, God will do for and through each of us.

            On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we too can be filled with this sense of a great force awakening. A force that will surprise us with joy and fill us with the Holy Spirit. A force that will magnify us—make us into something bigger than we ever thought we could be. A force that will strengthen and encourage us to take on the forces of evil that have acquired institutional power in our world. A force that will expand our horizons beyond the limited spheres we inhabit and show us the cosmic significance of our actions and choices. A force that will abide within us, connect us to something beyond us, and lead us out of this world’s darkness and into a realm of light.

            May this long-awaited force leap and stir within us, fill us and remain with us, and awaken all around us. May this force be with us in the coming Emmanuel—God with us, on this fragile earth, our home in the here and now. Amen.