In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Elizabeth said to Mary “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Last Christmas I found myself empathizing with Mary in a way that I never had before, that was largely due to the fact that I was 8 months pregnant. I wondered if Mary had felt the same excitement and anxiety that I experienced. I was curious if she felt the same kind of hope for her child and the future. I wondered if she had as much trouble sleeping and if her back ached as much as mine did. What was it like for her to know that God was growing inside of her? And what was it like for God to be taking form in the womb of this young woman? Her pregnancy was particularly extraordinary. Every pregnancy and birth is touched with some element of wonder at the miraculous experience of new life.
It’s hard to believe that almost a whole year has come and gone since the birth of my precious baby girl. Now my daughter Amalee is 10 months old. She has brought us unimaginable joy as we watch her grow and learn. We especially love to play with her. One of her favorite games to play is peek-a-boo. If I put a blanket over my head and say “where is mommy?” She crawls over to me as fast as she can and triumphantly pulls the blanket away. She then takes the blanket and covers her own head, waiting for me to “find” her. I love to see the smile on her face when she is uncovered. Not only is this a fun game to play, my pediatrician told me at one of our visits that this is a good way to teach Amalee about object permanence. She explained that newborns don’t understand that an object or person still exists if it is out of sight or out of touch. This is something they learn as they grow. Before they develop this understanding they may get scared when you leave them because they think that you no longer exist. This can contribute to infants having separation anxiety. The doctor told us that playing peek-a-boo is a good way to lessen separation anxiety because Amalee will learn that we are still there even when she can’t see or feel us.
After hearing about this from the doctor, I was fascinated by it and I looked for more information about object permanence. I learned that Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist is known as the first person to study object permanence in young infants. He argued that object permanence is one of an infant’s most important accomplishments. In 1963 Piaget wanted to investigate at what age children acquire object permanence and so he did a study. He hid a toy under a blanket, while the child was watching, and observed whether or not the child searched for the hidden toy. He believed that searching for the hidden toy was evidence of object permanence. Piaget concluded that children around 8 months old know that an object exists even when it is out of sight. In future studies by other psychologists, they found that if an infant couldn’t find a hidden toy, they would usually give up looking for the hidden toy after about 90 seconds.
These studies about cognitive development in children inspired me to think about faith development. If as children we have to learn that when our parents leave the room or hide under the blanket playing peekaboo they still exist, can the same be said of God? Is it a normal and important part of our faith development to learn that even when it seems like God is hidden, God is still there? Like little children, we may find ourselves believing that God has disappeared at times when really God is just obscured. There are numerous things that influence our ability to see or feel that God is with us. Our fear and insecurity can become barriers. Fear can often lead to a breakdown in our faith. When our heads our filled with doubts, our vision of God is clouded. Our judgmental minds can also stop us from connecting with God. We judge ourselves as unworthy of God’s love or we make harsh judgments about God.
There are occasions when the harshness of the world makes us believe that God is gone or never existed in the first place. After the tragedy in Newtown last week, I know that there were many people whose faith was challenged by this terrible act. People ask me, how can God let this happen? My best answer so far is that we need to try not to blame God for something that a person has done. I have said this in other sermons and I will say it again, I fully believe that people are not God’s robots. As I have seen with my daughter, I may have made her but she is very much her own person. Similarly, I think that God is our creator, but we are our own people and we make our own decisions. God hopes that we will choose the way of love but does not force us to do that. Invitation is much more powerful than force. We have the ability to choose. In small ways and in monstrous ways, people choose darkness.
There is great darkness in the world. When we encounter this darkness, we may feel like giving up on God. We can take comfort in the gospel of John; “The light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness does not overcome it.” In the overwhelming acts of love and kindness that we have seen in response to the shooting in Newtown, CT, we know that the darkness has not overcome the light. We have not seen an outpouring of hate. We have seen an outpouring of love and compassion. We look also to the darkness in our own lives. We each face challenges and pain. We can also draw strength from the simple fact that we have made it through the longest night. The seasons in nature can inspire us spiritually as well. We have passed the time of the most darkness. More light is coming. Christmas reminds us of the light that shines in the darkness.
There are ways in which Christmas is like a big game of peekaboo with God. Each year we remember a time of feeling separate from God and again and again we celebrate God’s presence in the world in the birth of Jesus. Peak-a-boo. You thought God was gone but you had just pulled the blanket over your head. God has been here all along. Maybe you got tired of waiting. Maybe you got tired of searching. Thank God for being patient and understanding as we play our childish games. God is faithful, even when we are not. God loves us and would never abandon us. God loves us so much that God had to be part of the world in human form, grow inside a mother’s womb, enter the world a small, dependent baby, live life to the fullest, walk among us and reveal his love. Jesus finds us hiding in our fears of not being enough, our fears that God can’t handle our problems, and he pulls back the blanket and lets the light shine in so that God’s love is made real in our lives.
This fourth Sunday of Advent, we join with Mary in her waiting and hoping. In one of her sermons, Barbara Brown Taylor says that Mary gives voice to “every son and daughter who thought God has forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life.” We are also invited to join with Mary in allowing God to move through us.
We all long for a time when suffering will end and everyone will have enough, when nations and families will live in peace, and the earth will be restored and healed of the damage that has been done. This is a vision for the future that God calls us to be part of making into a reality. We are on the verge of another Christmas celebration. Some of us look back longingly on Christmases past, hoping to re-create better, more secure, less upsetting times. The troubles of the world and in our hearts have obstructed our view of God. We have been filled with separation anxiety, but God is here and Jesus will remind us of God’s presence and love.
We are going to see the promises of God unfold in our lives and the life we share in community. We are going to help one another search for meaning; we’re going to share our stories and lean on one another. While we wait we will rejoice as Mary sang God’s praise and as Elizabeth welcomed her. God’s promises are true. We are on the brink of great things. The barriers will come down and we will see Emmanuel, God with us, once more.