My last experience as a pastor of a church before I got to Douglass was ... well ... let's just say, "suboptimal."
Having perhaps too high an opinion of myself, I thought I could manage a situation as a pastor that, it turns out, I couldn't manage.
I left that church ... well ... let's just say, "a chastened man."
The whole experience was professionally embarrassing.
But, on the bright side, I was able to invest all my time and energies into the Ph.D. I'd just started. I was hired on as a Graduate Teaching Assistant—which was thrilling. I was finally going to be a professor ... a lifelong goal.
The problem was (and still is for those who still make their living this way): Graduate Teaching Assistant positions are designed with young academics in mind—the kind of people who are thrilled to leave their gigs at Barnes and Noble for a professional position—which is to say, the kind of people who can figure out how to live on $18,000 a year.
I, on the other hand, was a forty year-old father of two. I mean, I found the work rewarding, but the compensation was ... well ... let's just say, "underwhelming."
Times were really hard. I took out student loans; we maxed out our credit cards and a home equity line of credit. And we were still barely keeping our heads above water.
What began as a professional embarrassment, soon turned into personal embarrassment. I felt like I'd let my family down, and that there was no hope in sight. (Our culture, which operates under an often unspoken assumption that our identities are largely shaped by what we do for a living, does that to the unemployed and the underemployed. There's a great deal of shame attached to not "pulling your own weight" in our society.)
Susan tried to be supportive, upbeat. She was understanding, encouraging. But the whole thing dragged me down. I walked around in a constant state of depression, which was tempered only by my uncanny knack for finding newer and more creative ways to feel sorry for myself.
Eventually, even my long-suffering wife got tired of my dogged commitment to self-abasement. So, just before Christmas in 2007, and after an especially egregious display of self-pity, my wife said to me, "Is it time we tried something different?"
I said, "What do you mean?"
She said, "I mean, is it time we both got on with our lives? Because this one certainly doesn't seem to suit you."
I said, "Are you talking about us calling it quits?"
She said, "Well, if that's what it takes. You're obviously not happy, and you're making everyone else around here miserable."
The whole thing was so unexpected, so out-of-the-blue, that her question left me reeling. I remember feeling utterly alone at that moment. She wasn't being mean. She wasn't trying to belittle me. She'd just reached the end of her rope, and wanted to know if maybe we'd both be better off on our own. We obviously had to do something, because what we were doing wasn't working.
I had tears in my eyes. And it struck me that my wife was carrying both the financial and the emotional load for both of us. And I started—in that brief moment—to picture what my life would look like if I were alone. Where could I live and eat on $18,000 a year?
And even if I got another job, what could it possibly be? It occurred to me that with all the education I'd had to that point—with two Masters degree and one Doctoral degree—I was trained to do pretty much nothing that anyone with any brains wanted to pay actual money for. What kind of job could I get that would allow me to survive without living on someone's couch until I started collecting Social Security?
And I couldn't come up with anything.
I broke down. And all I could manage to say was, "I don't even think I could support myself."
My wife, a saint, just held me and told me it was going to be all right.
Saying that out loud was one of the most demeaning moments of my entire life. It stripped me bare of all my illusions about being a winner, about being special, about thinking that this kind of stuff doesn't happen to people like me. I had never felt that vulnerable before. I felt totally overmatched by the world, and without any resources to survive the water my tiny boat was taking on.
Humiliation is standing in front of a water cannon, trying to keep yourself dry with nothing more substantial than a Kleenex and your winning personality.
By this time, you're probably wondering what any of this has to do with Christmas.
Y'all are always two steps ahead of me.
I have enjoyed teaching art history in Sunday School class again. In Western art, before the modern period, one of the set pieces of a serious painter was the Annunciation—you know, the scene where the angel comes to Mary and tells her that she's about to be pregnant with the long-awaited Messiah.
These pictures almost universally share one thing in common: Mary is portrayed as meek and lowly—submissive, deferential, a kind peasant girl who would never do anything to trouble the waters. Wonderfully virtuous, to be sure, but kind of a wall-flower—who just happened to catch God's attention because of her meekness. Which is hard to do, since meekness is the trait that seems easiest to overlook.
And this picture of Mary as the self-deprecating urchin God leans on to launch the new kingdom God has in mind starts with our Gospel this morning. When singing about her new task as the God-bearer, Mary says, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for [God] has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant."
