|Today’s scripture readings:
Twelve days ago, Melissa Yassini came home from work to find her eight-year-old daughter Sofia in tears. Sofia had been watching the news. She’d heard one of the presidential candidates promise to deport refugees and ban Muslims from coming to America. Sofia and her family are Muslim, and she was convinced they were going to be forced out of their home. “She ran to me with a look of absolute fear on her face,” Melissa said. “It really drove home to me that we’re in a dangerous place right now.”
Melissa stayed up most of that night comforting and reassuring her daughter. The next day—sleep-deprived and frustrated—she posted on Facebook: “[It’s a] sad day in America,” she wrote, “when I have to comfort my 8-year-old child who heard that [one of the presidential candidates wants] to [keep] Muslims out of [the country]. She had [begun] collecting her favorite things in a bag in case the Army came to remove us from our homes. She checked the locks on the door 3-4 times… No child in America deserves to feel that way.”
Melissa’s Facebook post caught the eye of Kerri Peak, an Army veteran, who responded a couple days later. “Salamalakum Melissa!” she wrote, using a traditional Muslim greeting. “Please show this picture of me to your daughter. Tell her I’m a mama, too, and as a soldier I will protect her.” In the photo she sent you could see clearly that Kerri Peak, this Army veteran, is Hispanic. She said her heart broke reading Melissa’s post, which reminded her of similar statements that have made her own family feel unwelcome. “It bothered me all night,” she said. “This rhetoric [of] fear, hate, and violence is not okay. It’s not the United States that I would fight for. I was awake all night.”
Kerri took to social media and encouraged her fellow vets to respond. Messages of support came pouring in.
“Let Muslim children know that we will not hurt them,” one veteran wrote, “that they are safe here in America.”
“Sweet girl, I am no longer in the Navy, but know you are protected,” wrote another. “#IWillProtectYou to the moon and back if necessary. Many hugs sent your way.”
And this one came from another veteran, Aneesah Hydar: “We are Muslim, an Army family, and we will protect you.”
“I’ve received close to 500 messages,” Melissa said. “Christians, atheists, Jews, [people from] every walk of life… have reached out to [us] with overwhelming love and support… I read each and every message to [my daughter], and she now understands that we’re all part of a fabric which is America.
As the darkness closed in around little Sofia Yassini and her family, light shone through words of promise, words of comfort and reassurance: You are loved. You belong. We will protect you.
This year, these days of Advent seem darker to me than in years past. I was born and raised here in the upper latitudes and still the darkness seems deeper this year than I remember. We are watching the same news little Sofia is watching, and if we’re honest, I bet a lot of us feel like we could use some comfort and reassurance, too.
Usually this time of year, as we anticipate the birth of Jesus, we hear stories about the holy couple Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to be registered in the census. We imagine Joseph tenderly encouraging and supporting his beloved who, at this point, is very pregnant, as they make their long and lonely journey. We sing about the silent night of Jesus’ birth and the manger where the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
The part we most often skip over entirely is the part about Mary’s humiliation and shame. The truth is, Mary was living in a time and place where women served one purpose: to produce an heir. And in order to ensure that a child was a legitimately conceived heir, a woman could not associate with any men apart from her husband without risking severe punishment—sometimes even death. The fact that Mary gave birth out of wedlock to a child everyone knew wasn’t Joseph’s made her a disgrace among her people. It meant her life was at risk and she was living in shame. Maybe there were leaders in the community who even thought she should be deported and barred from re-entering the country.
I wonder if that’s why, in today’s reading, Mary sets out, as the text says, “with haste” to be with her cousin Elizabeth. Maybe she was fleeing to a safer place to think through her situation with someone older and wiser, someone she trusted. Maybe she, too, was seeking comfort and reassurance.
As it turns out, comfort and re-assurance is what her cousin has to offer. As soon as she sees Mary, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” “Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself. The pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honor instead… [Elizabeth] sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those society rejects and excludes” (Jones). In the midst of Mary’s darkness, light shone through Elizabeth’s words of honor and blessing.
Mary responds by singing a song whose words are familiar to many of us. “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you. You have looked with love on your servant here, and blessed me all my life through.” Mary praises God for looking favorably upon her despite her shame and humiliation. She praises God for blessing all those who have experienced marginalization, exclusion, and oppression. She praises God who has promised liberation for all who suffer.
It’s when we see God’s people standing in solidarity with those on the margins that we begin to perceive Christ is near.
A couple weeks ago, 163 Syrian refugees stepped off a plane from Beirut into their new lives as residents of Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greeted them at the airport on behalf of the Canadian people. “This is a wonderful night,” he said, “a night where we get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada is all about, but we get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult straits.” The entire population of Canada seems to have hailed these refugees’ arrival, and to be preparing for the full contingent of 25,000 refugees that Canada has promised to welcome by the end of February. Each family of refugees needs local resident sponsors, who must raise more than $20,000 per family to help pay for resettlement costs. But donations large and small are coming in from all around the country. Even today, Christ is near.
Two days before that plane full of refugees landed in Canada, Pope Francis inaugurated a jubilee year of mercy. Among Catholics, a jubilee year is a special year called by the church to receive blessing and pardon from God. That day, the pope opened a holy door at St. Peter’s Basilica, a door that is opened only during these jubilee years as a sign of the possibility of being reconciled with God.
But this past Friday, Pope Francis headed across town and opened another door—not the ornate door of a magnificent cathedral, but the door of a social services center. It’s a facility that serves the homeless, AIDS patients, refugees, the developmentally disabled, and a whole host of others typically treated as outcasts. He celebrated mass there and gave an extemporaneous homily. “When we get close to those who are suffering,” he said, “close to those who’ve been thrown away in society, that’s where Jesus is. If you want to find God, seek him in humility, in poverty, where God is hidden—in the needy, the sick, the hungry, the prisoners.” Even today, Christ is near.
Over the past few weeks I’ve watched as many of you have mingled with our guests at Project Home, shared stories and laughter, and played with the little ones in the gym. Some of you have given unsolicited donations to provide brand new pillows, blankets, and pajamas, so our guests can sleep more comfortably at night.
Others of you have taken tags off the Giving Tree and donated gifts for children in our community whose parents would otherwise have nothing for them to open on Christmas morning.
Still others of you are paying special visits to our homebound members, bringing poinsettias and Christmas cheer to those in our Gloria Dei community who too often feel isolated and alone. Even today, Christ is near.
During this season of Advent we have been watching and waiting for the light of Christ to shine into our darkness. Look. Do you perceive it? Christ is near.
John L. Allen, Jr., “Pope Francis was in his element when he opened the ‘Door of Charity’ for the poor,” on Crux, December 19, 2015, http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/12/19/pope-francis-was-in-his-element-when-he-opened-the-door-of-charity-for-the-poor/.
Ian Austen, “Syrian Refugees Greeted by Justin Trudeau in Canada,” in The New York Times, December 11, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/12/world/americas/syria-refugees-arrive-in-canada.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0.
Judith Jones, “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2015, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723.
Eric March, “When Donald Trump’s words scared this Muslim girl, these Army vets responded perfectly,” on Upworthy, December 18, 2015, http://www.upworthy.com/when-donald-trumps-words-scared-this-muslim-girl-these-army-vets-responded-perfectly?c=bl3.
Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, in The Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995).
Amy L. Wordelman, “Everyday Life: Women in the Period of the New Testament,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition, eds. Carol A Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998).