“Candles of Courage for Fears Ever Present”
Luke 1:26-38; Psalm 89:1-4
By Rev. Don Ludwig, December 13, 2020
The Catholic Mary
I have this memory from when I was 14 years old of going to a friend’s house for a sleepover and feeling quietly scandalized by something I discovered about him and his family. No, they weren’t heroin addicts or part of an armed militia. They. Were. Catholic. And they weren’t even trying to hide it. Seeing the images of Mary all over their house….well, this Presbyterian boy wouldn’t have been more scandalized if those pictures in their living room were Kardashian-like pinups. Because of my Sunday School experience of visiting other churches, I knew Catholics existed with their saints and candles and rosaries. But I had never actually met someone or called someone a friend who was catholic.
And I realized I couldn’t stop staring at their Mary. She seemed luminescent and good and trustworthy and her beauty strong. But let’s be honest. Protestants don’t really know what in the world to do with Mary. It’s like Roman Catholics already have dibs on her and we just kind of stand by…only dusting her off once a year to be the pretty young girl in the nativity set and then putting her quickly away before she embarrasses anyone.So after that night of being transfixed by my Catholic friend’s Mary I didn’t really become interested in her until my seminary days.
So… here we have a girl, likely between 13 and 15 years of age. She’s a peasant and she’s engaged to a pretty religious guy. An angelic figure visits her saying that she’s found favor with God and is going to conceive a son by the Holy Spirit.
Mary had a particular calling from God. Even though all the forces and fears around her were compelling and gave her an excuse to not do this thing, nonetheless, she had courage and boldly accepted her role in God’s story of humanity. I think Mary deserves our devotion because she is an example of what courage looks like. In her, we see that being blessed means seeing God in the world and trusting that God is at work even in things we can’t see, or understand, or imagine.
Mary saying “God, I’m yours. Let’s do this thing” took courage. As they say, Mary had some serious chops, don’t you think? Her courage was not based on the expectation of things being awesome for her but based on the expectation that God would create something out of nothing. And the thing is: we never know based on how our life feels in the moment, whether it is filled with blessing or not.
To be a person marked by the courage of Mary is to be a person, who says Ok, I don’t understand what’s going on and I don’t know what my life will end up looking like, but I trust that God is at work in all of it. Howard Thurmon once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Mary teaches us Presbyterians that to truly experience Christmas, we must come alive and have the courage to trust — to trust that God can do this thing again — that God can work in our messed up world of 2020 even — that God can again be born in me, in you, in this broken mess of a gorgeous world.
It is so easy to succumb to fear and hold back these days. So many are wanting to wake up tomorrow and have this 2020 nightmare over. But life doesn’t work that way. And neither does God. Faith calls us to stand in the middle of the fire and have courage that we will not be burned.
I am reminded of a story about courage. One summer night during a severe thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn the light off when he asked in a trembling voice, “Mommy, I am afraid, will you stay with me all night?” Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, “Have courage. I can’t sleep with you dear. I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.” A long silence followed. At last it was broken by a shaky child’s voice saying, “Well then, tell my big sissy dad to have courage”.
That is a hilarious story. But fear is a reality. If you follow Jesus close enough and long enough eventually you will come face to face with people, situations and problems bigger than you. Nobody has to tell you that we are living in very troubled times. There is a good reason to be fearful these days. The economy seems to be collapsing. People are facing various financial situations. There are physical problems, marital problems, domestic and serious family problems and, as if all of this was not enough, we are faced with a new and alarming challenge of systemic and political distrust in our country.
Often things that appear beyond our ability to deal with cause great fear. But it is important to remember that fear is not always a bad thing. The word fear in Hebrew means terror, tremble, respect, reverence. In fact, the bible tells us that we are to fear the Lord on many occasions. Fear is not always the enemy. Inaction is.
Norman Vincent Peale described courage as, “strength to do what is right regardless of the consequences”. That’s a good definition. Gordon Douglass writes, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the capacity to put one foot in front of the other and move forward”. Another great definition. Courage is why Mary, the mother of Jesus, the venerated saint of Catholicism, demands our respect. Mary did what was right and put one foot in front of the other even when it was not the easy thing to do. We are called to do the same.
In the 4th century St Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “What was achieved in the body of Mary will happen in the soul of everyone who receives the Word.” The Good News of Advent is we don’t need to be consumed by fear if we have courage. The Good News is that God is at work in you in much the same way God was at work in Mary. No, God is not going to make you pregnant. Don’t worry. But I do think that you carry in your body the blessing of God and having faith like Mary means allowing yourself to trust that.
So, my friends, may the God through whom nothing is impossible — help you to be Marys…may you have the courage for fears ever present in 2020.