Sunday, December 15, 2019

Advent 3, 2019-A: The God of Mary

Lectionary: Isaiah 35:1-10, Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Ever since I was a child, I have been profoundly moved by the Magnificat, Mary’s proclamation of her understanding of God. Her words gave me confidence to believe as she did, to hope as she did, and to rejoice as she did – even knowing the way her story as the God-bearer played out in her life.

The theology in Mary’s Magnificat is what she taught and modeled for her son. Think about that. It isn’t possible to characterize the utterer of these words as meek, mild, or servile as she is so often portrayed in Christian art and music. Mary was amazingly strong. She knew who the child she was bearing into the world was and the cataclysmic effect his presence would have. She knew and rejoiced in it, proclaiming the greatness of God for it.

The God of Mary is merciful and just, strong and tender, and very present. Mary’s song of praise, like Hannah’s before her, not only celebrates but also prioritizes that God looks with favor on the lowly and breaks down the mighty who oppress them, giving hope to the hopeless from generation to generation. This merciful action of God isn’t just to free the oppressed but also the oppressor, whose delusion of personal power impedes their ability to be in harmonious relationship with God and neighbor. God’s plan of reconciling love is for all.

Have you heard about the continuing controversy over a song that comes up each Advent and Christmas season? The song is “Mary Did You Know?” by Pentatonix. It a beautiful song with admittedly poor theology, if you take the lyrics literally anyway. The answer to the question is: of course Mary knew. But this song isn’t church doctrine – it’s a poem that reflects on the very human experience of encountering God in Jesus; of being a God-bearer in a world that rejects the notion of Emmanuel.

A quick review of the online comments shows that the song successfully reaches beyond the thoughts of many people about God into their experience of God. I know when I first heard it, the beauty of it gave me the chills. I had a similar response the first time I heard “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. In fact, every time I hear that aria it reaches to some place deep inside of me and I share the emotional power of the song – even though the lyrics are in Italian (which I don’t speak).

And isn’t that what art does? It’s a vehicle that gives shape, form, color, and sound to shared human experience and offers a gateway to something bigger than us, bigger than now.

This song is art in musical form, much like Dante’s Divine Comedy is art in literary form. Sadly, many people forget that Dante’s interpretation isn’t church doctrine or theological truth. I wonder if he had haters in his time too.

No one would interpret an icon to be a photographic image of the holy ones depicted – not anymore anyway. They are windows into an experience of the divine, enabling us to connect prayerfully with God.

The song, “Mary did you know?” speaks of the details of the ways Mary’s child would live out his divine purpose and identity: walking on water, giving sight to the blind, calming a storm – and no, she couldn’t have known those. At the same time, the song proclaims important truth about who Jesus is as the Christ using simple, homely words and images. For example, the song asks, did you know the child that you delivered would soon deliver you? Did you know the sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM? The movement is back and forth between the humanity and divinity of Jesus – a mystery most of us struggle to understand all our lives – leading us into the dynamic nature of that mystery where we ultimately surrender to the experience of it and let go trying to “know” and understand it.

Like Mary, most parents know that their child will have an effect on the world. They can’t know the details of the ways their child will live out their divine purpose, but they know the world will be different somehow because of them and they know their role as parent is to help their child live into their divine purpose whatever the cost. In this way, Mary is very relatable.

This, by the way, is also the role of the church – to encourage and empower everyone to live into their divine purpose. When I was a teenager, I heard a Catholic nun ask, “What if everyone treated their child as the son or daughter of God?” Her question has continued to resonate in me ever since. What if people in church treated everyone as a child of God…

Mary is also a human, like we are. She isn’t important or powerful or well educated. What connects us is that Mary epitomizes the lowly whom God lifts up in her hymn of praise. In today’s world, there are so many people, invisible for the most part, who have been wounded by the church or people or events in their lives who quietly wonder where God was when they were suffering. Some are angry, feeling abandoned by God, and afraid of God’s response to their anger. Some are afraid because they believe they are too unworthy to receive the promises God made to everyone else.

Mary’s Magnificat assures us that God’s response to all of that is mercy. The song reminds us what that mercy looked like – the great I AM asleep in the arms of his lowly mother.

The song asks when Mother Mary kisses her child, does she know she is kissing the face of God? What was it like for Mary to gaze upon the face of her child – God’s child – God Incarnate? What is it like for us now as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child again at Christmas?

Emmanuel, God with us, is an important truth easily lost in present-day human systems that focus on Jesus’ divinity and skim over or ignore his humanity. But it’s the fact of Jesus’ humanity reconciled to his divinity, the Incarnation, that is our hope, our joy, and our salvation. Focusing on Jesus’ divinity alone also relieves us of our responsibility to be God-bearers in the world today, which is why so many in the church do that, but Emmanuel isn’t something that happened once long ago. It’s something that is happening eternally and in our very human bodies right now.

The song, much like today’s reading from Isaiah reaches its crescendo with descriptions of how human experience will be transformed by the love of God: the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again. The lame will leap, the dumb will speak the praises of the lamb…

Mary, did you know? Yes, she knew then, just as we know now.

We know who the Christ child is and what his coming birth means for the world. We can’t know the details of the ways the eternal Christ will live out his divine purpose and identity in our time, but we do know that mercy, healing, wholeness, harmony, and peace will happen in ways we’ve never dreamed.

To advance rather than inhibit that process, we strive together to heed the gentle reminder from Jesus’ brother, James, who encourages us to be patient as the farmer who awaits the precious crop from the earth is patient. The Christ is coming. The Christ is always coming.

Even John the Baptist, who knew Jesus his whole life, didn’t know the details of the ways the Christ would live out his divine purpose and identity. John’s entire life and ministry had been about preparing the way for the Christ, the Anointed One, but Jesus’ ministry didn’t fit John’s messianic expectations, so in the end, he had to ask: “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus, in his divine mercy and very human love for John, responds with, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” assuring John that he has faithfully completed his divine purpose on earth. Then Jesus sang the praises of his cradle-mate and kin, his childhood friend and precursor, using his love of John to demonstrate the love of God for all: No one born of woman is greater than John the Baptist yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This is the God Mary described in her Magnificat, so yes, she knew. This is the God we proclaim, so yes, we know too, and even though our sin, which divides us, sorely hinders us, we know that mercy, healing, wholeness, harmony, and peace will happen in ways we’ve never dreamed.

God promised it. Jesus delivered it. We proclaim it. Alleluia!

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