Gillian McIntosh, “Do not be afraid”
The most Fourth Sunday of Advent 2020 news story is this headline from CBC.ca: “BC mother who gave birth while in a coma due to Covid-19 is awake, meets baby for first time.” Take a moment to let all those words sink in. I’ll repeat them. “BC mother who gave birth while in a coma due to Covid-19 is awake, meets baby for first time.”
“Gillian McIntosh gave birth via C-section while in an induced coma and on a ventilator.” Apparenlty she had contracted pneumonia and later Covid-19. Gillian went to the hospital early November and only in mid-December is seeing her baby for the first time. What must that be like to wake up weeks after you’ve given birth and to be handed your child for the first time? It’s a birth story unlike any other I’ve heard.
Today we lift up Mary, who endured her own confusing but joyful birth story. Who is told directly by the angel Gabriel she would give birth to Jesus. And the angel’s haunting, affirming words, “Do not be afraid.” It’s incredible to think anyone could expect an unwed teenage mother not to be afraid, when told that she will give birth to God’s child. Yet these are the words of reassurance, “Do not be afraid.”
I wonder if doctors and nurses shared similar words with Gillian McIntosh, “Do not be afraid.” Although they must have had a hard time concealing their alarm, informing a highly pregnant woman they would need to put her in a medically induced coma, even before her husband could arrive at the hospital. And yet both mother and child emerged healthy from the whole ordeal. That too is an Advent miracle. A time of waiting, as the father cared for the child, he must have been going over all the things he wanted to share with his wife when she woke up. It must have also been frightening. And yet the angel reassures us, “Do not be afraid.”
For us too: “Do not be afraid”
In many ways these words of reassurance are for us too. “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid when the 18 foot Christmas tree falls over shortly before Advent evening prayer last Thursday. Apparently the cleaners were here and one of them shrieked hearing the crash. Someone from the Shelbourne Community Kitchen heard the commotion and contacted Pr. Lyle, informing him that by the way there was a loud crash in the church and someone screamed. Later Brian discovered the scene and informed me with a worried look on his face. Of all the things he could tell me, I had not expected to hear that the Christmas tree had fallen over. We artfully avoided the tree in the frame for evening prayer and proceeded as though everything were perfectly normal. Thanks to everyone who helped put the tree back up. And it looks amazing.
Isn’t that often the case during a pandemic, that we are each curating stories and framing our lives that change week by week. People ask, “How are you doing?” Not sure how much information to reveal in the 30 seconds we’ve been allotted in the Zoom check-in, we typically say, “Fine, but a bit weary,” or something like that.
Imagine how the McIntosh family had to curate their family story until Gillian, the mother, woke up from her coma. It’s a story we celebrate knowing the outcome. But we’re also aware that the story could have ended differently. Sadly many stories for us and people we know have ended differently. Collectively we mourn the deaths of many families and friends. Some folks we have lost due to Covid-19 and others for different reasons.
Many of us will be celebrating Christmas differently this year because people are missing, including due to Covid-19 restrictions. Some of us may be alone or with far fewer people than we are used to. Without the same kinds of travel to be with family or family traveling to be with us. We are without the conundrum of how to fit in a variety of visits to different households in just a few days.
And yet for others, little will have changed. I have talked to people who live alone or who are introverts and generally keep to themselves, that little has changed in their day to day life during the pandemic. Things are more boring than usual, not being able to stop by favourite cafes and restaurants with a friend.
And still others for whom family has always been so far away, that travel over Christmas or for most family gatherings was never possible to begin with. Family on the other side of the country, the continent, or on another continent. Still we curate our stories, depending how vulnerable we want to be and there is only so many times we want to repeat ourselves. We don’t owe everyone the unabridged edition of our lives. We make choices about what we share.
Curating Covid-19 gospel includes the Magnificat
As we curate a gospel responding to Covid-19, we need to include the Magnificat. The Song of Mary as it’s also called from Luke 1, serves as our psalm today. We also sing it during evening prayer, as we did the past three weeks as part of the Holden Evening Prayer liturgy.
