In today’s scripture reading from a translation of the Bible known as “The Voice”, we heard the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, ordinary people visited by extraordinary events. Giving up on having children they adopted a style and a pattern and an approach to live without direct descendants that, if unwanted or unwilled, was at least predictable and patterned.
Zechariah continued with his temple responsibilities, holding his head up as best he could, despite this barrenness, an obvious judgment from God. Elizabeth continued in her life and living, carrying out household responsibilities, holding herself as best she could, at the market, in family gatherings, despite this barrenness, an obvious judgment from God.
The lack of a child did not, after all, define them. The barrenness could stem from some unknown sin, some family lack, some transgression committed unawares. The best course would be to live properly, to carry out duty, to attend to God’s word in the world. And so they did. Following the routines of life, the familiar patterns, the reliable comforts. Attending to friends and family, befriending nieces, nephews, and cousins. They settled in to roles of wise, loving, elders, tinged with a sense of tragedy and loss. Until the Angel came.
It’s a bit like a children’s story. A person or an animal is shunned by those around. Some aspect of their being drawing amusement, derision, even scorn and abuse from their fellows. Another character enters the story, sees something in the very object of derision, the very thing about them that others vilify, sees something wonderful and insists they display it proudly, use it wisely, and, in its use, save their entire community from a fate they would have suffered had the scorned one not stepped forward to use what was now their gift.
Some people say we should not tell children stories like that. There’s even a name for the condition they promote: “Magic Feather Syndrome”. Anyone know why they call it that?
Yes, it comes from the Disney movie about a flying elephant named Dumbo, who is convinced, by a friendly mouse (also, apparently, a source of fear for elephants) that a magic feather will aid him in his desire to spread his ears and fly. Eventually Dumbo drops the feather and flies under his own power.
Those who have a problem with the story say it promotes the idea that magic can and will take us to places where only hard work can prevail. There’s no such thing as magic, or magical feathers, or leaps into the air without exercising one’s ears or wings or hang glider materials. To tell a child that anything but hard work is the path to success is not only foolish, it is downright cruel and should be stopped. Let us put an end to the heartless imagery and unsustainable promise of Magic Feather Syndrome!
I find myself unable to do so. Perhaps my mother, who raised me on Old English Fairy Tales and saw to it that I had a Sunday School education, is to blame. Perhaps its my own quirkiness, or maybe I’ve just gotten older and have come to realize that behind or around or within every story of a magic feather or a magic lamp or a magical act there is another story of hard work, almost superhuman effort, deep yearning and even deeper belief. If magic feathers are to have any power at all, they must first have roots in one who works hard for fulfilment and believes in its possibilities. Or so I think.
Dumbo had to learn how to fly in the face of fear and ridicule, Cinderella put in countless hours learning humility and love in the face of darkness and despair, the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin’s story had to spin the straw, snow white earned her keep with the dwarves, and the princess in the story of the wild swans had to spin flax into coats for her brothers. Their faith provided the fertile ground for the magic to do its work.
I think that may be the truth behind Zechariah and Elizabeth’s miracle. Perhaps Zechariah went home with a feather from Gabriel’s wing gripped firmly in his hand. We know that Elizabeth conceived after his return. Who knows, perhaps the words of the messenger were all that were needed. Perhaps the action of the Angel upon Zechariah, was God’s way of saying, ‘stop talking about why you cannot do this and get on with doing it. I know you can, it’s time you knew it too.’
Who knows? How many couples have conceived a child after bringing one into their lives from another family? What happens to us when we lift the pressure to perform off ourselves and relax into God’s sure and certain knowledge that we can?
Should we stop raising children with the promise that with faith and prayer and effort great things happen? Should we tell them to stop looking for the messengers of love and assurance that God will send into their lives?
I know I have been visited by angels in my life. I should have stopped and asked them for a feather from their robes, and would have too, had I known who they were, when they were with me. At the time, however, I was so wrapped up in my own inadequacy that I didn’t have the presence of mind to see them as they were.
The grade nine counsellor who treated me like a human being who mattered when my peers did not. The grade 11 drama teacher who looked at me, really looked at me, and prophesied that I was on my way to becoming a wonderful man. Just at the moment my leading lady had pronounced my ugliness to the world. Oh yes, she did. We were supposed to kiss…she was ‘hot’, I was not…I worked so hard to get that role…I was so crushed. But Dorothy Ash took my face in her hands, looked deep into my eyes, and told everyone that I would become a handsome man. I would age well.
Over the years there have been many angels. People who believed in me, as God believes in all of us. People who dropped feathers in my hand, that I might know my capabilities and put in the effortless hours of practice it takes to realize them.
There are angels active in our world. Somewhere men who were once great in their professions, who were known for their gifts and skills and dancing in the light are now in or entering into the outer darkness. Cast into ignominy and shame because their need for power overcame their promises of love. They will be needing angels too. Angels to remind them they are not their secret, shameful acts. To remind them of their promise and to assure them with prophecy and feather, that with the work of reformation comes a new and even more blessed dawn in the grace of love. They need them, I hope they have them. No human should ever believe they are the sum of their worst acts.
There are angels here, in this room with us right now. I know, I have seen you in action with one another. I have heard the stories of your grace, I have been present to your light. Each time I hold my feather, I remember God’s promise, and I am reminded of yours.
If Zechariah and Elizabeth hadn’t believed their angel, hadn’t gone ahead with the ridiculous promise of the son they raised, where then would Jesus have been? Without them to raise John with the benefit of their years, their wisdom, their grace, their ability to hold their heads when all around them were filled with doubt and blaming it on them, would he have been the man he was? One whose strength and passion paved the way for his cousin. Without Elizabeth’s assurance, would Mary have continued to Bethlehem? Without our angels, would any of us have continued, would we be here today?
We’ve given you a feather. To carry and hold and remind you, when you hear the songs of angels, that they are among us. Do not be afraid, live into the hope they portend. They portend for one, and they portend for all.