Dr. R. Scott Colglazier
December 13, 2016
Handel’s Messiah: Unto Us a Child is Born
Unto Us a Child is Born, Unto Us a Son is Given
I’m not sure there’s a more tender moment in the Gospels than this one, the story of the Annunciation to Mary. The angel Gabriel appears to her and brings greetings from God. Imagine that. Greetings. From. God. The angel shares hat she has been chosen by God to bear within her body the Christ child. That this child will be called the Son of the Most High and he will bring hope and joy and salvation to the world.
Mary is flooded with emotions. Honored? Of course. Humbled? Yes. But she is confused. And afraid. So afraid. Why me? And how can this be? I’m not even married? I’m still, she thinks to herself, while blushing high into her cheekbones, I’m still a virgin. She thinks: I’m a nobody. I’m poor. I’m just a peasant girl. There’s not a royal bone inside my body. How can I give birth to a king?
The angel tries to help her, assuring her that she is loved by God, and that with God all things are possible. And then finally, after several long minutes, after catching her breath and finding the kind of courage she never thought possible inside her heart, she says yes. She says that she is here and present and will do whatever it is that God wants her to do.
The angel disappears. And that’s the story.
I’m hearing the story of Mary today through a particular grid of understanding, and I want to share it with you today. It’s the grid of the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is a literary / spiritual / mythical / psychological way of understanding a distinct pattern of human experience. The characteristics of the hero journey can be found in the great stories of literature, and what I see in this story is the hero’s journey of Mary. This is a woman’s hero journey.
Now, you may not think of yourself as a hero this morning, but I’m guessing everyone in this congregation, in one way or another, has lived the hero’s journey. You may not have known you were living the hero’s journey, but you were living it. And some of you are still living it, because to live the hero’s journey is to be engaged in the deepest spiritual calling of life. The hero’s journey is a journey toward what really matters in life. And by the way, it’s never too late to live the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey always begins with restlessness. Another way of saying it is that the hero’s journey begins with a sense of disenchantment. Disaffection. We sometimes feel alienated from our ordinary lives. That something is missing. That something is lacking. It’s a personal sense of restlessness.
I find it interesting that restlessness is viewed so negatively in our culture. Someone is restless and we automatically think – What is wrong with him? What is wrong with her? Or if we’re going through it ourselves we think: What is wrong with me? Why am I so restless? We often see restlessness as instability. Or we see it as weakness. Or we see it as a flaw. And of course too much restlessness can become a source of negative energy. But the hero’s journey almost always begins with a sense of restlessness, and that means even a personal crisis can become a good thing.
You see this with Mary. Here she is on the front edge of a journey that would change her life forever, as well as changing the course of humankind, but it’s a journey that begins with a personal sense of crisis. She encounters an angel and suddenly she is riddled with fear. She hears the news about giving birth to a child and is swirling in a pool of doubt and confusion.
And that’s what I’m trying to embrace. I mean, personally, that’s what I’m trying to embrace on my journey this Christmas. When I find myself plunged into the chaotic waters of my own restlessness, instead of asking – What is wrong with me? – I’m trying to discover – What is the gift my restlessness is presenting? Chaos? Of course I have chaos. Don’t you? But where’s the gift in the middle of our chaos? Depression? Sometimes. At least I sing the blues every now and then. Don’t you? But where’s the pearl inside the shell of our blues? What I’m suggesting is this: Instead of trying to get rid of the confusion or fix the restlessness or cure the problem, allow it to become a passport to a greater journey.
I’m thinking of another young woman who was called to live a hero’s journey in recent years. She’s from Pakistan. When she was 12 years old she was writing a blog, trying to tell the world what it was like to be a girl in a region dominated by the Taliban. She wrote about wanting to go to school. About wanting an education. She wrote about her dreams of someday becoming a doctor. When she was 14 years old she was on a bus heading to school. She loved school. Her father was an educator and advocated for girls to go to school. But that day the bus was stopped by members of the Taliban. She watched as soldiers attacked the schoolgirls. Some were shot. Some were killed. And this young girl, her name is Malala, probably the same age as the Mary we encounter in our reading today, was also shot in the face and left for dead. But she did not die.
