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"The Pause Between Two Notes"
by Gary in New Bern
based on Luke 1:26-38

Rilke, in his Book of Hours, writes:

I am the pause between two notes that fall

into a real accordance scarce at all;

for death's note tends to dominate.

Not much of an Advent text, is it? It hardly seems to match the flavor of the Christmas season, and hardly seems right to introduce such a sour note right before Christmas. It seems to be the antithesis of everything that we see and hear during this beautiful holiday season.

Yet I believe this little poem captures the spirit of the season better than all the tinsel, colored lights and Christmas carols that lift our hearts into the magical joy that we call "Christmas." Because, when we take away all of the gold and glitter, the sentimental feelings that have been part of our celebrations since childhood, and place this story in the real world, Rilke's lines seem an appropriate commentary on this story.

The Christmas story, by worldly standards, is really one that hardly bears mentioning. It is a story common to its time. Because of an imperial edict, an older man and his teen-age bride are forced to travel to their ancestral home. To complicate matters, she is pregnant - ready to deliver her first child - a baby that is not his, and is obviously born out of wedlock. As they arrive in town, they find that there is no place for shelter, and she is in labor. Finally, after much searching around, they find a cave where animals are being sheltered and, there, amid sweaty animals and flies, in the dirty, itching hay, she gives birth to a child - her first.

Hardly a unique story. At one time, I worked in a downtown church in Columbus, Ohio in a program called the "Open Door." In one night, we would often deal with a dozen stories like this. All of those people would understand perfectly well what Mary and Joseph went through. In one night, I remember helping a couple from Pennsylvania with three children, looking for work. Their car was out of gas, they had no money, no food, no place to sleep. They were angry, frustrated, scared, and didn't know what to do in the face of an uncertain future that seemed to hold no promise for them. Later we had two girls come in. They lived in an apartment in a bad part of town. Their apartment had been broken into so many times that they couldn't even latch the door anymore. Everything they had was stolen, and they had been beaten up several times. They were afraid to go back to their apartment, but had nowhere else to go. I could go on, but all the stories, after a while, had the same refrain: fear, hopelessness, powerlessness, despair.

We don't like to hear these stories, especially during this season of the year. The ones on T.V. all have happy endings. Someone takes them in and gives them a job, a stranger appears, who turns out to be an angel sent by God. But that, we know, is only the stage. In the real world, poor people get stepped on, life is uncertain, and the Sermon on the Mount enters as a discordant note, a flight of fantasy, an unrealizable hope.

We live in a Godless world - not only because people take advantage of one another, not only because they lack faith and good moral judgement, thinking only of themselves, but also because we seem to have a worldless God - a God who can't relate, who can't seem to understand our need to survive, to pay the rent, to find and keep a job, and maybe find a little happiness along the way.

So Christmas enters as a discordant note, a day that is out of place among the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year. And how can one day, no matter how beautiful, how full of hope, nullify the gathered effect of the other three hundred and sixty-four when God seems so obviously not in control? Aren't the two notes irreconcilable, as Rilke suggests? That's the real question of Christmas!

Have you ever had an experience that rocks you to the core - that is not only life-changing, but life-crushing? That has annihilated your plans, sent your dreams up in smoke? That has hit you so hard and fast that you can't stop shaking, that has left you feeling like you're living out some terrible nightmare from which you can't seem to wake up - that you've lost control and suddenly you're just a spectator of your own life?

Imagine Mary - put yourself in her shoes for a moment if you can, as her life is suddenly rent in two by this angel visitation; as her plans, her hopes, her dreams for her and her new husband suddenly vanish with the angelic greeting: "Hail Mary; the Lord is with you!" Oh, Mary! If you only knew! And perhaps you have caught already a glimpse of the import of this message! You must know! And yet you are only a child yourself - how could you know? You'll be cursed and laughed at, accused of having an illicit relationship. Your husband's business will be ruined - he will be ridiculed also and called a fool - if you are lucky enough to keep him at all! And your son will be called worse. Years from now, you will look back from the foot of a hill called Golgatha, and you will wonder!

Now, as you feel the blood leave your cheeks, as life begins to stir inside you, your hands begin to tremble. You have every right to be filled with fear. You've lost control, even of your own body. You have no say in the matter. Here is the voice of God saying, "It is done." In a world of rules, edicts, regulations, decrees - here is another one enough to crush the life out of a young woman. What can you do but submit?

I am the pause between two notes that fall
into a real accordance scarce at all;
for death's note tends to dominate.

And yet, this is a particularly Christian story, and so he continues:
Both, though, are reconciled in the dark interval, tremblingly.

In the midst of her fear and trembling, precisely where hope seems absent, where everything looks bleak, springs a hope from the inner resources of Mary's faith that is so strong, so overpowering, a promise so powerful that it transforms the entire story. Within the crushing news, there is also a promise; and her acceptance of that promise determines the shape of her new life.

By worldly standards, her life has come to an end. She is ruined. Her life is in a shambles. But the promise she accepts is so compelling, the hope so wonderful, she is so consumed by it, that the rest hardly seems to matter. She submits - willingly, consciously. She hears the promise, and abandons herself to it. So this young woman - barely a teenager - give up her life to God's will. "Lord, let it be to me according to your will . . . do what you will with my life." Mary abandons herself to the promises of God.

Could you do as much? Will you do as much? For the sake of the promise, are you willing to lay your hopes, your dreams aside? Are you willing to submit to His will - not hesitatingly, not with regret - but willingly abandon yourself to it? Her answer to God's messenger challenges us, haunts us with the purity of her desire to be her Lord's handmaiden. One of the fathers of our faith said, "True religion is to desire one thing." Mary got it right.

In Mary's body, in her womb, God begins His strange work, reconciling the difference between the two notes: the discordant melody of a broken and fallen creation. Mary's acceptance of what God was doing with her - in her - to look through His eyes not only at the world, but also at her life, broke the disharmony in her own life. It is the same for you and I - only obedience to His promises, and the taking up and living out of our hope can break death's dominance over our life, and restore the harmony. For you, for me - that is the promise of His coming; the great hope of Advent.

So Rilke concludes his verse:

I am the pause between two notes that fall
into a real accordance scarce at all;
for death's note tends to dominate -

Both, though, are reconciled in the dark interval,
And the song remains immaculate.