Advent IV Behold!

While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms (“righteous … living blamelessly”), Mary is simply “a virgin.” She is not described as extraordinarily holy but a rather ordinary person like each of us. Mary’s life was moving along a quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. God, however, works wonders in every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, at center stage of the world’s attention and on what we would call the margins. Ashley Cook Cleere writes: “The tendency to think that leading unassuming lives in out-of-the-way places isolates us from the extraordinary is debunked by Mary’s surprise visitor.



 

 

 

 

Luke 1: 26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

 

“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”   Meister Eckhart as quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor

 

From earlier in this first chapter of Luke, we learn a quite a bit about the parents of John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zechariah. “In the days of King Herod of Judea, Zechariah was a priest who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah.” According to the division of service established by King David to take turns at Temple duty the priestly order of Abijah was the eighth order of the sons of Aaron.  This meant that Zechariah was direct descendent of Aaron.  But that was only the half of it. Elizabeth, his wife and mother of John the Baptist, was a direct descendant of Aaron as well. Aaron was Moses’ elder brother.  In the earliest times after leaving Egypt it was given to Aaron and him alone to enter the holy of Holies.  It was to him that the Tent of meeting and the ark within it where given as his charge. They had the very best of family connections. And, according to Luke, “both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” Like Sarah in the Book of Genesis, Elizabeth is shamed in that culture for not having offspring, but she is old now, and increasingly hopeless.  But when Zechariah, a righteous priest, is offering incense in the holy place of the temple tabernacle in Jerusalem, a messenger of the Lord named Gabriel greets him with the announcement that his prayer has been heard and his wife will give birth to a son named John who will become a great prophet like Elijah.

What do we know of Mary?  We know her name and that she was a maiden.  We are told that the man to whom she was engaged was acknowledged as being a native son of Bethlehem, David’s town.  But that was pretty common.  But of Mary – Luke tells us nothing, except we know that she has a distance cousin, Elizabeth.  But unlike Elizabeth, Mary is not characterized as “righteous” in her religious observances, and she is not visited in holy surroundings in the city of Jerusalem, but in the very humble circumstances of  an insignificant northern village called Nazareth.  But Gabriel tells Mary she has found favor with God, that she will conceive a son and that she is to name him Jesus, and that he will rule a dynasty, fulfilling all the ancient expectations for a Jewish Messiah. 

In Luke’s poetic and allusive phrasing, the messenger says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Not because of Mary’s holiness but because of the Holy Spirit.  And in case she doubted his veracity, he offered as proof Elizabeth, Mary’s kinswoman in Jerusalem, who is pregnant in her old age “for nothing will be impossible for God.”  Though it isn’t clear from their conversation, with perfect acquiescence she accepts the responsibility of the child, complementing Gabriel’s, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son” with her own, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”

In Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, Marina Warner notes the swift evolution of perspectives on the Mother of Jesus as she shifts from being an unnamed person whom the evangelist Mark and the Pauline letters seem either indifferent to or unacquainted with, to being esteemed in Luke and John and the patristic tradition as the first disciple, the ideal Christian, the new Eve, the personification of Israel, and the iconic symbol of the Church itself.

We have no way of knowing now if Mary’s elevation to the highest degree of holiness is the consequence of fresh factual information unavailable to the earlier New Testament writers, or the result of insight, inspiration, deepening piety, or a yearning for a feminine face of God.  And it seems not to matter.

The French philosopher Paul Ricouer warns us that when we come to such a story as this we should be suspicious of our impulse to project on it our own cynicism or fancies and secondly he cautions that we also have to forget our theologizing and critiquing and adopt an almost childish innocence in order to make ourselves available to a text’s scenes and symbols so that they can have their intended effect on us.  Each of the evangelists, after all, was writing for the heart, not the head.  Each was trying in his gospel to communicate overwhelming, world-changing feelings of awe, reverence, gratitude, and continuing need for Christ, who taught us the value of holy obedience and submission to Love.  In the girl from Nazareth we see the source of that willingness and vulnerability.

While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms (“righteous … living blamelessly”), Mary is simply “a virgin.” She is not described as extraordinarily holy but a rather ordinary person like each of us. Mary’s life was moving along a quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. God, however, works wonders in every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, at center stage of the world’s attention and on what we would call the margins. Ashley Cook Cleere writes: “The tendency to think that leading unassuming lives in out-of-the-way places isolates us from the extraordinary is debunked by Mary’s surprise visitor.

 

Not that being an “ordinary” girl in a small village makes Mary without spirit or strength. William Brosend sketches a somewhat different picture of the traditional Mary, meek and mild: “Mary’s responses throughout are more fearless and less humble than is sometimes appreciated. Perplexity at the appearance of an angel seems entirely appropriate, even more so when the angel begins the conversation with a proclamation of divine presence and an assumption of human fear. 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.” We read this account only once every three years in the lectionary, but it’s a familiar and beloved story, even though it perplexes us, too. The dialogue is spare, 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.

We might wrestle a bit with the question of Mary’s acceptance, or is it surrender? And what is she accepting, 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 her lovely sermon on the text, “Mothers of God,” 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.” Gabriel twice recognizes Mary as “favored,” but then offers what Alan Culpepper calls “a strange blessing.” We thank God for our blessings and believe, Culpepper says, “that those whom God favors will enjoy the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet Mary, God’s favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing.” Culpepper’s claim directly contradicts prosperity theology, but then, so does Mary’s life, rich in “strange” blessings.

 

“It is tempting,” Kimberly Bracken Long writes, “to imagine that the human predicament whether we define that as the state of our warring world or the state of our broken lives, can never be healed or overturned. Yet Luke tells us that not only is redemption possible, it has already happened. Because of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the holy continues to break into our lives, to bring us closer to the completion of creation and the already-and-not-yet reign of God.”

Perhaps Dianne Bergant’s reflection brings us most elegantly to the closing edge of Advent, longing toward Christmas and its own promises: “According to ancient Christian writers, God waits for Mary’s yes; creation waits; Adam and Eve wait, the dead in the underworld wait; the angels wait; and so do we. With Mary’s yes, hope is enlivened and history is changed. There is an unimaginable future for all people, a future that comes from God.  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. The angel announced the impending birth and didn’t ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary, “whether to say yes to it or no, 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 in our own lives, Taylor says: “Like Mary, our choices often boil down to yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not; yes, I will explore this unexpected turn of events, or no, I will not.” You can say no to your life, Taylor says, “but you can rest assured that no angels will trouble you ever again.” And then she takes a bold turn that calls for courage on our part, if we say yes to our lives: “You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.” As Meister Eckhart said: “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” How are you bearing God in this world?

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Pastor's Page. Bookmark the permalink.