Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent 2008
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.” But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
Romans 16:25-27 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The 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. And 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then 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.
The New Testament raises a lot of difficult questions. Can new wine be put in old wine skins? Can God’s blessing come to those not among the chosen people, apart from the Law? Can a woman be an agent of God’s salvation? Again, and again, the presence of Jesus confounds the narrow theology of the people of his day (and ours) by revealing that there are new and surprising answers to these challenging questions.
Today’s scriptures reflect something of an evolution in the way in which God is understood to relate to us. Today’s Gospel presents the fact that a woman is chosen as the bearer of God, as the one trusted to safeguard and mentor the Christ Child, is a remarkable departure. Many people of Mary’s time believed that God dwelt in the institution of the Temple (as we might see God’s presence associated with churches); God dwelt in the Covenant (the Ten Commandments and the Law); God dwelt in the scriptures. But God’s living presence in the person of Mary was much harder to comprehend, in part because up until then, godly and spiritual matters had been assigned almost exclusively to men (at least in the Jewish tradition).
In our time, the mystery of the conception has devolved to a very lifeless, pointless and boring scientific debate, which has tended to obscure the profound human and spiritual significance of the story. Whether you believe in the virginal birth of Christ depends a lot on your conception of God. I certainly don’t want to be so arrogant as to suggest that a Being who can create a universe, and create being itself, cannot create a virgin birth. Let’s remember how the Pharisees are portrayed: as people who went around saying that God can’t do this or that or the other, as people who tried to dictate and limit people’s relationship with God. But to me, the unfortunate thing about all the pseudo-scientific drivel and all the official pious language about Mary — the assumption, her perpetual virginity etc – is that by and large it makes it hard to identify with her – hard to allow her to be an example, instead of someone totally other, totally different in category.
Naturally and appropriately, most of the focus in the transaction between God and Mary, however it happened, has been on the divine child planted there by God’s decree. But what about the bearer of this child – the Theotokos (bearer of God) – what kind of person must she have been? What about this woman who play such a large part in the life of Jesus, especially during a time when he was small?
The Church has held her up and honoured her as a model of submissive obedience, and commended her for her long-suffering love. Men and women alike have prayed to her for guidance and intercession. Certainly the appreciation of the feminine dimension, which she represents, was a good thing, something of a missing element in many expressions of Christianity. But setting the ideal as a passive, totally compliant woman, as a model for all women, really opened the door to possibilities for women being taking advantage of, and even abused, not only by the men in their lives, but by the institution of the Church. Is the traditional presentation of Mary a sufficient depiction of her place in salvation history? I don’t think so.
In all the debate and dispute about the nature of the birth, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Jesus was born of a woman – a real person — and this birth, even though the details of it have obviously been confused in the telling and re-telling of it, had to have been quite a journey in faith. This birth came about because of a human choice – a woman’s choice – a young woman (perhaps 12—13 years of age) — as an act of consent to her perception of the divine will. This birth cost this particular woman something, because it exposed her to shame and rejection and even danger.
According to Luke, Mary’s response to the call of God is made virtually independently, without consulting Joseph, her betrothed – she makes her decision on the basis of her own relationship with God, and Luke suggests the next person she connects with is not Joseph, but her cousin Elizabeth. It is astounding because it portrays God operating directly toward a woman, and a woman operating almost completely without reference to a man. I take this as a huge step forward – from the tribal approach in which no one person can do anything without the approval of the group – and from the patriarchal model in which a woman was not free to take a step without a man’s permission. Mary’s choice is a huge step in the direction of gender equality, and reveals to us that it is possible and indeed essential to have our own relationship with God, directly, not through someone else, or any other intermediary.
Jesus was an extraordinary human being – to say the least! It stands to reason that he required extraordinary parents. Obviously, not every woman appreciates the sacred nature of child-bearing, what a precious gift a child is, and what potential might be there; not everyone acknowledges that a child is actually a gift from God, whose soul has a special and unique purpose. Not every set of parents is going to be able to provide the guidance, the love and understanding, the spiritual environment, that would allow someone like Jesus to flourish. One assumes God, in the divine wisdom, must know this! So if you believe that indeed this birth represents the Incarnation of God in Christ, then Mary, and of course, Joseph, were amazing people.
What sort of woman and mother might she have been? Obviously, not the sort who would be indifferent or abusive in any way. She had to be someone with profound depth and wisdom – someone with a huge capacity to love and understand — someone whose love would be strong enough to endure confusion and suffering – someone humble enough to accept the yoke of God’s call. Mary is a real person, not just a pristine demigod or an immaculate icon. It’s hard to imagine our way into her situation based on our own experience. But it’s a starting place, and so I know from my own experience that being MY mother was tough enough – so imagine trying to be the mother of God!
