Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:1).
A few days ago I started reading Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up. Steve Martin hit my consciousness in the mid 70s as a “wild and crazy guy” on Saturday Night Live. Readers under the age of 45 probably won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Too bad. Sadly the current SNL doesn’t compare to the Martin-Ackroyd-Murray era. But I digress.
What has fascinated me so far about Martin’s story is the layer upon layer of influence and experience that created the comedian I came to know when I was in middle school. Martin tells of his own middle school years when he worked at the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California and watched various stage performers. What Martin describes goes beyond merely watching. He studied them. He learned their jokes. He watched how the magicians’ hands moved as they performed tricks.
And along with his watching he imitated them. He took what they did and used it, adapted it. By the time the nation came to know him on SNL we were seeing years of unnamed influences on the screen. Martin was a comedic genius, but not entirely original. His genius blended creativity with imitation.
The life of faith, living the Jesus way, is not something we make up as we go along. Following Jesus is a blend of creativity and imitation: Creative in that your story and your circumstances belong uniquely to you. Imitative in that others have been there before. You are in good company as you live a faith-life.
Mary offers a powerful example of how creativity and imitation mingle in a life of discipleship. What the angel announced to Mary was entirely unprecedented. It had not happened before. It has not happened since. Mary’s response was equally unprecedented. She answered God out of the particulars of her life, her engagement to Joseph, her plans for her future. This is Mary’s story, no one else’s.
But in her response Mary looks back to another story – the story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Mary’s song borrows line after line from the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. After that conversation with Gabriel, Mary does not erupt into original expressions of effusive worship. She recites scripture; she imitates the song of Hannah but in a way that is her own, blending creativity and imitation.
Humility shows itself in obedience, the kind of obedience captured in Mary’s “let it be done to me according to you word.” That’s a prayer worth uttering every day. But humility is also seen in our willingness to connect our life story to a larger story.
Mary made sense of her life by looking to Hannah. There are other examples of faithful living that help us make sense of our lives. Above all, there is the larger story of God’s mission in this world. Humility is the capacity to see beyond the drama of our own story, the willingness to understand “what’s happening to me” in light of “what is God doing in the world?”
Christmas tells us that God has entered our story. Clothed in flesh, God embraced every detail of human existence. Christmas also invites us to enter God’s story. This is the story that makes sense of what we’re living right now, in this time, on this street, in this economy. Christmas is an invitation to creative imitation.
Gracious God, my own story dominates my attention: my plans, my circumstances, my cast of characters. Give me the grace of a Mary-like humility that sees a larger story. Help me to find my place among other faithful people, taking encouragement from their example as I live a life of creative imitation in the name of Jesus. Amen.