I was surprised at the number of conversations sparked by last Friday’s eblast in which I recounted an unpleasant encounter with a rude stranger at the UPS store. To refresh your memory—an unmasked, package-laden interrupter broke into the long line of people waiting to ship packages. In response to my meaningful throat clearing and steady stare, the person muttered, “Get over it,” and I went silent.
What should I have done? You had thoughts. Some thought I should have been more assertive, that I shouldn’t have allowed a bully to prevail. Others applauded my restraint— “you never know who has a gun.” Many of you told your own stories of watching bullying behavior in a public place, and being either proud of or pained by your own response.
I’ve been thinking about that chance encounter and your reflections. And I’ve done some research. Bullies have always existed—their presence among us is not new. Remember Skut Farkus, the yellow-eyed, raccoon-hat wearing town bully in the movie “A Christmas Story?” Of course you do. He was terrifying. And far too familiar. Farkus’ appearance on the screen frightened children everywhere; standing up to him was certain death.
Though bullies are not a new phenomenon, their current brazenness is breath-taking. Whether mocking a hijab-wearing train passenger, or taunting persons because of skin color or gender identity, or flouting mask recommendations, or weaponizing social media, a bully is born every minute. And they move among us shameless and unchallenged. (“You never know who has a gun.”)
In the movie, Ralphie Parker’s dad encouraged him to fight back, to protect the younger kids, to give Skut what he deserved. Turns out that was bad advice. It usually is. So, what should Ralphie have done? What should we do?
Current research on bullying advises that when we witness bullying behavior, we ignore the bully, and tend, instead, to the one being bullied. Instead of standing up to a potentially dangerous assailant, it is wiser to stand beside the victim, to humanize them, to tend to their needs. Depriving the bully of attention and granting the victim agency is, some say, a far better strategy. “See the victim not as a victim, but as a person,” one commentator advises. “And deprive oxygen to the bully’s fire.”
To see the vulnerable other as a person worthy of our attention, our protection, is a skill worth learning, a sensitivity worth cultivating.
Though not exactly an instance of bullying, the presence of the Angel Gabriel in Sunday’s gospel reading is startling. (Luke 1.26-38) (I once described Gabriel’s sudden appearance as an assault on Mary. It was an unfortunate image which I won’t commit again.) Swooping in on an unsuspecting Mary, the angel announced a perplexing truth: “Greetings! God favors you!” In other words, “Hey, Mary! God sees you!”
Here’s the funny thing about this story. Mary was largely unruffled by this angelic encounter, taken back instead by two seemingly innocuous pieces of information. The first unexpected data point? God saw Mary. “Greetings, favored one!” Me? God sees and favors me? It was perplexing.
The second thing that caught Mary’s attention was not the amazing identity of the child she would carry, or that he would continue the ancient Davidic dynasty or that he would be a king, but that she would be pregnant at all. “Wait, Gabriel. Pregnant? Not possible.” It was a conundrum.
The Angel Gabriel gave a couple of odd First Christmas gifts.
Mary was seen. That’s the first gift the angel gave.
And the second? “God has plans for you.”
I am eager to pursue this familiar text with you on Sunday. After three Advent Sundays of apocalyptic doom and more John the Baptizer than anyone really needs, we finally arrive at the main event. God sees us! God has plans for us!
Awkward Segue to follow . . .
Speaking of seeing, on Monday evening we have opportunity to see something no one has seen for 800 years. I’m attaching a link to an article in the Chicago Tribune: ‘Christmas star’: Jupiter and Saturn align on Dec. 21 – Chicago Tribune about this celestial event.
Though astronomers at the Adler Planetarium have hard data to support their scientific findings about the “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, some wonder if this fabled phenomenon might be what the Wise Ones saw after Jesus’ birth. Might the Christmas Star have been the Great Conjunction, a once-in-a-millennium stellar event? I’ve marked my calendar for Monday, December 21, during the Winter Solstice, to step outside just after sunset to witness the “Great Conjunction.” And if, as the stars align in the night sky, their brilliance causes me to remember Jesus’ birth and its cosmic implications, I will consider it another gift from God.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent brings simple gifts from God. We are seen. We are sent. Stars still shine.
“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post