Erma Bombeck said: “When my kids become wild and unruly, I use a nice safe playpen. When they’re finished, I climb out.” Mary is the person who had to call Jesus home for dinner – the one who tried to intervene when he got so enthusiastic people thought he might be insane – the one who had to explain to the neighbours why her eldest son was a little different. One ancient document (Pseudo Matthew) suggests one of Jesus’ teachers got angry with him and in striking the boy, was struck dead himself. Imagine explaining that to the Principal! In the Gospel of Thomas, the boy Jesus changes a group of children into goats for a short time. And Barbara Bush thinks she has problems!
Lillian Carter, speaking at the 1980 Democratic Convention that nominated her son for a second term as president, said “Sometimes when I look at all my children, I say to myself, ‘Lillian, you should have stayed a virgin.’” Mary might well have had similar thoughts.
Due to the perceived need to gloss over the sexual connotations of the relationship between Mary and Joseph, Scripture hints at the possibility that Joseph wasn’t around (generating hymns like “Joseph being an aged man truly,/He married a Virgin fair and free” – Wm Sandys, 17th Cent. – or this, from the Cherry Tree Carol: “Joseph was an old man,/And an old man was he,/When he married Mary/In the land of Galilee”). An old man, who conveniently disappears and was not around for Jesus’ adulthood. (There is much dispute about the tradition, almost irrelevant to the point I am trying to make here.)
So you could say Mary is portrayed, even in scripture, and certainly in tradition, as a single mother, and anyone who has gone through that knows it takes some strength and resourcefulness. Jesus’ teachings don’t seem to reflect that he had the usual “issues” that accompany most children into adulthood, which implies not only what a godly person Jesus was, but also what a good mother Mary was. Jesus’ attitudes toward women were a radical departure from the usual ones of his day – inclusive and respectful – that also says a great deal about Mary his mother.
As a woman — a woman from a small, obscure place — Mary was a person capable of understanding the place of the voiceless, the poor, the outcast, and the prejudice, stereotypes and exclusion that are directed at outsiders. The scripture purposely reminds us that there was no room for them in the inn – no room for them in the choice places in society. They were not among the elite, and no one did them any favours. I can picture Mary at the side of that poor woman who burned to death on the street in Vancouver the other night. In any reflection about the life of Mary, it is critical to remember that she witnessed the death of the child she loved so deeply.
The life of God embodied, enfleshed, in a poor Galilean woman, invites people of all times and places and conditions to realize their potential for becoming channels of grace, capable of receiving the divine light and life. Mary was said to have pondered many things in the depths of her soul. Mary invites us to a contemplative life in which we ponder the great mysteries of God in the depths of our hearts. As such, Mary is as much a model for men as for women – maybe especially for men in our time, who by and large seem to have lost vital contact with their inner life.
Mary was a liberated woman – liberated by that liberation that comes from within – a liberation of the Spirit — not the kind that is granted by someone else – the kind of liberation that gives a person strength to stand up to the injustices and inequities of their situation. In saying Yes to God, she claimed something vital and essential. She urges all women – and men – to claim their true freedom.
It’s an ongoing struggle. As we begin the 21st Century, it’s somewhat sad to note that two of the 8 U.N. Millennium Development Goals (which the Anglican Church endorses) have to be about correcting injustices to women: “Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women;” and “Improve Maternal Health.” The sad fact is that many societies and individuals still give no honour or official place to women. For years, women have been re-claiming the fullness of their identity and their place in society. Some societies still seriously limit the role of women, but in our world, women demand rightly to be appreciated for their strength, their intelligence, their leadership and so on. I think a renewed understanding and appreciation of the life of Mary makes a very helpful contribution to that cause.
Naturally, most of the focus in the event of the birth of Christ has been on Jesus. But the one who made the choice to be his mother deserves recognition and gratitude. To me, Mary is not merely a sign of purity and obedience, but a model of a profound and inner grace, so deep that she was capable of receiving and giving birth to the life of God in a unique way. She is in many ways as much an agent of redemption as the Son to whom she gave birth. As such, Mary is a profound example and her veneration by the faithful is very appropriate, but not as a simpering, docile little nursemaid.
Everything about the story of Mary suggests a strong, independent, courageous, deeply faithful, profoundly spiritual woman, a person in communion with God in an extraordinary way. The fact that the story of our salvation is rooted in such a relationship between mother and son should still speak volumes to the world.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
Comments: I would welcome your comments. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org