The Irrational Season
One of my roles as a doctoral student at Drew Theological School is serving as the Chapel Graduate Assistant. I assist in crafting the liturgies for the worship services, coordinate guest preachers, prepare the worship space and slides for the screens, and so on. It’s a really great outlet for me since I’m not serving as pastor of a local church anymore while I’m in school to do some of the ministry tasks I love, like planning and leading in worship. Our last service of the semester was a service of Advent lessons and carols, and we alternated scripture readings, poems, and musical selections. We started the service with a very brief poem by Madeleine L’Engle called “After Annunciation.”
“This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.”
When we read the poem, it got a chuckle - no doubt the congregation thinking about children, and the fact that they bring both joy and chaos, and no matter how parents and doting family members prepare for the arrival of children in their lives, thinking you can be “ready”, really and truly “prepared” for the arrival of someone as unpredictable as children are is indeed just that - irrational. And so everyone chuckled knowingly. “Reason” and “children” don’t always go together.
But I think this little verse is also quite deep. “This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild. Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.” What’s so irrational about the Christmas story? I’ve been thinking about all the aspects of the telling of Jesus’ birth that we might call irrational. L’Engle’s poem reflects on the annunciation, the act of the angel Gabriel, God’s messenger, telling Mary that she would give birth to the Christ Child. That happens in Luke 1, before the nativity story we read from Luke 2 tonight. Everytime I read about Mary hearing the shocking news of her own pregnancy, I’m amazed at how she reacts. She asks just one question - how can this be? And then she response to God saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I would have asked a million questions. Why me? Why now? Is this for real? What if I can’t do this? What if people don’t believe me when I try to explain? Won’t I be at risk? Isn’t there a better way? Wouldn’t it have been more sensible, more rational to ask questions? To get the details? To ask what God was thinking? Aren’t God’s expectations of Mary unreasonable? Isn’t her response unreasonable?
And then there’s Joseph. Joseph’s story features mostly in Matthew’s gospel. Does he act rationally? Reasonably? He does at first. When he finds out Mary is pregnant, and he knows he isn’t the father, he resolves to quietly part ways with Mary. That’s a sensible course of action. But Joseph starts to get visits from God’s messengers in his dreams, convincing him that Mary’s child is of God, and that he should stay with Mary despite what people will think. And Joseph does. Aren’t God’s expectations of Joseph - that he’ll just mold his life around Mary’s and this child who doesn’t quite belong to him - unreasonable?
Of course, the most irrational of all in the Christmas story is God, who acts in all sorts of unreasonable, unpredictable ways. God chooses Mary, a common young Jewish woman who doesn’t particularly stand out in any way. God comes in human form in a way that’s likely to make people doubt Mary, doubt Joseph, and disbelieve that Jesus is God in the flesh. God makes a big heavenly dazzling announcement about Jesus’ birth - but this heavenly dazzling announcement, a glorious display of heavenly messengers filling the skies - goes to a bunch of shepherds, people on the fringes of society, hanging out with animals, not other people. Jesus’s birth isn’t announced to anyone who might be described as influential. Jesus is instead born where there seems to be no room for him, where no one is likely to notice. Indeed, Christmas is the irrational season because God seems to act so irrationally in entering the world in human form. Yet, this is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild, and God is determined that we find room for the child. God’s love for the world - for me and for you - is bright and wild, irrepressible, and so here God comes, in unreasonable ways, tucking into unexpected places even when it seems like there is no room for God in all the places you’d think to look first.
In response to this good news, this great joy, this very irrational story that has gifted us with bright and wild and blooming love, how shall we respond? What is our call, if we are to be Christmas people? As the poem suggests, I think we’re meant to imitate Mary, and figure out what unreasonable responses the gospel story, the birth of Christ, calls us to make. I think for us to make room for the Christ child, God calls us to do some irrational things. What do I mean?
The first response that popped into my head is thinking about my irrational mother! My mom lives in a small two bedroom apartment. Most of the time, it is just the right size for her. She’s got a bedroom, and there’s a guest bedroom for when her children or grandchildren are visiting. But right now, I’m staying with her for a month while I’m on break from school. And my roommate came to spend Christmas week with us. And my brother is about to arrive, visiting from Illinois. And another brother is coming to stay for a few days because he doesn’t want to miss out on seeing everyone else. And so my mother has carefully arranged how to make everyone fit with air mattresses and rollaway beds and doubling up in rooms and napping on couches and piling suitcases into corners. And it is chaotic, and occasionally claustrophobic. And nothing brings out our childhood sibling squabbles like cramming us into a small space together for a week. And my mother loves every second of it, because her heart is full of love and joy in this season and she will always make sure there is room. There’s room for everyone in her home, and making sure we know there’s room is a priority for her. I wonder how I can take that spirit, her irrational spirit, how we can take Mary’s irrational spirit, God’s irrational unreasonable way of loving extravagantly, and embody it in our own lives.
I think we act “irrationally” and “unreasonably,” at least according to the world’s measure, when we say yes, as Mary did, to God’s requests, even when what God is asking seems impossible. What has God been challenging you to do that seems impossible? What if you said yes?
What if we acted like the angels, and carried messages of God’s grace, of hope, and of joy to the world. What unsuspecting people are longing and needing a message like the angels delivered? How can we work for peace in a world where peace seems so far off, like an irrational dream that can never be attained?
What if we tried to live in lives patterned after God, in whose image we are created? We’d focus our attention not on the privileged and elite, but on the marginalized, those pushed to the fringes. We’d visit our contemporary equivalents of fields of shepherds and animal stables instead of places of wealth and status, and burst forth with pronouncements of divine favor.
What if we’re irrational like Joseph, and humbly take our place as supporters of those we see taking big risks for God, even when it means we’re not the starring player, and even when no one else will lend support?
When we commit to peace in a world of violence, when we reject the typical ways of measuring success, when we love in the face of hatred, and we love without condition, when we listen for God’s calling voice, and try our best to answer with our whole hearts, no matter what risks God is asking us to take - we are embodying this irrational season, making room for the child, and letting love, wild and bright, take root in our lives. Friends, my prayer for you this Christmas is that you may remember that this is an irrational season. To receive this gift of God with us, to make room for the child, we might need to be a little unreasonable. Instead of being reasonable this season, let’s be hopeful, and faithful. Let’s be joyful peacemakers. Let’s be irrational, extravagant, unconditional givers of love, and may that love, the love of God, bloom bright and wild in our world, in our hearts. Amen.