The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Advent 4B 2020, December 20, 2020
From Advent 1 to 2 to 3 to Advent 4 today; from the end of time, to John the Baptist, to the wilderness, to a hill town in Judea, we land on each Sunday of Advent as if on a flagstone or river rock, making our way across to the other side—the Feast of the Incarnation. We’re almost but not quite there, poised as it were on the cusp of Christmas.
Throughout Advent our scriptures have exhorted us to wait for the coming of the Lord with watchful expectancy. And this morning, we do so with a particular virgin named Mary:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.
Luke ensures that his audience knows the specifics of the when, where and who of his account, lest we are tempted to generalize the Annunciation and thus the Incarnation. God’s coming to Mary in the small backwater town of Nazareth in an occupied country is unambiguous, and a “scandal of particularities” with an inescapable politicizing function. The function of the political is that of persuasion, and necessarily communicates to persons in a distinct cultural and world narrative—in this case a young first-century Jewish girl and her betrothed Joseph of the house of David. The in-breaking of God into their ordinary lives, and into history, disrupts said narrative, so that persons like Joseph and Mary, and you and me, are recast into the radically new narrative and life of God’s truth, love, justice, and mercy.
In ancient Israel, women had very limited legal and economic rights. As a female, Mary would have been deemed unworthy of power and authority, of bearing great things. Neither educated, married, or male, she was without advantage or privilege and would have had few life choices and little agency. It’s difficult I think to really grasp what Mary faced: circumstances that were not only inconvenient and embarrassing, but unquestionably implausible, shocking, scandalous, and yes, dangerous and even threatening to her life. And yet before saying yes! to the angel Gabriel and God’s advent quite literally into her body, Mary asks only one question: How can all of this be?
From Denise Levertov’s poem, Annunciation:
This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, "I cannot, I am not worthy,”
nor, "I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced . . .
consent illumined her . . .
opened her utterly.
Mary opens, utterly. She consents to the mystery, innocent or virgin. Not understanding what it all means or knowing all of what is going to happen, she yet allows herself to be known intimately by God. Why she was singled out we cannot definitively say. But what we can know, in God choosing the person of Mary, is that the power of love to transform and call itself into being requires our unique selves and circumstances, and our unique yes. Mary has embodied this possibility for all of us ever since: From this day all generations will call me blessed.
I would imagine there have been moments in many of our lives when we have hoped, perhaps even secretly prayed to be “it,” the chosen one: come oh Lord, thy will be done! But when God does comes, often we go—the other way— equivocating under our very human breath: I don’t think so, maybe? that’s not what I really wanted for Christmas. Suspended at a particular yes or no, a threshold of possibility, a flourishing of hope, a borderland, a psychic weight, a limit has been reached: something is at stake—but what? Is God to be won or lost?
Neither of course; the will and the light of the Holy One is not at risk by our coming or going, our yes or our no; rather it is we who are, and the transformation of our hearts is at stake. God waits, patiently, expectantly, for each of our own imperfect but willing advents across the threshold of self, particularities and peculiarities in tow, that Christ may come into our fragile bodies, and be born into the smallest things of this world.
The Magnificat, Mary’s song, which she sings on the doorsill of her cousin Elizabeth’s house, after she has said yes! to God, is a message with its own politicizing function. Mary’s soul proclaims! and her spirit rejoices! that God cherishes the smallest things of the world, those considered worthless and powerless, not unlike herself. God is the champion of those without voice, the defenseless, the persecuted, the poor, and those in pain; God liberates their lowliness.
Mary’s song is so unorthodox that it has at times been banned from public recitation. When the British ruled India, it was prohibited from being sung in churches. During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, after the mothers of disappeared children plastered the capital plaza with the words of the Magnificat, the military junta banned all public displays of it —because it proclaims the truth—and the power of the Lord—over that of military might or political rule.
Here is a God who scatters the proud in their conceit, casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the yearning and the hungry and empties the bloated and the rich. The Magnificat is a bold and prophetic witness of a person, a young peasant girl named Mary, speaking truth and bearing great love.
From the poem Modern Magnificat by Joy Cowley:
This gift of love is not for the proud,
for they have no room for it.
The strong and self-sufficient ones
don't have this awareness.
But those who know their emptiness
can rejoice in Love's fullness.
It is the Love that we are made for,
the reason for our being.
It fills our inmost heart space
and brings to birth in us, the Holy One.
When we open our eyes on Christmas morning, we will have fully crossed over the threshold of Advent to the birth of Jesus. For that matter, on any given morning when we first open our eyes, we have crossed over a threshold, from sleep to wakefulness, from darkness to light, from somewhere to here. I wonder if we feel surprised or that something monumental has occurred? Those first waking moments are indeed a return of a kind, and thus also a greeting.
And the angel Gabriel said, Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!
Might we, upon waking—before making tea or coffee, checking the internet, or the to-do list for the day—might we ponder such a greeting, and then return such a welcome saying: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re almost but not quite there, poised on the cusp of Christmas and its festival of light and hope. Are we ready?
In her poem, Making the House Ready for the Lord, Mary Oliver wonders the same thing:
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice, it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do?
And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances, but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? . . .
. . . what shall I do?
. . . And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon:
Come in, Come in.
May we issue such an invitation to the Lord—come in, come in, welcome!—our hearts open, utterly, to the mystery and love of Christ.
O Wisdom, Lord and Ruler, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Sun, King of the Nations, Emmanuel:
Come, Lord Jesus.