By and large, we are not a people who like to wait for things. The countdown to Christmas is excruciating for many, particularly since it starts right after Halloween, if not before. We just can’t wait until the actual season for waiting–Advent–gets started. And what is it with Advent now? Many of you remember when it used to be that we began to sing Christmas carols as soon as December started. Now we have to sing these songs we don’t know, and many of them are in a minor key–what’s up with that?
A full-term baby stays in his or her mother’s womb for 9 months–such a long time to wait! Lots of couples now don’t want to wait that long to find out the gender of their child, so they ask for the results of the pre-natal tests that will tell them whether they are having a boy or a girl. You’ve got to decorate the nursery, after all, get the clothes and furnishings that will be just right. Talk about your “active waiting!”
Imagine now waiting all your long life–well into old age–to become a parent. That’s what Zechariah and Elizabeth had done. It had probably been a longer, more bitter wait for Elisabeth, since it was assumed that she was the reason they hadn’t been able to get pregnant, and for women of that time, there was real shame in that. So when the angel–no less than Gabriel himself–came to Zechariah that day when it was his turn to go into the inner sanctuary and offer incense, and told him that he and Elisabeth would have a son, Zechariah was struck dumb– literally. “How will I know that this is so?” he asked, not unreasonably. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Gabriel apparently wasn’t used to being questioned, and so he struck the old priest dumb, until the time came for the angel’s words to be fulfilled.
Nine months, thinking about what God was able to do. Nine months, watching his wife’s wrinkled old belly become stretched taut over a growing infant, laughing and maybe even crying with her, only able to scribble on a writing tablet to her that the baby’s name would be “John.”
And when at last the child was born, and they came to him to ask by what name he should be dedicated, Zechariah scratched out the name once again on a writing tablet. “John,” he wrote, in shaky letters, and, holding his newborn son in his old gnarled hands, Zechariah lifted up his voice for the first time in 9 months–”Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” Praise was the first word on Zechariah’s lips.
Another couple–much younger–also having waited 9 months for their baby to be born, issued their first public statement this week in the form of a letter. Mark Zuckerberg, the barely 40-year-old founder and CEO of Facebook, and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan, announced the birth of their daughter Max to all Facebook users this past Tuesday. It was in the form of a letter to their daughter–
Dear Max [it began], Your mother and I don’t yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future. Your new life is full of promise, and we hope you will be happy and healthy so you can explore it fully. You’ve already given us a reason to reflect on the world we hope you live in. Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today.
It’s a sentiment that might have been expressed by almost any parent upon the birth of a child– hope, promise, the desire for a better world in which their child will grow up. Zechariah and Elisabeth might even have said it.
But, of course, Mark and Priscilla [I don’t think they’d mind if I refer to them as “Mark and Priscilla”] are not “any” parents, but rather, economically speaking, are in the top 0.1% of parents, and they used this letter to their daughter Max to announce the launch of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative “to join people across the world to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation. Our initial areas of focus [they write] will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.” They have pledged 99% of their Facebook shares–currently about $45 Billion–during their lives to advance this mission.
Almost immediately, the Chan-Zuckerbergs’ motives were questioned, noting that the legal form this initiative takes allows them to have a massive tax reduction and to maintain control within their family, but still, that is an amazing amount of money to be invested in education, medicine, and technology, areas close to their hearts and from which their fortune came. I commend them for taking a broader perspective than their own personal gain and for proposing constructive use of their good fortune for the common good.
What I do wonder about is where and in what they put their trust–trust in the sense of faith or hope. It’s probably not surprising that it seems to be in technology, with the underlying assumption that more, or bigger, is better. “Technological progress in every field means your life should be dramatically better than ours today,” they tell Max. In medicine, Mark and Priscilla trust that “as technology accelerates, we have a real shot at preventing, curing or managing all or most [diseases] in the next 100 years, [so that] your generation and your children’s generation may not have to suffer from disease.” Their hopes for Max’s generation focus on advancing human potential–”Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today? …Can we connect the world so you have access to every idea, person and opportunity?” [I’ll admit, that makes my head spin.] The other focus is Promoting equality–making sure everyone has access to infinite opportunities, “regardless of the nation, families or circumstances they are born into. Our society must do this not only for justice or charity, but for the greatness of human progress…”
“Unto us a child is born…” This letter to Max is a document of great sweep and ambition. Without knowing them, I’m guessing it is an accurate reflection of their values and hopes, as the moment of the birth of a child can crystallize for us all. But I also think of other parents–those without the resources and benefits of the Chan-Zuckerbergs–who also have hopes and dreams for their newborn infants and the world in which they will grow up. I imagine parents of baby boys with dark skin may also hope that by the time their sons are old enough, “the talk” will no longer be necessary–”the talk,” of course, is about how to act around police and white people, so that they might not be shot and killed on their way home from the corner store. “Unto us a child is born…”
I imagine parents in Syria and Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, in refugee camps and holding stations for migrants, dreaming of a home, the sounds of birds singing outside, green grass for their child to play on, not a gun shot or explosion to be heard. “Unto us…”
I’ll admit I have a hard time imagining what dreams the parents had who gunned down 14 people and injured 17 more in San Bernadino this week, after leaving their 6-month old with her grandmother. What kind of world were they dreaming and hoping for her? I shudder to think what such a legacy will mean for that child. “Unto us a child is born…”
“Unto us a child is born…” What would you sing? What kind of world do we dream for the children born today? My song has to have a melody line for meaning and relationship, a sense of Spirit, a sense of awe, of sheer wonder, of reverence. I would want these children to reach beyond boundaries of “people like us,” in real time, not just “Facetime” on an iPad. I would long for them to discover that they are part of nature, which has been given to us in sacred trust, so that they might help us repair the damage and wounds our generations have inflicted. “Unto us a child is born…”
“And you, child,” that other infant was addressed, “you will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
“Unto us a child is born…” You shall call the child John, or Max, or Taisha, or Pedro, or Mohammed, or your own inner child. All of their names are Emmanuel–God with us, for God is with us, even in the darkness and the shadow of death in which we seem to be sitting all too often. We must not focus only on the shadows and darkness, lest it suck us in and convince us that is all there is. A child is born, a light shining in the darkness, waiting for us to nurture and feed, to teach and to learn from, to laugh and play with, to sit at the table and eat and tell stories with. We are still waiting, yes, but even now a child is born. Let us set the table where all God’s children are welcome and are fed. Even now, let us keep the feast.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark