fourth sunday of advent | Dec. 22nd
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
I enjoy visiting Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and one of the reasons is its history. I like the old buildings and their stories. One of those stories is about Ona Judge. Ona was the daughter of a biracial woman and a white man, and Ona was also a slave, a person owned by Martha Washington.
Because Ona was of such light skin, because both her grandmother and mother were raped by “honourable” white men, the President’s wife chose her to be her personal slave. She accompanied Martha Washington to official functions, on social visits and shopping trips, and assisted her when entertaining at the President’s House in Philadelphia.
I’m certain that Mrs. Washington thought that Ona should be happy and even proud to be able to serve in these ways, since after all she was just a slave. I’m quite sure that Martha never imagined that Ona resented being owned and locked in this gilded cage.
This is why Mrs. Washington was so infuriated when on the night of May 21, 1796 Ona escaped. Martha took this as a personal insult after all she had done for Ona. The President’s wife placed newspaper ads seeking the return of her property, this woman named Ona, and she offered a reward to make sure that people took her seriously. Until the day she died, Mrs. Washington sought Ona’s capture and return as her property.
Ona escaped to the seaport community of Portsmouth. She worked there to support herself by hauling water, ironing, doing laundry and cooking. These were far more menial tasks than she performed as Mrs. Washington’s slave, but Ona chose this life over her previous one because she was free.
Martha Washington thought she loved Ona and that Ona loved her, but that love was as real as that of those white men who had raped her grandmother and mother.
I share Ona’s story this morning because today is the Advent Sunday dedicated to love, a real love, a love manifested perfectly in the coming birth of the Bethlehem baby. When God chose to enter the world in Jesus, He could have come any way He wanted.
God chose to be born in the humbleness and vulnerability of a homeless and nation-less family. God chose to be born in the poverty of swaddling clothes. God chose to come in the weakness of an infant with no pretense of power in the least. God chose to come in a love offered freely to everyone, without precondition. God chose to come into the world without distinction so that He could embrace everyone.
Martha Washington thought that favours granted her slave made the slave love her, but Ona Judge risked everything to escape from Martha Washington.
Mrs. Washington supposed that she deserved better for treating the slave less like a slave, but Ona always knew that she was and always would be a slave to Martha.
Martha’s favours never changed her thinking that Ona was a possession. Ona was a special possession, but still a possession. Being treated better than others by a master does not erase the fact that the master still owns you.
Just as Martha could love a favourite set of china or a silk dress, she could love Ona. But Ona knew that this was not the love of one person for another. This was not a love that Ona could choose to accept or to give. She could only be loved as long as she acted exactly as Martha Washington commanded, and a forced love is really not love.
We do God no favours when we forget this and go back to teaching about a commanded-love, that God loves us only because we do what we’re told to do and if we don’t, then we can burn forever.
This is not a very inspiring or sincere expression of love, and it is not the love we honour today.
In the Gospel we heard the Evangelist Matthew quoting Isaiah: “‘The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”’”
Not God with some of us, not God with us only when we obey, but God with us.
Jesus’ birth is the opposite of a commanded-love. It is empathy. It is God becoming one of us.
The wonder and awe of Christmas is that the birth of Jesus changes everything. God is asking for more than a love we can’t refuse. In Jesus, God is asking us to choose love.
How about this: until Christmas, let’s pray boldly. Let’s call on God to come among us. Let’s ask God to shine on every person and every place that needs the light of his unfamiliar love. And let’s ask that this love may inspire us to love like God loves.
Christ is Immanuel, God with us. May we choose to be with Him as we celebrate this wondrous mystery of God’s perfect love. And may His unfamiliar love infect us and grant us the willingness to choose love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
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