The Sunday Sermon: How Can It Be?

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

This prayer is our most vulnerable cry to God all year. We prayed it last Sunday for the third week of Advent. We were reminded to rejoice always as the pink candle was lit. And now here we are today — still in Advent, still waiting for the coming of the Savior for whom we yearn. Still waiting.

And while we do, we watched in horror as another basic assumption most of us had held about our fellow humans was dismantled. Many of us had assumed that children were off limits as intentional targets in wartime. But the Peshawar school massacre on Tuesday carried out by the Pakistani Taliban targeted young people, particularly teenage boys, as attackers systematically slaughtered 132 innocent children in order to punish their parents, many of whom serve in the military. How can humans be capable of such cruelty, such evil? We live in a dark time indeed.

But that’s not what we’re supposed to be feeling right now! We’re supposed to be merry! It can be easy to overlook amid the tinsel and bustle that this season is a heavy one for some. Family-centered holiday traditions can be forever changed by the loss of a loved one. Economic woes can multiply in these short weeks as the poor succumb to marketers. And depression — serious, clinical depression — can be triggered by an overwhelming sense of isolation from the (ostensibly) jovial nature of these special days.

During the holidays twenty-five years ago novelist William Styron did something courageous: he wrote about his personal battle with depression at a time before Prozac hit the market, when the seriousness of the disease was just beginning to be understood. His essay, entitled “Darkness Visible,” was published in Vanity Fair. He describes a December morning such as this one:

“One bright day on a walk through the woods with my dog I heard a flock of canada geese honking high above trees ablaze with foliage; ordinarily a sight and sound that would have exhilarated me, the flight of birds caused me to stop, riveted with fear, and I stood stranded there, helpless, shivering, aware for the first time that I had been stricken by no mere pangs of withdrawal but by a serious illness whose name and actuality I was able, for the first time, to acknowledge. Going home, I couldn’t rid my mind of the line of Baudelaire’s, dredged up from the distant past, that had for several days been skittering around at the edge of my consciousness: “‘I have felt the wind of the wing of madness.’”

Depression’s darkness threatens to be finally consuming for those facing its most extreme forms. Indeed, if human suffering can be considered a ravaging darkness, its collective presence presses down upon us mightily.

Nature follows course. We are just four hours away from the winter solstice, when the sun hovers directly above the Tropic of Capricorn, which marks the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. We find ourselves in deep, deep darkness.

During this longest night of the year, I invite you to turn out as many lights as you can, to darken your space to its utmost, and see if you can see your hand in front of you. Those of you who have spent any time in caves will know that there are some places that are in fact that dark.

Could Mary’s cave have been that dark when the angel Gabriel came to her? Would it have been at night when he arrived? How brightly did God’s radiance illumine the walls of her family’s humble hillside dwelling? How long did it take for her eyes to adjust to the brilliance, and her being to adjust to the impossible news then shared? Perfectly aware of the smallness and frailty and mundaneness of her peasant’s life, no wonder Mary was perplexed. How appropriate her response!: “How can this be?” How can the Savior of the world be borne through me?

William Styron’s depression deepened until he began to contemplate suicide. He began his final note to his family several times but could not find the words. He continues

 “Late one bitterly cold night, when I knew that I could not possibly get myself through the following day, I sat in the living room of the house bundled up against the chill; something had happened to the furnace. My wife had gone to bed, and I had forced myself to watch the tape of a movie in which a young actress, who had been in a play of mine, was cast in a small part. At one point in the film, which was set in late-nineteenth-century Boston, the characters moved down the hallway of a music conservatory, beyond the walls of which, from unseen musicians, came a contralto voice, a sudden soaring passage from the Brahms Alto Rhapsody. This sound, which like all music—indeed, like all pleasure—I had been numbly unresponsive to for months, pierced my heart like a dagger, and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known: the children who had rushed through its rooms, the festivals, the love and work, the honestly earned slumber, the voices and the humble commotion, the perennial tribe of cats and dogs and birds . . . All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon, even as what I had set out so deliberately to do was more than I could inflict on those memories, and upon those so close to me, with whom the memories were bound. And just as powerfully as I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself. I drew upon some last gleam of sanity to perceive the terrifying dimensions of the mortal predicament I had fallen into. I woke up my wife and soon telephone calls were made. The next day I was admitted to the hospital.”

I ask you, How can this be? How can a single life be saved by Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody?

Perhaps even more astonishingly, how could a fifteen-year old Pakistani girl cut down by a bullet to the head rise up again to lead a global campaign demanding that all children be in school by the end of 2015? How can it be that this teenager, Malala Yousafzai, just two years after the shooting, could be lifted up by the world so that she would win the Nobel Peace Prize, how could she be the one that we turn to as we try to make sense of the tragic Peshawar school shooting, so that she could shore up our willingness to battle on against the evil and suffering that surround us?

This week I surprised myself to realize that it is easier for me to comprehend how it can be that the slaughter of innocents in Pakistan occurred than it is for me to believe that 17-year old Malala survived a similar execution, and now thrives. I realized it is easier for me to believe in the depth of William Styron’s despair, a despair that could have led to his suicide, than to believe in the possibility that Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody could save William from it. It is easier for me to believe in the mythic nature of the annunciation narrative than to trust that from a virgin a child was born some two millennia ago, and not just any child, but our Savior, thanks be to God. My scepticism, and perhaps yours, now runs deep.

And yet . . . in perhaps humanity’s greatest ongoing act of cognitive dissonance, we keep bearing children into this pained and painful world. How can this be? Surely the jubilant honking of the wild geese is no match for the demons waiting for us below? Or is it? How can it be? And yet, we who say this, like Mary, also see or hear or find if we are paying attention moments that affirm the angel’s words: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Hear the angel’s words: “Nothing is impossible with God.” Breathe them in. Believe them. Trust them. Mary, believe these words because your cousin Elizabeth, too old to bear children, is with child. William, believe these words because they will save you, will cause you to live 17 more years, 17 more years to delight in the dancing and the children and the geese. Believe these words, my sisters and brothers, because Malala was shot down by her enemies but has been raised up, and is unafraid to cast bold visions for us again.

Ah, the darkness is upon us and will be still and yet — open your eyes and ears and mind, and behold the coming of the light!

The Rev Colin Mathewson
21 Dec 2014

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