Read Martha’s Sermon from Sunday, December 11
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St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
Sermon for Advent 3A
December 11, 2011
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thess. 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
“How can the infinite finite be?”
A friend of mine who had spent some time in Mexico said that every Mexican girl and woman that he met had the first name of Mary. In that Roman Catholic culture, every female was Maria Theresa. Maria Carla. Maria Antoinetta. and so forth. It illustrates the power of the iconic Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Roman Catholicism. Which also explains why Protestants largely tend to ignore Mary. Except at this time of year, when images of Mary riding on a donkey and in the manger are everywhere.
Today, the third Sunday of Advent is what is called “Rose Sunday,” a day when we honor Mary. You’ll note the lighting of the single rose candle in the advent wreath. This is not because pink is for girls, but because the rose has come to be a symbol of Mary. “There is no rose of such virtu as is the rose that bare Jesu.”
What we know and think about Mary comes from sources biblical as well as “extrabiblical.” Biblical sources count her as most blessed among women. Scripture tells us of her ancestry as a descendant of the house of David. She is introduced by the Gospel of Luke with the visit by the angel Gabriel. It is worth noting that while her virginity is mentioned in both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew, the virgin birth of Jesus by Mary is never mentioned again in the New Testament. It was not prominent in the life and worship of the early church.
Scripture suggests that Mary had other children. Jesus is said to have had other brothers and sisters. Note that at the cross Matthew refers to Mary without even mentioning that she is Jesus’ mother: “There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:55–56). We know that this is Jesus’ mother because of Matthew 13:55, “Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” “James and Joseph” are the sons in both Matthew 27:56 and 13:55. So Matthew refers to Mary without calling her the mother of Jesus, and a few verses later, he simply refers to her as “the other Mary” (27:61).
And what mother can forget how Jesus himself speaks of and to his mother? In Luke 11 a woman in the crowd “raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’” Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27–28). And of course there is the story of the wedding at Cana when Mary approaches Jesus to do something about the fact that they are running out of wine, and while Jesus does ultimately do something, he at first replies “woman, what is that to me? My hour has not yet come.”
Mary is with the disciples praying in the upper room in Acts 1:14, but after this she is never mentioned again in the New Testament. In fact, in the one place where Paul comes close to mentioning Mary, he simply speaks of generic “woman”: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Galatians 4:4).
All of this is to say that the veneration of Mary is extra-biblical and came later. For example, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was decreed by Pope Pius in the nineteenth century. Contrary to what many think, this does not refer to the virgin birth of Jesus, but rather declares that Mary was conceived without Original Sin, and thus was a suitable mother for Jesus. No sex, no mess. No blood or pain or amniotic fluid. Exalting Mary so far above the experience of ordinary womanhood makes a point about womanhood in general.
I am not disparaging extra-biblical understandings. In fact, applying our imagination prayerfully is an excellent – even necessary – way to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through scripture. The question then is what the biblical and theological bases are, and what does this understanding tells us about God and Christ, and ourselves.
I have concerns about a lot of post-biblical doctrines about Mary, because I believe that they miss the central point. Because if we don’t claim Mary’s humanity, we also miss Jesus’ humanity, which is what the incarnation is all about. And by exalting Mary, we fail to appreciate what an extraordinary young woman she was — “extraordinary” in the way the word is commonly used, applied to humans. If she’s venerated, wherefore go her character? Her faithfulness? Her courage? Her acceptance?
But even more than missing the extraordinary in Mary, we also miss the ordinary. Seeing the ordinary in all of this is key. I said a minute ago that I’m all for engaging in holy imagination. Later [earlier] this morning we’ll look [we looked] at images of the annunciation to Mary in classic and contemporary art, and we’re invited into one kind of holy imagination, that of the artist. We’re invited to see what artists have seen in Mary.
Where Mary’s ordinariness really comes home to me is a piece The Pen Bay Singers are performing in our Christmas concert called “O come Emmanuel,” the words taken from a poem by Madeleine L’Engle. The piece begins
O come, O come Emmanuel
within this fragile vessel here to dwell.
O Child conceived by heaven’s power
give me thy strength: it is the hour.
Mary’s inner questions and conflict, the tension between what she is experiencing bodily and her faith in what it means, are conveyed not only in the words, but also in the music by Daniel Gawthrop. Mary speaks a few phrases, articulates a thought, and then the music plays alone for several measures, as she ponders. Back and forth between words and music, speaking and pondering. And then comes her next thought –
O come, thou Wisdom from on high;
like any babe at life you cry;
for me, like any mother, birth
was hard, O light of earth.
Like any mother, birth was hard. Mary’s next words reflect her song “My soul magnifies the Lord,” which we read in place of the psalm today. She understands that her child will raise up the poor and the hungry, and upend social hierarchies. She expresses her wonder at this, given his lowly birth:
O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
whose birth came hastily at night,
born in a stable, in blood and pain
is this the king who comes to reign?
Born in a stable in blood and pain. And then she asks this universal, cosmic question “How can the infinite finite be? And then the deeply personal, and intimate “Why choose, child, to be born of me?”
What this helps us to understand is this. It does us very little good to come here Sunday after Sunday, to say the words and to sing the hymns and to get down on our knees and all, if it is all outside us. If nothing is moving inside us. Take away the very real physicality of Mary and Jesus and it is all just abstract ideas and sentiment. It keeps Jesus at a safe distance, which, I often think, is precisely what all the sentimentality around this time of year is designed to do. Encase it in glowing nostalgia, like one of those glass balls with a snow scene. Step into a fantasy for a couple of weeks as a kind of temporary reprieve from the pressures of daily living, and then come January, when the carols are over and the decorations are put away and the credit card bill lands with a thud on your doorstep it’s back to real life. No wonder skeptics look at us and shake their heads. This is no where near robust enough to stake our lives and faith on.
The real story is so much more than this. We start by getting from Mary what every mother knows. There is no safe distance when it comes to giving birth. “Like any mother, birth was hard.” We are each of us born in blood and pain, and so was Jesus. And as every parent knows, there’s no safe distance when it comes to raising a child, watching it venture into the world, stumbling, making mistakes, getting hurt. And there is certainly no safe distance watching a child die. The whole point is that Jesus was born of a regular, human barely-out-of-childhood woman to be totally and intimately involved in the real, gritty, ordinary human reality. Jesus and Mary’s lives were as hard core as it gets.
God did not come to keep a safe distance, but to break into human existence in all of its messiness, pain, questions, ambiguities. Mary offered space within herself for God to dwell. We too, are asked to make space within ourselves for God to dwell. Christ wants to crack us open, to dwell in our deepest and most intimate spaces. Something holy is waiting to born in each one of us.
At the end of L’Engel’s poem, as Mary has pondered silently and expressed her struggles, her questions and her fears, through and from all of that, Mary, mother of Jesus, most blessed among women, at last is able to joyously proclaim
O come, thou Day-spring from on high:
I saw the signs that marked the sky.
I heard the beat of angels’ wings
I saw the shepherds and the kings.
O come, Desire of nations, be
simply a human child to me.
Let me not weep that you are born.
The night is gone. Now gleams the morn.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,
God’s Son, God’s Self, with us to dwell!