As a side note, we’re always curating the gospel message. We are never able to focus on all of scripture and all the different interpretations all at once. That also wouldn’t make sense. This is why we proclaim a gospel message for this time and place.
We began talking about the angel’s message “Do not be afraid” which comes just a few verses earlier than the Magnificat in Luke, chapter 1. After Mary is told not to be afraid, comes to terms that she is giving birth to the child of God, she is given some of the most beautiful prophetic poetry in the New Testament. Mary’s words are so beautiful sometimes we need to stop and consider what they say.
Mary prophesies that God is bringing down the powerful from their positions of power, lifting up people who are lowly. As well God is filling the hungry with good things, while the rich are sent away empty.
I’ll ask the question of myself. Who am I in Mary’s Song? I know I’m not among the lowly. I also know I’m not among the hungry, given my privilege of food and housing security. My initial response is a defensive one. Surely I am not among the rich who God is sending away empty? Let’s short-circuit the defensive response which never produces anything fruitful or faithful. As soon as I get defensive I am no longer listening to God, because I’m too busy proving I’m not a bad person. But God the Song of Mary isn’t about me. The Song of Mary is about centring people who are oppressed and poor. If I pivot away from getting defensive, I become open to listening to what God is trying to tell me. An invitation to be part of a world turning action so that everyone may flourish, especially people who are excluded from flourishing as things stand right now.
Mary’s Song is about turning me away from myself towards others. Now let’s broaden the scope from me to all of us. Some folks in our community need to be centred and lifted up. Many of us whose basic needs are met, take our cues from Mary’s words. We are called to stand ready to participate in God’s world turning.
To address a related question, just because some of us have relatively more economic privilege, doesn’t mean we don’t also have anxieties, worries, and troubles in our lives. God cares about us too. It’s about sharing our privileges with others, so that collectively we can solve more of the community’s problems.
Covid-19 has taught us our communities are resilient and can pivot quickly when needed in order to respond to emergencies. We can do it again to solve problems around housing and food insecurity, systemic racism, making communities safer for trans people, and more.
Story: teenager in supermarket
A story about responding quickly when called upon. In London, Ontario, Payton, a 16-year-old girl with an anxiety disorder was shopping with Paula Schuck, her mother in the grocery store. In an aisle they passed by a 60-year-old woman wearing a mask on which she had written, “THANKS CHINA!” in all caps. Immediately the girl said, “Your mask is completely inappropriate.” The woman was taken aback, muttering “Well, that’s your opinion.” The teen replied, “It’s a fact, not an opinion. It is offensive.” The woman replied again, “My mask is perfectly fine.” Meanwhile it took the mother five minutes to piece together what had just taken place and did not immediately respond. Later she said she was proud of her daughter for standing up against racism.
Yes her daughter should be congratulated for doing the right thing, but the story also highlights that no one else said anything, including Payton’s mother. No one else in a grocery store with other adult shoppers and employees. No one said anything except a teenage girl. This is part of the problem when we pin our hope and salvation on children, thereby absolving ourselves. We’ve seen this phenomenon happen with the exulting of Greta Thunberg and Autumn Pelletier. We lift up kids, while we as adults mostly do nothing.
Let us not do to this to our kids. Let’s not leave it all up to them to clean up the messes we’ve made. Let us also not do this to Mary and her song. To exult Mary as an incredible teenage mother, proclaiming beautiful poetry, while we do nothing. Or to defer everything to Baby Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in only a few days.
Instead let us take Mary’s song seriously. We acknowledge it offers grace to those who need it and calls to action for those of us in positions to support it.
Wrapping up, “Do not be afraid.” God is with you in your struggle. God is with you whether things turn out okay or not.
Let us curate a gospel around Mary’s Song, threatening the powerful, lifting up people who are. Let us make haste and participate in God’s saving , world turning action.
Know that whatever you are going through, God’s grace and love are for you. Amen.