Advent 4, December 24, 2017- The Rev. Stephanie Shepard

Luke 1:26-38

St. John the Apostle

“Praying with our spirits”

In this season of Advent, we have been exploring the meaning of prayer.  Over the last three Sundays, Father Michael and I have spoken about praying with our bodies, our minds, and our hearts.  Today we look at praying with our spirits.  But as has already been expressed, we cannot neatly subdivide our human nature into one part or another.  What we do to our bodies affects our feelings, influences our thoughts, feeds our spirits.  They are not separate.  Each is part of a larger reality.  The greenery of the Advent wreath represents the eternal and encompassing Creator who joins hope and peace and joy and love together.  We too are on a wellness wheel in life, and as we strengthen one aspect of ourselves, we move deeper towards wholeness and the centre of our being.

In the centre of who we are is not a vacuum or an empty space or a dirty black blot.  There is a hidden core of holiness, a seed of what might be, if we allow it to swell and gestate.  This lovely, precious, unstained soul is protected and folded deep within.  We may feel stagnant or sullied or despairing, but there is a latency here waiting to be released when we are ready.  The moment comes when we invite the Holy Spirit to indwell.  And quietly, slowly, powerfully, things happen.

This is what praying with our spirits is all about.  Not about doing something on our own, but allowing God to work from within.  We are incapable of healing ourselves or doing God’s will apart from this partnership.  We need the Holy Spirit power to pray with and in us, to intercede and become incarnate.  God helps us grow and realize and set free what is already there.

This morning we hear the story of Mary saying “yes” to God within her.  It wasn’t an easy “yes”.

With the emergence of the #metoo campaign around a woman’s right to be treated respectfully and without fear of sexual harassment, the Biblical story of the annunciation is potentially problematic.  The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31).  Where is the consent here?  And how do we interpret this story with the original and contemporary overtones of force and shame that Mary bears as an unmarried pregnant woman along with the fetus?  If she had said “No”, would God have respected it?  To those hearing the story today, can we say with assurance that this is not some form of spiritual rape?

Our English is imprecise, but digging down into the Greek yields a reassuring surprise.  The verb form used carries the connotation that Mary plays an active role in this generative act.  For language geeks, it is the future middle tense: συλλήμψῃ (sullempse).   Literally the phrase is closer to “you yourself will conceive” a child.  God’s incarnation is dependent on Mary’s agreement to create room within.  There is a choice here.  There is always a choice.  The Holy Spirit will come upon her and the Most High will overshadow her because Mary says “yes”, and not because some powerful deity says so.

Mary ponders and questions and fears in the process of deciding to trust what God is about.  “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  With her assent, God enters into creation as Jesus, the living Word.

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.
Speaking words of wisdom, “let it be”.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
Speaking words of wisdom, “let it be”.

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be.

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me,
Shine on until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
There will be an answer, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

The Beatles song, “Let it Be” is based on Luke 1:26-38.  When I was younger, I thought it was about accepting what happens in dark times.  Now I realize that the wisdom is in having the courage to see there will be an answer, if we can make room for God-with-us.

We don’t physically bear Jesus within us as Mary did.  But when we pray, we open ourselves to be in intimate relationship with the Spirit of Jesus, promised as a gift to the Church after the resurrection.  We talk about the Church as the “Body of Christ”, and collectively we make him known as we pray and work together.  He is still in the world through his Spirit with us.  And God still has the power to bring his love to birth in each of us.

In Romans 8:26-27, Saint Paul says “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God”.    In the process, that wonderful, holy core of us grows and swells until our whole being is filled with God’s purpose and grace.  And we are one with the Spirit of Christ.  Amen.