When I was a little girl, I spent a good deal of time at the home of my maternal grandparents. I loved going there, and they loved me. Particularly my grandfather; I was one of his favorites.
My grandfather made bricks for a living; back breaking, hard work. He retired because of disability the year I was born. Early in his retirement, before he became confined to bed, he built a playhouse for me in the backyard and filled it with child-sized furniture.
He made me a table and chairs, a bed for my doll babies, and a small kitchen set. He scoured the closets and the basement for my mother’s discarded play dishes and doll stroller. He cut up some of my grandmother’s old linens so I could have doll blankets, tablecloths, and curtains.
He made a window that I could open and close and a child-sized door I could operate. Outside the window, a sandbox beckoned.
The playhouse was nestled in a grove of black walnut trees. I can still remember how those trees smelled. In time, a pet cemetery would occupy the side yard of the playhouse. We held several solemn funerals there to bury my grandparent’s dog and a parakeet or two.
I cannot tell you how many contented hours my grandfather and I spent in that playhouse. We would have imaginary tea parties, sing the baby dolls to sleep, and tell family stories.
Having visited the playhouse as an adult, I realize how small the space actually was; and how my grandfather had to really stoop to enter the child-sized door; how he had to scrunch up his pain ridden legs tightly to his chest in order to sit in a child-sized chair at a child-sized table to sip imaginary tea.
That playhouse remains in my thoughts and dreams to this day; as a place made for me in love, as a gift of the best his imagination could offer, as a relationship of deep contentment and profound joy.
In that playhouse, the rules of the world as I had learned them did not apply. No more “Children speak only when spoken to.” “Nice children always say yes ma’am, no ma’am, please and thank you.” “Children eat after the adults have served their plates.” That playhouse nurtured in me the gift of inner freedom and larger life.
The lessons today focus on the hopes and longing of God’s people for the fulfillment of God’s promised coming. God’s people kept expecting the creator and sustainer of the cosmos to come in power and majesty, in grandiosity and glory; in many ways they expected a very unearthly coming. (Lang)
Instead, God comes in the frailty of human flesh; composed of the same substance as we are, and yet very much God; a tremendous sign of the goodness of creation and of God’s choice for loving union with us. (Fruehwirth)
Entering the small space of Mary’s womb, God comes imagining a life for us, creating a place for us, opening a future for us, and some will see the great grace of this choice.
God stoops to join heaven and earth; scrunching all that is heavenly in order to join all that is earthly, that we may see the human face of divine love. And in doing so, God challenges us to realize that the frail elements of this world—the lowly handmaidens, the barren women, the insignificant Bethlehems; the oppressed, the occupied, the poor—can serve as the agents of God’s love come to earth, as a means of the movement of grace in a world where grace has too often gone missing.
Consider the prophet Micah: apparently a country boy, Micah loved Israel’s farmers. Far away from the politics and intrigue of a bustling city, Micah prophesies. His people have suffered defeat, exile, occupation, and oppression. He watches in outrage as peasants who work the fields of the Judean countryside begin to lose their livelihood.
Ever expanding inheritance laws systematically strip away land from those who love it and work it. An ever narrowing wealthy class devours the profits. And yet Micah hopes. For in Micah’s imagination, God will stoop down and lift up the lowly; will bring forth a king from the dusty little town of Bethlehem that seems anything but the home of royalty. (Sweet)
The king of Micah’s imagining will be a shepherd ruler; the peacemaker of the world; a leader who will make a good and safe home for all. Bypassing the rich, bypassing the powerful, even bypassing the holy city of Jerusalem, God will look again to bring a baby from Bethlehem; a shepherd king of more significance than David; to gather the scattered ones, to establish a reign of compassion, justice, and mercy.
God’s presence, come to earth as a child; to begin the work of redeeming God’s people.
In our Gospel, Mary travels—apparently alone and unchaperoned—to see her kinswoman, Elizabeth. In a culture where women played no public roles, and where pregnant women lived in relative seclusion, that is surprising enough.
