Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent 4 C, 2018: The radical faith of Mary

Lectionary: Micah 5: 2-5a; Canticle 15; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1:39-55

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Lectionary: Micah 5: 2-5a; Canticle 15; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1:39-55

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As many of you know, Mary has been an important part of my spiritual life since I was a little child. Mary has been a constant presence, strength, and inspiration for me as I have grown in age and spirit. She has truly been for me, theotokos, the God-bearer, bringing Christ into my life and experience in very real ways.

These experiences taught me that I, too, am a God-bearer. We all are. The Spirit of Christ dwells in each of us, sanctifies us, and calls us to bear that into the world – each in our own way, in very real ways, according to God’s plan.

The Church’s teachings about Mary – whether or not she herself was conceived without sin and whether or not she conceived Jesus as a virgin or by her husband – have been a source of disagreement and debate throughout our history. For Episcopalians, belief in the doctrines of the immaculate conception, and the virgin birth are certainly accepted but not required.

The non-Scriptural traditions about Mary paint her as meek, mild, and pure (meaning untouched by sin or sexuality). Have they read the Scripture?

There’s an online argument going around right now about the Christmas song, “Mary did you know?” It’s a lovely song, but like so many songs, it’s theology is way off the mark. Of course Mary knew…

And she was anything but meek or mild. Mary was radically strong and faithful. And she spoke out when needed – remember her asking for wine at the wedding at Cana?

She was, however, pure – not in the patriarchal, puritanical sense, but in the faithful sense. To be pure is to be undistracted, to be completely in line with God and God’s will.

In today’s gospel from Luke, Mary leaves her hometown “with haste” and goes out to the country to stay with her kinswoman Elizabeth. This is something unmarried pregnant women have done throughout the ages, isn’t it?

Elizabeth, who is too old to have a child greets Mary who is too young to have a child – and yet, both are pregnant. Elizabeth is six or seven months by now and Mary must flee the shame of her condition so both women benefit from the visit.

What strikes me about this story is that when Elizabeth sees Mary she welcomes her, calling her and the illegitimate baby in her womb “blessed.” Think how radical this was! And that’s just the beginning of a very radical gospel story.

When Elizabeth sees Mary, even the child in her womb rejoices. In this moment, Elizabeth recognizes and proclaims that the baby within Mary is her Lord, her Kyrios. Radical!

The first prophetic proclamation about Jesus – and it was made by an old woman. Radical!

Elizabeth calls Mary blessed for Mary’s belief that God would fulfill God’s promises. Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting (which must have been a bit of a relief) with her Magnificat – her prayer of praise. Please take special note of Mary’s prayer as it outlines the theology this Jewish mother will teach her son as he grows up in the faith.

Mary’s Magnificat reflects her tradition, being grounded in the Song of Hannah which is found in 1 Samuel (2:1-10). In her hymn of praise Hannah speaks about God’s promises being fulfilled in the deliverance of enemies, warriors’ bows being broken, the hungry being filled, the barren having children, the dead being brought to life – all by the strength of God.

Mary begins her song of praise with a proclamation of her welcoming of God’s joy into her life as well as her body. Then she paints a fuller picture of God praising first God’s mercy, then God’s strength.

What Mary’s Magnificat makes clear, affirming her tradition, are the reversals of the world order God will work: that those who believe they have power, those in the center of worldly power, whose focus is on themselves and not their neighbors, will be brought down and the lowly, those on the fringe, will be raised up. Those who hunger will be filled by God, which means they will be in the presence of God; while those who are rich, that is, who rely on what they think are their own resources and abundance, will find themselves sent away and empty. The will experience nothingness on all levels.

The conclusion of Mary’s Magnificat is one of the most hope-filled prayers in Scripture: God has remembered God’s promise of mercy. It is an eternal promise made to our forebears and to our children – forever.

So much of the current Christian world is focused on a god who metes out justice with violent, angry power; coercing people into line with threats of pain and destruction. Mary, and Hanna before her, offer us a different picture of God, truer to all of Scripture. Mary proclaims that mercy will precede and follow God’s justice; that God will help God’s people which includes raising up the poor and hungry and scattering the proud in their conceit.

Hannah mentions the deliverance of enemies. God doesn’t bring down the mighty and scatter the proud just because God is bigger and stronger but because God desires the salvation of all; and while the powerful focus on their own strength and resources, they forget God. But God does not forget them and acts to redeem them.

Isaiah spoke of mountains being brought down and valleys being raised up. Mary and Hannah affirm this in their hymns. The end result is a level field where all are equal: equally loved, cared for, respected, and made for a purpose. No one is ‘better than’ or on the fringes. All are one in the love of God… in the presence of God who feeds them beside still waters with a feast that originates in the foundation of the world.

As this season of Advent draws to a close, I pray we, like Mary, welcome the joy of God into our lives and our bodies as God continues to work for the salvation of the whole world. I pray we, like Mary, truly believe in the fulfillment of God’s promises of help, mercy, and justice.

Magnify our souls like Mary’s was, O Lord, and may our spirits rejoice in God our Savior. For God has looked with favor on us, his lowly servants, and from this day all generations will call us blessed. The Almighty has done great things for us and holy is his name. Amen.

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