December 20, 2020

Nothing is Impossible

A Christmas Story by Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson, based on Luke 1:26-38

December 20, 2020 – Fourth Sunday in Advent

It had been two years since Avery stopped singing. 

Two Christmases had come and gone without her humming a single carol.  Two years’ worth of birthdays had passed without her joining in with friends and family when the cake and candles appeared.  Not once in the past two years had she sang along to her favourite songs on Spotify.  And when her family would go to church – back when going to church in-person was allowed – she would stand with the congregation when they would rise to sing but it had been two years since she’d joined her voice to their song.  

Two Christmases ago a classmate had shared a video clip on Instagram of their school’s winter concert the year they were in grade 8.  In the video Avery could be seen stepping up to the mic to belt out the famous line from “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but her voice cracked and she sounded like a donkey – “five golden rings!”  The experience had been excruciating to live through once, with that sea of eyes looking up at her from the auditorium floor.  But when the clip was shared on the internet it went viral.  Avery was haunted by shame and embarrassment.  She would never sing again, she said.

Vijay worked for the Ministry of Health – stressful lately – his walk home from the office each day was a tiny reprieve.  His pace always quickened the minute he rounded the corner to turn on to his street, when he could see from a distance the lights of his house glowing; home was Vijay’s peaceful haven.  Vijay carefully tapped his leather boots against the ledge of the front door to minimize tracking any snow into the house.  He and his husband, Michael, had just finished the final touches in their renovation; Vijay himself had personally laid the marble tiles in the entryway and was paranoid about damaging them with sleet and road salt.  After a year of chaos – builders in and out, mess, dust, and jumble, Vijay’s home was finally the oasis he’d always dreamed it would be.  He put his briefcase on the stand he’d sourced just for that purpose and changed into his slippers.  Michael was in the kitchen starting supper; he was working his way through the recipes of various local chefs in a cookbook called, Toronto Cooks.  Suddenly Michael’s cellphone rang – a clang in the quiet.  “Greetings, you who are highly favoured!”  It was Gabby, their social worker at Children’s Aid.  Michael put the phone on speaker: “Don’t freak out,” Gabby said, “but I have incredible news.  You’ve been matched with a baby – a little girl.”  And Vijay felt all the calm and brightness of their peaceful, silent night evaporate.  

The instructor at the George Brown Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts was explaining the final assignment to his students for the online class called, “The Business of Cooking.”  Miriam turned the volume up on her computer and rushed to write down key words so she could look them up on Google translate if need be.  The assignment was “holiday cooking.”  They were to cook for a holiday that wasn’t their own and show evidence of networking and marketing to an audience outside their usual circle.  “Impossible!” Miriam thought.  Miriam had left Damascus five years ago with her parents and siblings and nieces and nephews.  She’d found a job in the kitchen at one of the downtown hospitals.  It was her sponsor, Veronica, who had suggested the culinary school at George Brown.  “You’re such a great cook,” her sponsor had said.  “You could be a chef!”  Easy for her to say.  Miriam wondered how she was going to complete this assignment.  Cooking for a holiday not her own?  Networking outside her circle when she didn’t have the English words or an “in” with anybody.

On the second Sunday in December Avery’s mother forwarded her an email from the church with the subject line, “Sing on Christmas Eve?”  The minister was looking for a young person to sing one verse of “Silent Night” for the online service.  “You have such a beautiful voice, Avery, I wish you would sing again,” her mother said, stroking Avery’s hair.  Avery pushed her hand away.  “Lay off, mom!” she yelled and stomped to the front door, shoving her feet into her shoes and her arms into her coat.  “I’m going out for a walk,” Avery said.

Michael and Vijay hadn’t spoken in three days.  A rift had ruptured the evening the social worker had called and the rift had now grown into a canyon of division.  “We agreed we would adopt an older child,” Vijay reminded Michael, “a teenager, even.”  How could Michael even contemplate a baby in their house, when everything was finally so serene and orderly – impossible!  They hadn’t planned for a baby.  “But Vijay, we were chosen specifically,” Michael reminded him, “the baby’s mother said she wanted us – of all the profiles she chose us.”  “Impossible,” Vijay thought.  There was so much Michael wasn’t considering.  Vijay stood up, “I’m going out for a walk,” he called, but Michael didn’t answer.

The church was next door to the hospital where Miriam worked.  On her breaks she’d often sit on a bench in its garden, even in the cold.  Today she sat, head spinning with the details of her cooking class assignment.  To the right of the church entrance stood a life-sized tableau of the nativity.  Miriam walked up to the scene – she knew the characters – there was Mary, her namesake, leaning over the cradle, Jesus, one of the prophets alongside Muhammed (peace be upon them).  The church had these laminated descriptions – cards – taped around the scene to give visitors background information.  “Mary and Joseph spoke Aramaic,” Miriam read.  “The Aramaic alphabet was widely adopted for other languages and is ancestral to the Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic alphabets,” the card said.  Miriam stared at the figure of Mary, her veil – it was identical to the hijab Miriam had chosen to wear that morning – a fresh, bright blue.  All of a sudden, Miriam had an idea.  

