In my family, camping has never really been a thing. My mom developed a distaste for it when she was a kid, and therefore we only ever went tent camping once in my own childhood. It was a, uh, memorable experience. The first night it rained so hard that our tent flooded enough for the air mattress my sister and I were sleeping on to float. Then we found out the second night that the rain had kept away the hundreds of ants who lived and walked through our campsite. There were partying neighbors the third night, and through it all the cold showers and communal bathroom were a five minute walk away, which seemed interminable in the middle of the night.
So in our reading from Second Samuel, when David offers to build a house to replace the tent which has been housing God since the people came up out of Egypt, and God’s response is, “Have I ever asked for a house?” a young part of me is flabbergasted. Are you sure, God? You don’t want those nice strong cedar walls to keep the weather out? I’m sure it would be beautiful, and it definitely would have whatever the year 1000 BCE equivalent was to the luxury of hot running water.
The thing is, God doesn’t want the wooden house. Instead of laying out these elaborate descriptions how this temple should be built, what kinds of materials should be used and so forth, God has Nathan tell David that *he* is going to be the house. David and his children forever will be a house before the Lord. In the face of David doing what humans do and trying to put God in a box, albeit a very rich and beautiful holy box, God does what God does and says I’ll do you one better; I’d rather be with you.
God wants to be with us. The whole story of the Bible is basically that of a lover chasing and wooing and cajoling their beloved. Again and again the people of God scorn or forget their God, and there are sometimes dire consequences when we beloved of God reject God’s love in exchange for selfishness and injustice, but always always God comes back to humanity without ever giving up on us.
I know it doesn’t always feel this way. There are many stories, some of them my own, about the absence of God, about God’s silence. These moments, whether they last a day or a season, are real and valid. There is yet much evil and harm in this world, and they often feel much more present than a loving God. Especially this unprecedented year of pandemic, isolation, and social unrest, we look towards a holiday so often filled with warmth and laughter and joy and hugs, and I imagine I am not the only one flirting with despair, holding unanswered questions that reverberate loudly. Things are not the way they are supposed to be.
And so the question becomes will we remember our faith?
Mary’s life would not have been easy. A poor young woman belonging to an oppressed minority would not have had much in the way of power or security. She was betrothed, on the way out from the safety of her father’s family but not quite welcomed into the protection of her husband’s household. This woman is the one greeted by a celestial being declaring that she is highly favored by the Lord.
To describe her response to this greeting from the angel Gabriel as perplexed seems like surely an understatement. Mary would have had every reason to dismiss what Gabriel was saying to her. The angel is describing Mary’s peoples’ greatest hope coming to fruition in her. They were waiting for someone to be on David’s throne as God had promised all those years ago. They were waiting for, in Samuel’s words, rest from all their enemies, or in Mary’s words, for the mighty to be cast down, the lowly to be lifted up, the hungry to be filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty.
One might expect that a person who was called to do such a great reordering of the world would be born in a palace, or as part of a great warrior family, not somebody poor and unknown like Mary. But as the angel keeps talking, she decides to go with it. She doesn’t say no out of hand; she doesn’t cower in fear. Instead, she asks a pragmatic question. She leans into a highly unexpected situation and accepts the charge.
Beyond remembering her faith and the promises God had made her people, Mary chooses to act on her faith. In the face of fear and the unknown, she takes on what is laid before her. Rather than listing all the reasons why she isn’t qualified to be the mother of God, she reaches out in the active hope that God will indeed fulfill all the promises which have been made to her and her people.
In the face of the last nine months which have persisted in reminding us that the future is unpredictable and beyond our control, I imagine for many of us continuing in our faith is an active rather than passive choice. But we can choose our faith precisely because we remember our faith. Through remembering how God chose to be with Mary, we can remember that God has also chosen to be with us. Through gathering together in this virtual community, we can remember that we are not alone even if God feels like a distant concept.
This is why community matters, because when God feels like an abstract concept in the face of despair and turmoil, of eucharistic famine and varying levels of isolation, we, beloved family of God, are tangible. Just like Jesus all those years ago, we are here, with bodies that can make phone calls or write letters or simply receive such gestures, because ours is to give and to take, to ask and receive. These interactions keep us all in mind of the fact that we have not been abandoned. Because while God might seem absent, there are echoes of the divine in our neighbors which might just be God showing up in the unexpected.
And so I pray for us tenacity. The kind of tenacity that clings to life in the face of despair and faith in the face of doubt. I pray that we may turn to each other in the hard times and share the light of Christ we each carry with one another and the people around us because none of us can do this on our own. I pray that we may keep asking questions and keep leaning into the promises of God. And I pray that we may keep up the hope and work for a future of justice and peace and joy brought about by God that is far greater than what we could ask or imagine.