And yet, to discover that Luke begins his entire story of Jesus with a conversation between two women seems even more remarkable. It is as if Luke wants to make clear that we cannot know what God desires to do among us unless we hear the stories of these small ones: the ones we feel free to disregard, the ones we choose not to see, the outsiders.
Mary speaks first, calls out a greeting to her cousin. And the sound of Mary’s voice breaks Elizabeth’s seclusion: Five months of keeping her old age pregnancy a secret; five months of rarely speaking. And when she does speak? Spirit words, inspired words, words of blessing and astonishment.
Elizabeth and the child she carries recognize Mary as the bearer of God. “Blessed are you among women and the baby in your womb as well. And how astonishing it is that God blesses me with a visit from the mother of my Lord. Even my baby knows it! And bless you, Mary, for believing in the faithfulness of God. Bless your holy imagination.”
This stunning conversation frees both women; one from the mark of barrenness and the other from the scandal of an untimely pregnancy. God ushers these women directly into the new realities of life that Mary’s child will bring.
God stoops to earth, and through Mary, becomes one of us; one with us; in something as vulnerable, as fragile, as demanding as a baby. The baby comes to break lives open, so that God might pour in a measure of God’s grace. (Fruehwirth)
We cannot separate the infant Jesus from the life he lived, or the death he died, or the world he came to redeem and save. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “When I was younger, I thought of the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus as a doctrine; a unique event that involved God coming to earth in Jesus and no one else. As I’ve grown older,” she says, “I see incarnation as more of a practice. For by becoming incarnate and living in the flesh among us, God invites each of us to inhabit our own flesh as full and faithfully as Jesus did.”
The advent of Jesus provokes a crisis for those of confident intellects and convenient faith. He means to un-cozy cozy political arrangements and the assumptions of power. He will disrupt our settled relationships and status quo prayer. Jesus comes as word made flesh to make plain that God will have God’s way with the world; and God favors those willing to stoop.
Every Advent, God invites us to draw near an empty manger to ponder the possibilities of smallness; to consider the wonder of heaven stooped to earth.
The words of a medieval carol call Rowan Williams to reflect upon this mystery of God. According to the carol, Jesus, contained in Mary’s womb, is “heaven and earth in little space.” God invites us, says Williams, in and through the Incarnation, to enter that little space where the fullness of God uniquely dwells.
“We have to look at ourselves hard,” Williams writes, “and ask what it is that makes us too massive and clumsy to go into the ‘little space’ where we meet God in Christ Jesus. It may be our wealth and security. It may be our ambition. It may be our image of ourselves as powerful or virtuous or godly. We need this season, above all other, to remember what Christ says over and over again; that there is no way into this little space without shedding our great load of arrogant self-reliance, bluster, noisy fear, and fantasy.”
My grandfather died in 1980 at the age of 83. When he died, the playhouse was already a little dilapidated. My grandmother continued to live on the property for another 18 years, until, in her nineties she moved into a nursing home.
I went to visit, to claim a few pieces of furniture, some dishes and such, just before the house sold. Walking out into the backyard, I noticed the sandbox had gone missing, the walnut trees a shadow of their former selves, and one side of the playhouse leaned perilously forward. And yet, standing flat-footed, I could reach my arm straight out in front of me and rest it on the roof of the strong side of the playhouse. And I could not imagine how my grandfather, no matter how much he stooped, ever managed to enter such a small space.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell.
Weavings, November/December 2003, “The Poverty of God: Love in the Ruins,” Deborah Smith Douglas.
Alive now! November/December 1982. “Dwelling Among Us,” Stephen Lang
Words for Silence: A year of Contemplative Meditations, Gregory Fruehwirth, Paraclete Press, 2008
December 6, 2002 Christmas message, Rowan Williams, Episcopal News Service files
Homiletics, November/December 1997, Leonard Sweet
Christian Century, April 5, 2005, “Practicing Incarnation,” Barbara Brown Taylor