Avery walked and walked until she arrived at the church and flopped down on a bench in the garden.  Looking up at the bell tower against the bright blue sky she wished with all her heart that she could go back in time; that that video had never been posted, that she’d never messed up that note; that the whole world hadn’t heard it.  She wanted more than anything to be her normal self again, to sing without caring what anybody thought.  Avery noticed a woman in a hijab standing in front of the nativity that stood to the right of the church entrance.  When the woman left, Avery walked up to the scene.  “Mary was likely a teenager when she became pregnant – just 13 or 14,” Avery read on one of the cards that had been taped to the scene.  “She went to stay with her relative, Elizabeth, perhaps because of the public scandal; everyone would have talked about Mary because she and Joseph were not yet married but Elizabeth called Mary ‘blessed’ and Mary went on to sing again.  God’s future for her was greater than anything in her past,” the card said.  Avery gazed at the statue of Mary, whose eyes were a deep dark brown, the same colour as her own.

Vijay decided to stop and sit on a bench in the garden of the church a few blocks from their home.  A girl was standing in front of the nativity scene near the church entrance.  He imagined himself touring the office with a baby girl in his arms saying, “I want you to meet my daughter.”  The girl left the garden and Vijay walked up to the nativity scene.  He noticed the laminated cards tacked around the tableaux.  “The angel Gabriel asked Mary to take a risk – a leap of faith,” Vijay read, “reminding her that she would not be alone in raising her baby.  ‘For nothing is impossible with God,’ the angel said.”  Vijay followed Mary’s gaze to the baby lying in the manger.

Monday was blustery.  Avery walked all the way down to the lakeshore and stood on the edge of the water.  It felt like she was carrying a bowling ball in her throat – her vocal cords felt that tight and heavy and constricted.  The wind whipped.  She looked right and then left, and when she had determined that there was no one around she made one small sound, just one syllable, then two – “Si-i….”  Then she put sound to one word and then two: “Silent Night….”  The wind whisked up her words, she had sung!  She was singing. 

When Vijay got home that evening he lit a fire in the grate in the front room and poured two glasses of wine.  He called Michael over to the couch.  “I was thinking,” Vijay said, breaking the ice, “we need to give Gabby an answer.”  “This is the biggest risk we’ve ever taken, Michael,” he said, “but I’ll take it.  I’ll take the leap.”  Michael smiled and reached for Vijay’s hand.

Monday evening on her way home from her shift at the hospital, Miriam stopped by the church, took a deep breath, and rang the bell.  The minister was just on her way out; she was surprised to see a woman in a hijab standing at the door.  “Greetings,” the woman said.  “I wonder, do you have a few minutes to listen to a strange idea,” she said.  The minister stood on the steps listening while Miriam, from six feet away, painted the most intriguing picture with her words.  A “Bethlehem Supper,” she called it, to be served take-out style on Christmas Eve.  “The kind of middle-Eastern food with which Mary would have been familiar,” she said.  “I can get my family to help; we’re all in one bubble,” Miriam was saying.  “We could easily cook for a hundred with the church’s kitchen.”  The minister imagined a scene she hadn’t thought possible this year – people gathered in a meaningful way on Christmas Eve.  It was crazy, concocting this plan with this woman she’d never met, but something inside of her told her to take the leap.  “We’ve already begun a Christmas Eve collection,” the minister said.  “The church could cover the cost of the food.  I can source the takeout containers and get some volunteers to hand out the meals,” she said. 

And so it came to pass that Christmas that – for at least three people in the city of Toronto – what had once seemed impossible suddenly became possible.  Avery started singing again – not as part of the online service at the church, but at home, around the piano, with her family.  Vijay and Michael shared the good news with their families that they would very soon be welcoming a new baby into their home and a crowd was gathered at the church on Christmas Eve during a lockdown – outside the building there was a line-up one-hundred-persons long, everyone spaced six feet apart.  Anyone who was hungry had been invited to come and get their portion of the “Bethlehem Supper.”  The most delicious smells wafted out from the side door of the church – roasted sweet potatoes and figs, the fried onions and cumin in the mejadra, the dish of basmati rice and lentils, the scent of roast chicken and clementines and fennel.  “Impossible,” Miriam kept thinking, but she’d done it – she’d ticked every box on her assignment.  She’d cooked for Christmas Eve, a holiday not part of her own tradition, she’d networked outside of her circle, marketed the meal broadly among the vulnerable downtown.  

The Christmas story is many things but it begins with one person who was willing to take a leap of faith, to say “yes” to the extraordinary and unexpected, to accept a challenge that felt beyond her limits – to open herself as a means of God bringing hope and peace and joy and love to the world.  Each of you will have your own “impossible” that you are facing this year and in the years to come.  May the angel’s proclamation to Mary find resonance in your own heart: that nothing is impossible with God.  St. Paul put it this way: “we know that in all things God works together with those who love God to bring about what is good” (Rom 8:28) – a fresh start, strength for the journey, inspired ideas and creative solutions.  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary said.  May it be so with each of us, to unlock our voice, to open our heart, and to meet the challenges of our living.  Merry Christmas.