When the heavens open

A homily for a Blue Christmas service. December 21st, 2017, Church of the Epiphany, Ohio. Luke 1:39-45: Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the baptizer.

You may know that when a baby is born, its skull is unfinished. There are soft spots, fontanelles, where the bone has not yet fused over. It allows some flexibility for the purposes of getting born. In some faith cultures, babies are considered to be open to heaven, to have a special spiritual connection to the plane from which their souls came to be, until their bones have completely closed over this portal to the realm of the divine.

A few years ago, I visited a woman in hospital who was very old, and nearing the end of her life. She described to me the visitors who would gather around her bedside, day and night, singing the old songs, keeping her company. “They’re all dead,” she told me, “but they’re here every day.” She was ready, she said, to go with them. She was the first to make me think that at the end of our lives, when our heads begin to soften up again, perhaps, we may regain that connection to the place from which our consciousness came, and to which we may expect to return.

Twenty-five Christmases ago, I was recovering from pregnancy loss. One of the things that helped was listening on a loop to the Eric Clapton song, Tears in Heaven.

Would you know my name?
…Would you take my hand?
…Would you help me stand?
… And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.

To my ears, the song will always evoke those children born from darkness into eternity; the young whose minds and spirits were never hardened, or closed off from the realms of heaven.

So Mary comes to Elizabeth, who is with child in her old age. Elizabeth has just begun to graduate from fluttery, bubbly feelings breaking against her stomach to the experience of full-blown kicking and writhing from the creature living within her. It is still surprising enough each time to take her breath away, and so she cries out, “Mary, Mother of God! This child is like a jumping bean!”

John the fetus, wide open to the possibilities of heaven, knows that there is something to celebrate, someone drawing near, and he is making his excitement known in the only way open to him at the present. And so John the fetus is turning cartwheels in his mother’s womb, because with his direct line to the divine, he can hear, taste, see more clearly than he ever will with his own eyes the love of God drawn near, borne by the new life growing within Mary’s belly.

And because he sees it all, John knows that prophets never come to a good end. He sees the sword that will sever his own spinal cord, and the pain that will pierce his cousin Mary. He sees the age and fragility of his own parents, the inevitability of grief, and the vulnerability of human life. He sees it all; he sees it all, and still he leaps for joy, because he sees, too, the love that will overwhelm everything, and make all things new. He knows that love has drawn near, and he knows it for all that it is worth.

And Jesus: little, embryonic, speck of Jesus; what does he see, from such a soft and secret place? What does he know, from such a small beginning?

He knows my name. He takes my hand. He helps me to stand. Straddling the divide between heaven and earth, he promises, promises, promises that one day, there will be no more tears, and our eyes will once more clearly see the grace, the love, the everlasting mercy of God.


La Visitacion, El Greco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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