Reflecton-Ethel Hornbeck

Ethel Hornbeck
December 23, 2012
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Today’s gospel reading, features the great, subversive “Song of Mary,” celebration of God’s goodness and presence especially with the powerless and brokenhearted. But just a bit earlier in the story, we hear the prelude, when Mary is first visited by God’s messenger who comes to make this outrageous invitation—help God create a whole new humanity. The messenger concludes (this is Luke 1, starting at 37)for nothing will be impossible with God.  To which Mary replies: let it be. Three dangerous little words – expressing not submission, but rather a radical willingness for God’s dream, that can and does change everything.

This morning marked the last of our fall seminars devoted to the exploration of compassion.  For the past 14 weeks, we have immersed ourselves in a vast array of topics, from studied unknowing to loving one’s enemies. We’ve reflected, practiced, prayed, conversed and looked lovingly and mindfully at the world around and within us, darkness as well as light. It has been an amazing journey,  one that we confidently concluded today with the final words of Karen Armstrong’s book, 12 steps to a compassionate life, “our work here is just beginning.” 

So, starting in February, we will make room for more; more study, more practice, more discovery, more compassion.  So, this is an open invitation to each and every one of you--get the book if you haven’t already, read it, engage it, and whether you are a regular or a newcomer, please join us whenever and however you can—on Sunday mornings, on our FB page, through our weekly emails, and more (stay tuned).

Compassion is at the very heart of human wholeness and the center of all great spiritual traditions.  Before it is even an act, compassion is an attitude, an intention, a choice, and a habit of the heart.  Let it be.

Compassion calls us to an ongoing willingness to make room, starting with those we love, creating time and space in our lives for authentic connection; because, honestly, that alone is challenge enough. But compassion also asks us to make room for the people and situations we find difficult, do not like and would rather avoid.  And compassion requires that we attend most mindfully to those who suffer, not out of our egotistical need to feel helpful, but rather out of a deeply realized connection with human being and human pain. Compassion means, literally, to suffer with, and that requires us to name and honor our own experience and broken bits, because it is precisely there that we connect most deeply with others.

Last week, as the suffering in our midst seemed almost unbearable, we gathered as usual and took up the topic of the day (what else can you do?) The topic: “compassion for one’s enemies.” We listened to South African Bishop Desmond Tutu describe his shattering experience as witness to torture and genocide, the worst expressions of human being, and heard this astounding conclusion: “there is nothing that cannot be transfigured.” If that guy says it, I can almost believe it, even today.

Compassionate connection comes in so many ways if we just remain open, both to receive as well as to give.  I don’t know why, but of the bazillion FB posts of the past week, the one that has stayed with me and continues to give me hope was the photo of children in Pakistan, of all places, lighting candles and holding a sign that said “Connecticut: Feel Ur Pain as U would feel our pain.” 

Compassion calls us to a fierce willingness to engage the world just as it is and an unwavering commitment to bring healing to broken places and broken people, including ourselves. It calls us to make room for all kinds of things we cannot control and will never understand. And making room for ultimate Mystery--for God--is one essential way that we cultivate the humility, trust, and vulnerability that authentic compassion requires.

Let it be. Mary’s yes to God’s invitation, her willingness to make room for the unimaginable—in her life, in her very bones—made the incarnation possible.  This powerful, prophetic, female embodiment of God’s dream for our world, was known by early Christians as “theotokos” -- God-bearer. For if Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s desire for humanity-- compassion incarnate, enfleshed -- Mary gave that birth.

God’s dream for a peaceful, just, and abundant world can only happen with human hands, human hearts, human tears.  In medieval artwork depicting this iconic moment of Mary’s yes, the cross is sometimes shown hovering in the background.  It reminds us that Mary’s willingness -- for that beautiful baby, beautiful life of a beloved son -- led her directly to the foot of the cross, into the heart of human suffering.

Let it be. Today on this last Sunday of Advent, let us join together, with Mary, in praying this dangerous prayer.  Let us seek to make room for God’s sorrow even as we listen for God’s dream. If God with Mary wept at the foot of the cross, so God weeps today, in Syria, the West Bank, in the Congo, in Newton Connecticut and the in halls of power and hearts of humans everywhere deformed by the idolatry of violence.  Let us make room together to hold the reality of what is, grieving and rejoicing, as we pray for what can be. Let us listen deeply for God’s invitation to us right here, right now, so that together we mayembody that prayer, always remembering and reminding one another: nothing is impossible when we join together with the Spirit of Love.  Amen