Traditionally, we have interpreted this passage as a commentary on Mary's inner modesty, her unassuming nature. She's the nice quiet girl every teacher wants in their class. Smart, unassuming, of strong moral fiber.
On this reading, God looks at Mary's heart and sees in her the perfect mixture of righteousness and unpretentiousness. That is to say, God looks with favor on the kind of person Mary is in her heart.
That's why you see all these paintings of Mary that depict her as the model of humility and unsullied purity.
But there's just one thing wrong with this interpretation: It gets everything not merely wrong—but backwards wrong. One-hundred-eighty-degrees wrong.
The word that gets translated "lowliness" in this passage, or "of humble estate" in older translations, has usually been interpreted to mean something like "meek" or "mild."
Unfortunately for traditional interpretations, the word "tapeinosin" doesn't mean "humility"; it means "humiliation."
In other words, what endears Mary to God, at least according to Luke, has more to do with her poverty than with her probity. She probably is a really great person on the inside, but that's apparently not what draws God's attention.
God is moved by the fact that Mary's the perfect candidate for the kind of person on behalf of whom Jesus is being born to fight: a soon-to-be unwed mother from a backwater town on the poor side of nowhere. Her prospects in life added up to just about nothing.
The fact of her scandalous pregnancy was about to make her already humble status straight up humiliating.
That's the thing about humiliation, it's not just about embarrassment; it's what's left after embarrassment has moved in and made a home. It's the vulnerability so much of the world knows first hand and only too well.
Humiliation is being called "boy" when you're an old man.
It's being told that you're responsible because he couldn't control himself.
Humiliation is trying to figure out how to keep the lights on, let alone buy Christmas presents for the kids.
It's having your baby girl die in the care of a government that has declared its hatred of you ... all because you thought that this country would be safer than the one you left behind.
Humiliation is being told from the time you're young that people like you are an abomination.
It's being treated like a criminal in front of your children—because of the color of your skin or because of your religious attire.
Humiliation is waiting for months in a church basement, so that ICE doesn't drag you away from your family and everything you love.
It's having nowhere else to go and no way to get there even if you could.
Humiliation isn't just a feeling; it's a state of being, a way of life for far too many people in the world.
And so Mary is the perfect person to carry the child who will grow up to fight for people just like her—those who must dine daily on the bread of tears and the fruit of shame.
What I find fascinating is that the Mary so popularly portrayed at Christmastime as meek and deferential not only doesn't hold up to interpretive scrutiny, it doesn't square with the words that come out of her mouth. Mary lives among the humiliated, and the words that come out of her mouth sound less like the sanitized version of the shy ingénue we usually get than Xena—Warrior Princess:
"God has shown great strength with the arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up those who live in shame; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."
That's not the song of the humble; that's the battle cry of the humiliated—which captures what the reign of God Jesus has come to announce will look like. This reign projects a new world in which those who've lived so long with shame and indignity will have a liberator from the same lousy circumstances, who has come to redeem the humiliated, to create a world in which those who've lived their lives stripped of their dignity and humanity will sit in the places of honor—a new world in which the forgotten and debased are now at the center instead of living perpetually on the margins.
Mary’s singing a protest song about upheaval and reversal. Mary’s singing the song about where God is—and where God is, apparently, is where the poor and the powerless are being raised up, and the rich and the powerful are being sent empty away.
God isn’t interested in co-opting the corridors of power, of gaining credibility with those in charge. God doesn’t need the powerful and the well-situated to establish this reign; all God needs are the hungry and the poor—and those who are willing to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The question posed by Advent is: How do we who live at the front of the line make Mary's song our song?
Ironic that we, whom most of the rest of the world envies, might have to sit at the feet of Mary and Elizabeth to learn how to sing the song God gave all of us to sing about the reign of the coming messiah, a song for the humiliated and disposable people sung in anticipation of Emmanuel—God with us.
Mary's song, the Magnificat, is the song you sing when you feel like you don't have anything left to sing for.
The whole thing might not sound like such a great thing if the world as it's presently constructed is a safe place for you. But if you're one of the humiliated people who've too often felt stripped bare of all pretense that you can make it on your own with no help from anybody—Mary's song sounds like ... well, let's just say, "the best news possible."