Advent IV Year C                                                                  Luke 1:39-45

20 December 2015                                                                 Canticle: The Magnificat

Ashland UCC

The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett

 

In the name of the Living God, who is and was and is almost here again. Amen.

 

Now on this last Sunday in Advent comes intimacy. Are you ready for it?  Can you bear it?

We are no longer standing at the edge of the world, at the edge of time, speculating about how the world will one day be fully transformed, how time itself will end when the Kingdom comes.  We are no longer listening to the wild imagery spoken by the prophets of the apocalyptic.  We are no longer with the crowd at the edge of the River Jordan with crazy, weird John who was yelling at us just last week to come clean, because the One we’ve been waiting for is at hand.  We are no longer in the little village of Nazareth when dear, wild child-of-a-girl Mary dared to accept the Angel Gabriel’s outrageous proposition that she bear God’s Beloved into this world, flesh of her flesh, spirit of the Holy Spirit.

Why do we ever imagine Mary to be passive?  Would some shy, simpering, insipid girl ever have had the chutzpah to willingly agree to such a thing?  Why did so many artists – mostly men – paint her as demure, with downcast eyes, when the Angel came a-calling?  I see her as bright-and-open-faced, eyes a-glint, a-sparkle, seriously considering and then taking the dare, saying, “Yes.  Let’s do it!  Let it be!  Let it be to me according to God’s word.”  This conception, the way the Story is told, it was not divine rape.  Mary could have said, “No.”  Remember that:  she had a choice in all of this.

It’s so hard for us who have heard this story so many times.  Well, think about it; it’s even harder for those who are hearing it for the first time.  Someone has said about this story, “If it wasn’t true, it should have been.”  And Frederick Buechner reminds us that

            [t]he earliest of the four Gospels makes no reference to it, and neither does Paul, who     wrote earlier still. On later evidence, however, many Christians have made it an article             of faith that it was the Holy Spirit rather than Joseph who got Mary pregnant. If you          believe God was somehow in Christ, it shouldn’t make much difference to you how             he got there. If you don’t believe, it should make less difference still. In either case, life is             complicated enough without confusing theology and gynecology.

            In one sense anyway the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is demonstrably true.             Whereas the    villains of history can always be seen as the products of heredity and environment, the         saints always seem to arrive under their own steam. Evil evolves. Holiness happens.   [1]

 

It makes it harder if we insist on staying in our heads instead of dropping down into our hearts.  It can be difficult to hear the story fresh, to clamber in and over the antique gilded picture frame and see Mary, really see her, not eternally sitting in some baroque chair but up and moving around, perhaps doing a little dance step or two, as she agrees to the once-in-an-eternity invitation to bear the child of God into this old world through her own young flesh.

Now whatever happened in that conception, however it happened, it has happened.  Mary is with child.  Joseph, overwhelmed, has taken to his bed and turned his face to the wall.  Do you blame him?  He’ll soon come ‘round when the Angel Gabriel pays him a visit in his dreams.  But at this moment, Joseph has imploded.  He is curled up in a fetal position with the covers over his head.

Mary – and please remember, though she is wise and brave beyond her years – she is not much older than a middle schooler.  Mary decides to leave home for a while.  I wonder if her parents helped her make that plan.  It wouldn’t be the first or last time in human history that an untimely pregnancy necessitated a prolonged visit to a distant relative.  Luke simply tells us that in those days, Mary set out and went with haste –with haste! –to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth, her kinswoman — perhaps a much older cousin, or maybe her aunt.  Uncle Zechariah is at home, but he can’t say a word since the Angel Gabriel rendered him mute for disbelieving in God’s power to create new life whenever, through whomever God wants to.

So here we are: no more longhaired prophets on the scene ranting about a New Age about to break in upon the world, no more crowds at the river longing to turn their lives around, no more bewildered and despairing parents, no disturbed, distressed fiancé, the gossipy, scornful neighbors in Nazareth have been left behind; even the radiant Angel with folded white wings has temporarily left the scene.

The story has shifted from the public to the private sphere, from the miraculous to the domestic.  Now it is just two women, one still a girl, both with unplanned, unexplainable pregnancies.  Now comes the intimacy.

I’ve talked before about the little village of Ein Karem, in the hills west of Jerusalem, where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived, where John the Baptist grew up.  It’s an attractive little town, nestled in the hills and built around a horseshoe-shaped canyon, trees all around, the town well in the center of the village.  The well is still there, clear water bubbling up, fed by a mountain stream.

If you take the path up the hill to the west — a path long enough and steep enough to make you breathless by the time you get to the top– you’ll find the beautiful Church of the Visitation.  There is a gate that opens into a courtyard surrounded by a garden.  When Pam and I visited this site some years ago, it was springtime and there was a scent of orange blossoms on the air.