And from that crisis she went on to become a voice for young girls all over the world – that the journey must include education and dignity and respect. She recovered after several surgeries. And on her 16th birthday she spoke to the United Nations and said, “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.” That’s a hero’s journey.
Every hero’s journey begins with a restless crisis, but then the hero embarks toward adventure. The adventure can be almost anything, but it is driven by an inner desire for meaning, for value, for something that has spiritual significance. This is why the hero’s journey sometimes feels like a calling.
In other words, if it’s focused on a job, you’re not just taking another job to be taking another job; you’re moving your career in a new direction that gives value and meaning to your life. It’s not merely about earning more money, but it’s about doing something that resonates inside you. Success is one thing. Significance is another. The hero’s journey is different from ambition; it’s not just accomplishment, but it’s accomplishment that is driven by a need for inner spiritual alignment and resonance.
Here’s a little moment from my life . . . I was 18 years old, and had graduated from high school in May. That summer before going off to college I noticed the choices being made by some of my classmates. Some were planning to go to college. But many were not. There were a couple of factories in town, and some of my friends got jobs working in those factories. They started making money. I remember thinking during that summer: Maybe that’s what I should do. Maybe I should just live at home, get a job, make some money and spend the rest of my life in my little town.
But I couldn’t do it. I could not stay. I felt this call to adventure. I knew something was missing and I was restless to learn more about life and about myself and about the world. It’s not that I thought I was better than anyone. I just knew there were things to learn and experiences to engage. I didn’t know what they were, but I knew they were out there. It’s like I could feel this golden cord tethered to my soul and God was tugging at me, gently pulling me forward into life. And thus started my version of the hero’s journey.
I still remember with great vividness the day I left for college. I hitched a ride with a friend, Dave, who had a silver Chevrovlet Impala. I put a couple of beat-up suitcases and a few boxes in the backseat. I had so little. I was so clueless. I hopped in the front seat. And off we drove. My family stood on the front porch and waved good-bye. I knew I would never be the same again. I knew it. And I knew I could never look back.
That adventure has made all the difference. And in a way I’m still on that journey. I still see my life, and I certainly see my faith, as an ongoing journey of learning and growing and deepening. The more I ponder the presence of God, the more it becomes a mystery to me. The more I think about Jesus Christ, the more I realize it’s about incorporating the mystery of his love into daily life. Not belief but experience.
As I thought about it this week, I realized that preparing a new sermon each week is, in a way, part of my hero’s journey. I don’t begin each week by asking: What do I already know and how do I tell it to you? That’s not how it works for me; and that would be insulting to you. Each week I grapple with: What do I not know and what do I want to know and how can I invite you to join me on this sacred journey? It’s never too late to embark on the hero’s adventure.
Some of you are new to this country. Your restlessness in one place has led you to an adventure in this place. Some of you are facing health issues, and your journey now includes lessons learned at hospitals and clinics. Some of you are parents of young children, and those children are calling you to new insight and awareness and challenge. Some of you are working on graduate degrees, and the work is so demanding that it brings you to your knees. But you keep answering the call to adventure.
Don’t we see that with Mary today? She begins in the whirl of fear and doubt and confusion. It’s restlessness. But she moves toward adventure. There is the unknown. And the obstacles. But to keep moving toward that inner longing is the essence, not just of faith, but of our human experience. Mary’s courage would eventually lead her to undertake an arduous trip toward Bethlehem. She would experience the humiliation of giving birth to her son in a barn. And thirty years later she would follow him to Jerusalem, watching him suffer and die on a Roman cross. But her journey was everything.
And what I want to suggest to you today is that your hero’s journey is everything too. I don’t know what it looks like exactly for you. I don’t know what it feels like exactly for you. But I know this: The journey is everything.
And so friends, embrace whatever restlessness you might encounter. Don’t fix it; work through it. And let it become a calling to venture forth. And in your own way let’s try to find the courage of Mary to say: I’m here, dear, God. I’m here. And I’m ready for the journey ahead. I love you all. Let’s love one another. And I am so grateful this morning that we journey together. Amen.