Last weekend I did something unusual, which I hope to do much more often in the new year: I met with a couple, just one couple, for fifteen hours of what’s called “marathon” therapy over the course of just three days. We met each morning at 10:30, and worked till 4:30, with only an hour for lunch. It was challenging, intriguing, frustrating, amusing, moving, and very draining.
It was perfect.
It shook out to the equivalent of ten 90-minute sessions. If we had done this the traditional way, we would have had to meet over the course of nearly three months, and each time we would have had to ‘start the engine cold,’ re-establish our relationships, check in, get settled, and churn through things, only to turn the engine off a short time later and hope the following week would be a little bit better.
But this way, we could make headway, relapse, go deep, feel hopeless, take a short break, find hope, and do it all again, sustaining a powerful intensity together until finally, on day three, we saw that we were making real headway.
But this couple had a few agonizing moments. There were times when they looked at me with sad resignation, convinced that their marriage was beyond repair. And they really meant this: even though they felt better later in the day, their mid-morning attitudes were seriously bleak. And when they were in that place, that dry desert wilderness that told them they should just bail on this whole thing and break up—when they were in that desperate and forlorn place, I sensed I had one job to do: I didn’t buy it. I held onto my confidence that they would make it, and even become delightfully happy.
I was careful, to be sure. I didn’t sing happy songs to them about their future when they were in the midst of a hopelessness attack. I knew better, not just because I’ve been a therapist for a while, but because when any human being feels truly hopeless, it’s usually not a good idea to try to cheer them up. It will just ring hollow. So I waited. I played a long game. I agreed that they were in trouble, and stayed with them. I held my hope close to my heart, and hung in there with them until their despair began to lift.
Maybe I’m too cautious with the hope I feel. I know others who are more open about their good spirits, more willing to enthusiastically cheer a friend who feels discouraged, more open and at ease with their confidence in a bright future. Maybe I’m careful because I’ve had some hopeless moments myself, and in those troubled times I didn’t need cheering up. I needed patience…and an answer or two. Or maybe I’m just well aware that for some couples, true happiness is found in their merciful divorce.
In any case, today we hear another hope story. We encounter once again the archangel Gabriel, God’s messenger, bringing good news without any of my hesitation, offering cheerful greetings, proclaiming bright hope to someone who understandably responded with skepticism and resistance. We call her Mary, an English take on the Hebrew Miriam, but there wouldn’t necessarily have been many people in her day who knew or cared what she was called. She was female, for starters. She was unmarried, so she didn’t yet have a guaranteed, secure future. And however we make sense of the archangel’s news, it’s clear that Mary was suspiciously pregnant—a highly dangerous condition for a young unmarried girl of the time.
Moreover, this girl was just another youth in a small nation living under political oppression in an occupied territory. We learn a bit later that Mary and Joseph are forced to report to another town for some bureaucratic purpose, and (like all their friends and acquaintances) this young family had no choice when Rome decreed that they do something or go somewhere. And nobody cared if they had a place to stay once they got there.
But the archangel cheerfully greets Mary, saying, “Greetings, favored one!”—a most unusual form of address for a peasant girl. One careful translation has Gabriel saying it this way: “Hail, Gifted Lady!” She is almost queenly in this greeting, a distinctly powerful and important person. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, this greeting identifies her as the only one worthy to bear the Messiah, and sets her up as a representation of Israel. Mary is nothing less than Israel: the Gifted Lady blessed to be the house of God, fairer than any cedar dwelling that King David himself could have designed for God’s temple.
But Mary is not having it. Her wary attitude is captured well in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation, where Gabriel is nothing but a bright light, perhaps an outward manifestation of the light within Mary, the light that began to glow from within her, almost in spite of herself. Mary was perplexed; she pondered the archangel’s odd message. She pushed back on the absurd impracticality of it. Though she relented in the end and finally found a way to accept her role, it took her a while to get caught up in the enthusiasm.
Can you relate to her resistance? Consider her predicament as a young pregnant girl in a strict patriarchal society, and an insignificant member of an oppressed group in a backwater of the empire. Gifted Lady? Come on. But consider this too: consider the hopelessness of our own time. Even in a wealthy country like this one, the economic recovery has been anemic, particularly for working-class folks. Race relations continue to roil us—and take the lives of young black kids—with no clear way forward. War, torture, and violence rage around and within us, as if we’ve learned nothing in the bloody 20th century. Drought, hurricanes, ocean acidification: there doesn’t seem much to hope for in these frantic times.
But God comes to us today with this news: “Hail, Gifted Lady!” As Christians we find God not in a magical heaven, but embodied in a human being, born of a woman. And this is Good News not for the “one percent,” the cultural and financial elite, but for the people then and now who lived like young Miriam—the peasants, the undesirables.
It's understandable if we find all of this a little bit absurd. Like my couple last weekend, we aren’t necessarily in the mood to hear this Good News at full throttle, with happy joy. Even those of us blessed with great wealth and security encounter deep and complicated problems, in our careers, relationships, and families; and in our physical and emotional health. Are you even aware of how tired you are, how burdened you are by the pressures and anxieties of your life?
And the peasants around us—our homeless neighbors just outside and sometimes within these doors—for them, the Good News that God cares about them, that God came among mortal humans as a son of a peasant … our most vulnerable neighbors might laugh sarcastically at this idea. Will it help them at all—will we truly be their neighbors?—or is this just a pretty story? The jury is still out. God’s beloved poor today, like Mary herself, find all of this perplexing at best.
But the archangel is not deterred, and as God’s messenger Gabriel reveals God’s determination to get through to Mary, to connect powerfully with those then and now who ran out of hope long ago. “Nothing will be impossible with God,” Gabriel proclaims, ludicrously. But at that point, Mary begins to relax into her role. She drops her resistance and repeats that ancient Hebrew phrase, “Here am I.” Like Abraham and Moses and others before her, she says Yes to God.
And then she sings a song. After the archangel has gone, she travels to visit her (impossibly) pregnant cousin Elizabeth, and there Mary sings her famous Magnificat, a song of triumph over the forces of death and destruction. Her song is filled with allusions and imagery from the Hebrew Bible, and it echoes through the centuries as a manifesto of God’s justice, God’s most powerful dream for humans and the earth. The hope of the archangel has finally filled Mary’s heart.
I don’t literally sing in my therapy practice. (I suppose I could try it, but it would likely just startle and worry my clients.) But if I had told my marathon couple last week that they were welcome to sing if they felt the desire, they might have sung in the final two hours of our time together. They had found authentic hope, not from me, but from their own hard-won willingness to connect with each other again. They still worried it wouldn’t last, but they found it.
We can see hope in other seemingly hopeless situations, too. We can find places in our own lives where hope breaks in, a relationship is repaired, an injustice is redressed, a climate treaty is signed, a hungry neighbor is fed and given a warm place to rest. As real as our challenges are, we like Mary can begin singing before we know how it will all turn out. We can begin the song of hope, even now.
I’ll close with words from former Alaska Bishop Steven Charleston, a citizen of the Chocktaw Nation of Oklahoma, who has seen plenty of reasons to feel despair, but proclaims our hope in this way:
“There is no reason we should not sing. Standing here, among all the broken pieces of what we expected, what we thought should have happened, the way it was supposed to be, here in the empty places of our lives, here in the shadow of our own mortality, looking out into the unseen tomorrow. There is no reason we should not sing, and keep singing, until the flowers start to grow, until the mind begins to clear, until the heart of a thousand children beats ever so much stronger, and the angels in far off heaven stop and smile, thinking: they are at it again, they are still singing, all will be well, as long as they can keep singing.”