On the garden wall is a two-dimensional modern metal sculpture of two women, standing, facing one another.  One of the woman has one hand on her very pregnant belly;  the smaller figure reaches out to touch the older woman’s other hand.

I was enchanted.  The very simple sculpture somehow captures the moment of greeting when Mary visited Elizabeth.  It captures the instant when the story shifts from the political, public drama to a personal encounter of deep intimacy and understanding between two women.

A contemporary author has written insightfully about this moment:

Pregnant in strange and wondrous circumstances, Mary and Elizabeth each find             perhaps the only other person who could possibly understand what’s happening to             them.  With one another, they find not just understanding (though that would be gift             enough), not just hospitality (though that would be mercy enough); in one another             they find a shelter; in their meeting, they make a sanctuary.

 

I stood before that sculpture of Elizabeth and Mary and understood more deeply than I had before how God worked – and works, still – through our bodies, through the ordinary miracle of our own flesh and blood given of our own free will over to God’s service, and through our intimacy with one another in Christian discipleship.  I understood the Visitation not as one episode among others in childhood Christmas pageants, but as a specific story in its own right that is ever inviting each one of us to participate in God’s ongoing Story.  As I stood there in that lovely courtyard with the scent of orange blossoms on the air, I remembered what a thirteenth-century mystic, a man, Meister Eckhart, had said:  “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always in need of being born.”

The story of the Visitation is so human, so small-scale:  two women with unborn baby boys quickening in their wombs, one leaping for joy in recognition of the other.  I can’t help remembering another depiction of the Visitation, this one a bas-relief sculpture in white marble on the front of an altar in the Mary Chapel of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois.  Mary is entering through the door of Elizabeth’s house on the left, while Elizabeth, heavily pregnant, is caught half-rising from her chair in delight as she sees Mary.  Elizabeth has been knitting; as she rises, a ball of yarn tumbles from her lap and is forever unraveling itself across the bottom of the marble bas-relief.

Everything is everyday and yet not in the least ordinary.  The sacred is always and ever permeating ordinary time.  As Rabbi Heschel said, “In every moment, something sacred is at stake.”  In every moment, something sacred is at stake.  For Christians, that means every moment is pregnant with the possibility of perceiving that Christ is here, waiting in my flesh, waiting in yours, to be recognized and brought forth.

The Visitation story then can become an icon in which we can see our own vocation, given to us in our baptisms, which is to say “yes” to God’s invitation to bear the Christ, and to encourage and affirm by blessing one another in that holy bearing. “I see Christ in you,” we need to tell each other.  “And I rejoice because of that.  Blessed are you.”

It’s very earth-y, isn’t it? this incarnate faith of ours.  Earth-y and flesh-and-blood-y and incarnate and blessed.  It does not serve us well when we sentimentalize the story and think its power and meaning is safely captured way back then and has nothing now to do with us.  Sometimes I think we become sentimental – or cynical – because we cannot stand the consequences of real intimacy, either with God or with one another or perhaps with our own selves.

Well.  What happened then?  Elizabeth’s joyful recognition of Mary as Theotokos, as the Orthodox Christians call her, the Mother of God, created in Mary a song that has been sung down through the ages.  We call it The Magnificat and it has its echoes in the Hebrew Scriptures, with similar words and the same theme of God’s radical re-alignment of the world.  We said it together as our second lesson this morning.

Make no mistake. Mary’s song is no sweet lullaby.  She sings powerfully of God’s ways in the world, overturning injustice, feeding the hungry, humbling the proud, sending the rich away empty, lifting up the meek and the lowly and bringing down the powerful.

All of a sudden, the personal explodes back into the prophetic; the private becomes political.  In a twinkling of an eye, the pregnant women turn into radical prophets about the re-ordering of the world in line with God’s purpose and plan.

This isn’t idle preaching talk.  In the 1980’s, the government of Guatemala banned Mary’s song, “’because unlike ‘Away in a Manger,” [the ‘Magnificat’] was apparently considered subversive, politically dangerous.  Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.’”

So much for sentimentality in this season.  This gospel still has teeth.

On this last Sunday in Advent, we now wait for the Holy Child to be born again for us and in us.  The intimacy and earthiness will continue to intensify as the moment of the birth draws near.  It is up to us, now, to choose whether or not we will dare to bear the reality of the paradox of our Christian faith — that our God works through the personal and the particular, through the flesh-and-blood of people like you and me, but only if we are willing;  only if we are willing to say, with holy, blessed Mary, “Yes.  O yes, let it be!  Let it be to me according to your will.”

Amen.

 

 

[1] Frederick Beuchner, Wishful Thinking

[2] Jan Richardson,  The Sanctuary They Make In Meeting, from The Advent Door, found on textweek.com, week of Advent IV, 2009

[3] John Ortberg, quoting Scott McKnight, in The Christian Century for the week of Dec. 13, 2009; as quote in Kate Huey’s “Moving With Mary” on textweek.com for Advent IV, 2009