An Advent Mary…

Posted: December 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 4B, 2017
Luke 1:26-38

An Advent Mary…

Today is the fourth and final Sunday in the church season we call Advent. And for us the completion of the theme that claims that being religious does not have to rely on a supernatural approach to faith. The mystery we seek to name, define and concretize does not have to rely on a supernatural understanding let alone a superstitious approach. We have even explored how this mystery that we name God or seek to define is very much found in and engaged in through the ordinary. In the spirit of the storyteller we call Mark, we have considered the invitation to ‘stay alert’ to the present-ness of the sacred or God, in the ordinary. We have continually suggested that the ‘good news’ of Advent is to become more aware of, more sensitive to, the God-given moments of grace in us and in our ordinary daily events. Why?  Otherwise we may miss what actually is.

And so once again the hands of those who shaped our Advent lectionary, can be seen in yet another clue: a young woman whom we call Mary. Bishop Jack Spong in his Weekly Letter some time back, said of Mary: “As the Christmas season arrives, the icon of the Virgin Mary enters the consciousness of the Christian world in a significant way.  She is universally recognized with her eyes lowered, the infant Jesus in her arms, and located in a stable… (This) Madonna and child have provided the content for many artists over the centuries” (Spong 15/12,/2005).

Yes, we can dwell on the differences between how Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have dealt with Mary. But in the end, they are both attempts to make Mary real and human. The Roman approach can be said to err on the side of the symbolic and get caught up in the process of deification and the Protestant approach can be said to err on the side of the ordinary and become obsessed with refuting the need for deification and lose the opportunity to value the ordinary as other than non-deist. As we said the other week there is a need to hold the symbolic and the ordinary together in a living partnership.

Today we join Luke the storyteller as he weaves his way through the announcement of John the Baptist’s conception (and Elizabeth’s recognition of what God has done for her), through the annunciation of a virgin birth, and on to Mary’s interpretation of what is happening to her, in the Magnificat.

There are, of course, significant differences between the two stories we have. From the settings to the characters to the way the story goes, each account takes its own path to that doorstep, with everyone together, and Mary singing her song of jubilant faith. Whether in Temple or dusty little village, with elderly parents-to-be surprised by joy or a young maiden facing an unexpected and dangerous pregnancy, the story speaks of hope and promise, renewal at the same time as it speaks of unprecedented change social alienation and familial struggle. This invites the hearer to wrestle with the relationship between God and humanity, between pain and joy, between the symbolic and the ordinary. And the answer is to trust in a God at work in their lives in very surprising ways. Put the symbolic and the ordinary together for it is there, that Mystery, or God is found.

Here is also the claim that God is at work on the margins. While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms (“righteous…living blamelessly”), Mary is simply ‘a young woman’. Greeted by an angel of God as “full of grace,” as “favoured one,” Mary is nevertheless not described as extraordinarily holy; in fact, she is an ordinary person like each of us. She’s a small-town girl, with her life moving along the quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. And then the ordinary meets the holy or the sacred or what I am calling ‘The symbolic’.

Here is where the works of wonder take place. In every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, “on the margins.” Here is where “the extraordinary” happens; everywhere, including “out-of-the-way places” where people live supposedly “unassuming lives” But it’s especially compelling at this point to think of the story of Mary in that little village, far from the Temple, the center of worship and life for her people and their long story with God, and even farther away from Rome, the center of the “known world” of the time, the center of the Empire that kept its cruel heel upon those same people, the people of God.

The next point is that being an “ordinary” girl in a small village brings us a Mary who is somewhat different from the traditional Mary who is meek and mild, essentially perfect, and here we have the suggestion that she is “more fearless and less humble”. When that angel appears before Mary, talking about God being with her and then assuming that she’s afraid, we note that she has a right to be a bit perplexed (who wouldn’t be?): “Give the girl a chance Gabriel! Her question is not an expression of doubt but an effort to understand the extraordinary words of the angel” (New Proclamation Year B 2005). She is not passive about what is happening for her. And we can understand that. Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to process such information from an unexpected and even uninvited visitor? We read familiar and beloved story (especially to artists), even though it perplexes us, as well. The dialogue is limited, and we never really know for sure what Mary is thinking or feeling, at least until she sings her song of joy at Elizabeth’s house.

The next question that is raised by the story is about the nature of a blessing. What is a blessing? This question is highlighted by the commentators who wrestle with the question of Mary’s acceptance–or was it surrender? And what is Mary accepting: is it an invitation, a request, or simply information about what’s going to happen to her, and is it a good thing that’s about to happen? In a sermon on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, “The angel did not ask her how that sounded to her and whether she would like to try out for the role; he told her” (Gospel Medicine).

