Year C, Advent IV December 23, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
You all know the Christmas song “Mary Did You Know?” “Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?/Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?” It is nice enough as far as new Christmas carols go. I like it fine, in most ways, except for its biblical interpretation; in that respect it is terrible. Because the answer is obvious. It is: yes, she knew. She knew that from her something new, something completely new was coming into the world: something that had never happened before; something that would change everything, save everyone. And all of that was happening, inside of her blessed womb. She knew that the almighty had done great things for her. The Magnificat is confirms this. Even though it doesn’t mention the child she carried, her song spoke of the true fruit of the true fruit her womb, the very Commonwealth of God on Earth that He would bring. She knew what was up. And as mothers know, she knew that children bring joy and pain, rapture and heartbreak. The human condition begins from day one and with the child she would bring into the world, so much more would begin at His birth. She knew. A better question would be “Mary, are you ready?” (Not as catchy, though).
At first, I’m not sure she was ready. As soon as she conceived, she went with haste went to see her relative Elizabeth, also pregnant under miraculous circumstances. The angel identifies Elizabeth as a relative, probably an aunt. Have you ever run to an aunt or uncle for help? Being of your parent’s generation, they are elders, they have authority, but you are not accountable to them in the same way as a parent. There is comfort to be had there. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth sees her and the blessed child in her womb leaps for joy, and she asks, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Oh auntie! She always had the right words.
And they were the right words, they were brand new and they were right. This was the first confession of Christ, the first recognition that Jesus was, is God incarnate, the Word made Flesh and dwelling amongst us. It is interesting, the Angel Gabriel didn’t spark the words “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Really, you’d think an angel would bring that out of someone, not an auntie, but God works in unexpected ways, through unlikely people, and it was the confession of Elizabeth and the in-vitro John that drew out the towering words of the Magnificat. Mary had pondered those things in her heart by the time she got to Elizabeth, and she knew what was happening to her and through her the world, but was she ready?
How about you, are you ready? It is the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is tomorrow, are you ready? And I don’t just mean with the stockings and the relatives and the Christmas ham or Beef Wellington, my family’s slightly questionable holiday decadence of choice… Those things, family traditions, cultural traditions, are important, but is your heart ready? Is your heart ready to hear, to feel, maybe even be the Good News we celebrate this year? “…for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” Are you ready?
This is a busy time of year, and not with just the secular trappings with all their all the fun, though often fun laced with temptation and distraction (maybe that’s what makes it feel fun)? It is busy around here. Who here has been busy with church stuff? Tell me about it, I have four more sermons to write this week and I have to work on Christmas day! (I should talk to the union). It takes a village to be a village. Folks have been busily polishing the silver, trimming the wicks, caroling, rehearsing pageants and anthems, organizing soup makers, dealing with sewage under the foundation (thanks be to God that is not a seasonal activity nor is it, as Jack can attest, as fun as caroling), and we’re about to be greening this place and exchanging cookies, not to mention saying good-bye to Gay and seeking a Parish Administrator and breaking ground on the Yurt… with all of that it is incredibly easy to forget why we are here: “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” How about for that, are you ready?
It goes beyond being ready for the story, being ready to hear or even feel the story in your heart. Feeling the perplexity, the amazement, pondering in your heart Mary’s experience, that is important, and can be fruitful, but the story is just the starting point. This is one of the ways the Bible works: the Word of God enters us through the old stories, and that can prepare us to hear God’s Word not only through Elizabeth’s ear or Mary’s heart, but through our own, too. God is calling to you. Christ is calling to you. The Holy Spirit is calling to you, to each of us, always, always asking us to ponder in our hearts God’s will for us. Calling you to carry the spark of Christ within you out into the world. One way to think of Advent, of the observance of a Holy Advent can be a practice of opening our hearts to the coming of the Christ Child, not only before this altar in the pageant, or in our hearts and minds, but through the indwelling of the Living God by and for and in you, and in your life, making real the Commonwealth of God in the way God wants you to do that. Are you ready for that?
