December 20, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B
Micah 5:2-5a, Canticle 15, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55
God is a marginal character.
God likes to operate on the margins, on the edges.
God operates on the margins because it is where we are able to be most aware of God’s presence. As conscious beings we are mostly caught up in the center of our world or the world created by human beings.
The margins are places of change, of transition, of transformation. Prayer is a marginal place; we pray far less of the time than we work or sleep or eat or play. Worship is a marginal place. We worship far less than we work or sleep or eat or play. Dawn, dusk, oceans, mountains, rivers, islands, and deserts are all marginal places deeply associated with union and encounter with the divine. Transitions such as birth, and death are marginal moments. Margins are places of openness and connection. Margins are places where human power, pride and delusions of self-sufficiency are exposed as the folly and hubris they are. Margins are places where redemption happens, deeper awareness begins, and the kingdom of God can begin to be born into the world.
Social margins, I would suggest, follow the same pattern. It is those on the fringes– the poor, the outcast, those without social power due to gender or race or other quantifiers—that so often have the most illumination to bring to social ills and injustice, to the dangers of human power. Those without worldly power are uniquely able to be divine catalysts. Being in positions of worldly power or ones benefiting from it make it hard to stand back and work to challenge and change it. Yet many do for they have grasped this essential tenet of the Good News. This is the one of the deep and difficult revelations of the Gospel; it is one of the deep and difficult understandings of orthodox Christianity as revealed in the story of God in Jesus: letting go of power, living a life of love on the margins, trusting that on the edges is where God is going to begin again and again the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
Where does this idea come from? The cross most certainly and the life of Jesus most definitely. But the idea is understood from the very start of the story of Jesus. The stories of the births of Jesus and John came later in the life of the early Church, yet the idea of margins and power revealed in the resurrection was woven into these genesis tales. Unless we grasp this from the very start, Christian faith as lived easily becomes another version of worldly power being divinely sanctioned. It easily becomes a civic religion rather than a holy one.
Enter Elizabeth and Mary. I must confess that these stories make my woman’s heart joyful. Sorry, gents, but your off-stage in this one! For nearly the entire first chapter of Luke the main characters are women. In fact, for most of the chapter they are the main actors, the main speakers. Zechariah is struck dumb by God’s angel for not believing that Elizabeth will conceive. God dramatically silences the social voice of power—that of the male—in pretty stunning fashion. Zechariah comes out of the temple not sharing his vision, but unable to speak. We must look elsewhere for where God is going to tell us what the divine plan is. In time Elizabeth indeed becomes pregnant with a child that will be a prophet for the people.
Then the action moves to Mary. The angel tells her she will conceive a child by the power of God before her marriage and that he is to be a savior. In this incredible place on the edge of human experience she says yes to God’s outrageous plan. Unlike Zechariah, Joseph’s opinion is not even sought. The whole story of God’s plan for salvation in Jesus happens in the margins, starting at his very conception.
Women are the ones, in Luke, who are entrusted through their very femaleness to nurture and bear God and the witness to God into the world. Women too are images of the divine and seen by God as part of the divine drama in primary, not subservient, ways. God is being a radical again! Women were property strictly speaking in those days. Women had virtually no independent power or control of person. They were not public figures. They lived in the margins of a world defined by men. Elizabeth, as the wife of a temple priest, was less marginalized than others, but she was still defined as Zechariah’s wife. Mary was even more the edge: a woman, marrying a craftsman, poorer, and not connected to an institution of social power through her husband-to-be or family. Yet, God says, here is where I am working. Here is where my plan, my salvation begins and lives. In the margins, in these faithful women who can perceive me because they are not living at the center of worldly power. It is not a man in this story that can birth the savior into the world. It is a woman. Pay attention!, God is saying. Do not dismiss the creative, life-giving, God-revealing strength of women and who they are! Revisit the definitions and roles. Not just of women, but of everyone!
These two women are not just faithful, trusting and courageous women who believe and accept God’s audacious plan for them, standing tall among people’s stares and questions and derision. They are filled with the Holy Spirit. They are chosen to have intimate union with God, something primarily heard of in Scripture as happening to men. Mary is overcome with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth as we hear today is filled with it as is her unborn child.
They are also prophets. Elizabeth understands that her child’s leap isn’t simply a baby’s normal movement or a response to her happy greeting to see her cousin Mary. She interprets its meaning and understands that Mary carries the Messiah. This is what prophets do. She is also a priest for she blesses three times: “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Mary, too, is a prophet. She sets out immediately after her encounter with the angel and goes as fast as she can to see Elizabeth. Prophets act with urgency, without delay. Her reply to Elizabeth is a prophetic poem about the way God works, has worked, and will work in the world.
The Magnificat, as it is called, is a glorious summation of salvation history. It speaks that God’s power is not the world’s idea of power. Princes and presidents are brought low and the masses, the humble of the world have a place given to them. The hungry are fed; the proud are unmasked. Mercy is given. All are invited into a new heaven and a new earth and if the invitation is missed you will find your hands holding dust. It is utterly and completely about life here and now in this world. It is about the nature of our communities. This is not only about personal, private piety. This about the dangerous work of building new structures in our lives.
And even more striking is Mary’s bold assertion that this work has already begun. For indeed it has in God’s partnership with her to bear the Christ child. Notice that the verb tenses are not future. It is not God will show strength, or the hungry will be filled. It is already begun. God has done these things and continues to do these things. Which throws us once again back on to the margins. Women are the principal prophets of this new revelation, not men, though their sons, with the participation of women and men, will bring it to pass. God chose a poor unmarried girl not the wife of the local Jerusalem nobility. Herod’s wife, powerful, a princess, was not selected to bear John or Jesus. Mary and Elizabeth have been filled with good things—the Holy Spirit, the children they will bear, the power to bless and to understand God’s activity. All on the margins, all on the fringes. This is where it begins and from where it grows.
For us, we are invited to remember the marginal nature of our confession of Jesus as the Messiah—it’s not a confession of power and way of life as the world generally understands it. We are reminded that we are to live in faith on the edges of the new creation and the margins of this one. We are invited to pay careful attention to the voices and the peoples on the margins of our societies for we are told today quite clearly God is acting here. If we are on the margins we are told that our lives and experiences are places of prophetic action, that we have important, God-filled things to share with the world. The voices of those on the margins matter profoundly to God and are to be heard. We are invited to pay attention to the margins of our own lives for it is there we will certainly encounter God’s activity. The margins are the places where hope and expectation begin to be transformed into something real, perhaps small, perhaps fragile, perhaps the tiniest of movements, but this is how God works.
Can we this Advent say yes again to be a marginal people, who believe the outrageous way God works, who chose to sing Mary’s song, and who accept once again a God that comes to us in the most vulnerable, powerless and beautiful of ways? Will something in us leap when the announcement of the birth happens? Will we believe that in this child and this child’s life lie all the hope that God’s promises will be fulfilled?