Gabriel twice recognizes her as “favoured,” but then offers what R. Alan Culpepper calls “a strange blessing.” We thank God for our blessings, although many believe, he says, that those blessings are “the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet here we have Mary, God’s favoured one, being blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Here is the probability that acceptability, prosperity, and comfort and all things nice have never been the essence of God’s blessing” (Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible).

Many people might be taken aback, even offended, by Culpepper’s words, as we often hear people say, “I’ve been blessed” when they want to express their gratitude to God for the “good things” of life. Culpepper’s claim directly contradicts prosperity theology, but then, so does Mary’s life, rich in what is “strange” blessings.

The next question that arises is what is God doing here. In both of these stories from Luke of conception and promise, the focus is really all about God and what God is doing. John like all good prophets, will call the people to repentance in order to ready themselves for what God is about to do, and to prepare the way for the One who is to come. And Jesus, Gabriel says, will be not just a great man but the Son of the Most-High God.

Is this the good news we are waiting for? Is it about how God is doing such wonderful and seemingly impossible things here in this story about Mary and an angel’s astonishing announcement. Here we note that the story is introducing another deist concept. The story moves from ” Request,” or “Invitation,” to “The Annunciation.” And we traditionally leap to the idea that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own; after all, nothing is impossible with God. But is that the right leap? What if this humble but earth-shaking conversation tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): As Brian K. Peterson writes, “God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (New Proclamation Year B 2008). The sacred takes place in and through the ordinary, and this is what, in some mysterious way, makes Mary’s story our own, and it is our story, our ordinariness that makes her story something we can understand much better.

Here again we have God’s mysterious ways. In this quietly marvelous story, we find intersection between Mary’s life and our own, for in each person’s life, “God takes part in the unfolding of human existence from before the moment of conception.” This is a staggering thought, not because of the before the moment of conception issue but because of the co-created-ness of our living. The ordinary in sync with the symbolic. The imagination in sync with reality. And here’s the challenge. The fact that we need this story suggests that this task of unifying is not easy. We are not always so keenly aware–or perhaps accepting–of God’s hand at work in our lives; we need to stay alert because we foolishly think we will lose our individuality or our sense of who we are if we admit to our interdependence. It is as if we are afraid of vulnerability (or invulnerability). Maybe our experience of more or less agency and/or powerlessness in our lives makes us feel afraid of being in sync. On the plus side pastoral care is enriched by the insight, that, like Mary, we need “time to adjust to astonishing news, to question whether or not trials and tragedies, or God’s magnificent promises, are for real, and to contemplate potential repercussions. The query ‘How can this be?’ is a reverberating refrain that shapes our faith by reminding us…how much we have yet to discover. But maybe the exclamation of these words might signify the nearness of God”. “How can this be” as a question demands the nearness of God. Otherwise why ask the question at all? In hospital waiting rooms, at the bedside of the dying, or in hearing a good report from the doctor, in a hundred different settings of human life where we are especially aware of “the nearness of God,” these words express our conviction that God is involved in our lives in ways that are mysterious indeed, just as God’s ways were mysterious to Mary that day and every day that followed.

Barbara Brown Taylor, addresses with great insight the question of Mary’s “choice,” her freedom to respond in this most unusual situation, and our freedom as well. Taylor has said that the angel announced the impending birth and didn’t ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary, “whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or whether to defend herself against it however she could.” We have a similar choice between possibilities in our own lives, Taylor says, to say “yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not….” is our choice. We can say no to our life, Taylor says, “but we can rest assured that no angels will trouble us ever again.” And then she takes a bold turn that calls for courage on our part, if we say yes to our lives: “We can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. We can put the symbolic and the ordinary together, We can see God as existing in every human life, co-creating the universe. We can honour the mind both conscious and non-conscious, We can live the questions and keep alive the possible and we can bring the sacred and the ordinary together as an adventure of humanity. And as the Mary story says We can agree to smuggle God into the world inside our own body” We can become “Mothers of God” by asking ourselves how are we bearing God in this world?

Luke might have believed that a supernatural virgin birth or virgin conception was required but his story also says that, it should never be used as a disqualification of Mary’s humanity or womanhood, or for that matter, Jesus’ humanity or manhood. Amen.

Notes:
Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. The First Christmas. What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Birth. New York. HarperOne, 2007.
Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Ludemann, G. Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and her Son Jesus. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 1998.
Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Hunt, R. A. E. Cards, Carols, and Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity. Preston. Mosaic Press 2013; Morning Star Publishing, 2014

 

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