This is what we have been waiting for, this is what all the Advent preparations have been leading to, a new song sung in heaven and on earth, the new song of Jesus Christ. We hear the old words of Isaiah, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given… Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Or the old words of Hannah’s song made new in the mouth of Mary. These old words are made wholly new, again, today, like every Sunday, but with particular fervor tomorrow night and unto Christmas proper. Are you ready?
You better be ready. God always chooses the unlikely one. Sarah was too old to birth a nation. So was Samson’s mother, and Hannah, Ruth, and Elizabeth. Issac was a bit of a dolt, tricked by his slippery son Jacob into giving away Esau’s birthright, and of course that trickster Jacob, became Israel, and fathered the twelve tribes. Joseph was the last born, then became a slave but rose to greatness is Pharaoh’s court. Moses was a murder who stuttered. David was a poor shepherd boy. St. Peter was a bit hapless and St. Paul was terrible before the incident on the Damascus Road. God always chooses the unlikely one and at unlikely times. Elizabeth was all done with children, she couldn’t have them as a young woman, there was no way that was happening in her dotage. On the other end of it, Mary wasn’t ready yet. She was betrothed, but not married, and they had that trip to Bethlehem for the census. I know there is never a convenient time to have children, but that was a downright terrible time for her to get pregnant, scandalous, even. Do you think any of those people called by God were ready when that call came? Would you have been? Are you now? Ready for something that new? New in your life, maybe even new to the world?
I have something new for you. A small nearly-Christmas gift. What I have for you is a new way to look at Mary. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the theotokos, the bearer of God. She is a gift to us, to our lives of faith, and one that is unexplored by most of us. There is still a lot of anti-Roman Catholic bias in the Episcopal Church, and much of it finds rest in suspicion of the Mother of Our Lord. Our little Mary Altar over there pushed a couple of people over the top. But she can not, at least should not be dismissed. So today, I offer you a new vision of her that might be helpful. It is to me.
Twenty years ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu put together a delightful book called An African Prayerbook. In it is something perfect for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Mary and the expectation she carried to term. It is called “Hymn to the Blessed Virgin.” There is not a lot of information about it, other than it comes from the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, not a new church by any means, but it is new to me. Are you ready?
“O my Lady, the holy Virgin Mary, thou hast been likened to many things, yet there is nothing which compares with thee. Neither heaven can match thee, nor the earth equal as much as the measure of thy womb. For thou didst confine the Unconfinable, and carry him whom none has power to sustain.
“The cherubim are but thy Son’s chariot bearers, and even the seraphim bow down in homage at the throne of thy Firstborn. How sublime is the honor of thy royal estate.
“O holy Virgin, instrument of our strength and power, our grace, deification, joy, and fortune; glory of our human race! Thou wast the means whereby the salvation of the world was accomplished, and through whom God was reconciled to the sons of mankind. And it was through thee that created human nature was united in indivisible union with the Divine Being of the Creator.
“What an unheard-of thing for the potter to clothe himself in a clay vessel, or the craftsman in a handicraft. What humility beyond words for the Creator to clothe himself in the body of a human creature….
“And now without doubt, and in the fullness of faith, I glorify thy birth from the Father and give praise to thy birth from the Virgin. The Virgin’s womb is greater than the mystical chariot of light, loftier than the heights of the firmament, more sublime than the distances of space, more glorious than the seraphim and cherubim.
“The Virgin’s womb was the gateway to Heaven, which, without being opened, became the way in and way out of the Son of Righteousness…The Virgin’s womb was the ark and dwelling-place of the Lord God Adonai.
“And now let us praise God, saying: Glory to thee; glory to thee who sent thee; and glory to the Holy Spirit who is co-equal with thee.
“Honor to her who bore thee; homage to her who gave birth to thee; devotion to thy mother; and holiness to her who tended thee.”
Now that is something new. Be ready. AMEN