The Third Day of Christmas: An Angel Sent to Tell

December 28, 2013

The cancer journey involves many notifications, the exchange of news, lab results, or even game-changers mid-way through a course of treatment. Most often, the messenger is the doctor, or in my case one of three doctors representing various disciplines. In the past week, I have had a sit-down with each: the radiology oncologist (last Friday), the surgeon (Tuesday), and the medical oncologist (Friday). Yesterday’s encounter was the summary decision-making meeting. After collating all the data culled from a definitive CT scan and the surgeon’s assessment of it, Dr. Chen brought into yesterday’s meeting a proposal for further treatment: one more round of chemotherapy followed by lung surgery at the end of February, then a fourth chemo round in the spring. My family and I consider this plan very good news indeed and look forward to its results.

The psychology of notification is a fine art. The news one hears can shock, exhilarate, or depress, but rarely just inform. I remember vividly in June of 1998 when the hospital called home in the middle of the night to ask Dad to come in and see Mom, who was being treated for a severe stroke. The active message was “You need to be here,” but the full one would have been, “Mom has died.” The shock value of that unexpected turn, however, could have caused an automobile accident and compounded the tragedy of the moment. So it was pure grace and practical grief in motion to bring Dad to the ICU, not knowing the full extent of the news until a supportive staff could surround him.

God takes as much care delivering good news as bad, and we have ample evidence of this in the gospels’ narratives surrounding the coming of Jesus. The agent of communication is “the angel,” appearing several times in Luke 1 and 2, identified as “Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God” (1:19). The overall news he delivers is fantastic: Mary is to give birth to a Son who is conceived within her by the Holy Spirit; he will be known as the Son of God and Messiah. Others will recognize him as the King of David’s line, and he will do a great work among the people. Wow. This is a lot more information than most mothers, even today, get upon notification of their pregnancy!

But there’s more: the angel also was sent to tend to the emotions generated by the news. In Zechariah’s case, the angel’s task was to wake the priest up to the impending miracle. Too bad he scoffed and doubted, but this reaction did not stop God from proceeding with the plan for John (the baptizer) now conceived in Elizabeth’s womb. The angel had to explain the whole process, and, by the way, silence Zechariah’s objections until it could be accomplished. When Zechariah’s tongue was loosed at the proper time, it was clear the nine month hiatus from talking had done him good; all that came out was praise and thanks to God! But it took awhile to get there emotionally. God knew, and God tailor-made his notifications to Zechariah’s needs.

In Mary’s case, the angel had to tend to the possibility of fear. “Be not afraid,” Gabriel said, for he was bringing great news, not bad news.  It was a good and necessary spin, considering that in the short term, Mary would be dealing with the stigma of an unwed pregnancy, a difficult third-trimester journey to Bethlehem for the census, less-than-ideal birthing accommodations, and threats from a maniacal Herod against her son. But in the long term, what was about to happen would be awesome news not only for her—a handmaid chosen for special work by God—but for all of humanity to be saved from sin by the Son of God. We see the fruit of God’s gracious tending of her spirit and her emotional health in the Magnificat (1:46-55).

These stories suggest to me that news that comes from God can be received thankfully, realistically, and confidently. We need not fear what God might have to tell us. We can even hope, if not assume, that God would like to prepare us for what is ahead. The question would be whether we are in tune enough with God’s Spirit to catch the clues, hear the Word, and otherwise abide in the shalom of life in Christ. Though I have had many years, sometimes in long stretches, in which God has not seemed to give any special information or clues as to what is ahead—don’t I wish sometimes!—there have been key moments in my life when God has given a word. In each case, it was a word that helped prepare me for what was to come or to face a reality I had been avoiding for some time. It’s hard to describe, but the feeling accompanying such a revelation contains sweet realism, courage for the day, and God’s power to walk the path being paved. The thud of bad news has always been paired with the thunder of God’s mighty declaration that this, too, can be accomplished with his help.

This is why, when I got the first “bad” news on November 4 that what I had was cancer, there was no drama. The messenger was forthright, factual, and compassionate; she was also encouraging about the possibilities for treatment and committed to helping me. Inside me, God was tending my spirit and stabilizing my reaction. I did not experience any fear or trauma (and still haven’t), because God has convinced me that I am protected and safe. God’s Word has real teeth at a time like this:   “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4, NRSV).

On this third day of Christmas, it would serve us well to remember that God can and does tell us what we need to know when we need to know it, that no news is bad news in God’s economy, that his message spoken into our lives is life-giving in the broadest sense, and that, in the narrowest sense, it is never so overwhelming as to be beyond God’s ability to carry us through it. “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37), and “the zeal of the Lord will accomplish it!” (Isaiah 9:7).


2 Responses to “The Third Day of Christmas: An Angel Sent to Tell”

  1. Jodie Says:

    Thank you, Mary,

    “No news is bad news in God’s economy”.

    That perspective is what I would call really living by faith. The more we keep that in mind, the easier life gets. We can keep our heads on straight, the more vulnerable we can be, and the more easily we can pay forward the Grace we have received.

    Jodie Gallo, Los Angeles

  2. Heather Says:

    Once again, you have taken a complex idea and broken it down to the simplest component – notification – how it is delivered and how it is received. Your insight, grace, and ability to so clearly lead us to understanding is so wonderful. I am grateful you are using your personal experience to share with your readers a broader understanding of our lives. Thank you, and the very, very best to you and your family in the new year.

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