Advent 4   Leave a comment

mrpriest
The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on the morning of 24 December 2017.
Scripture: Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Canticle: Luke 1:46-55

Today’s Gospel lesson, known in the Church as The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, or simply The Annunciation, is my favorite Bible story. And it’s one of the most influential stories in terms of art; I would encourage you when you go home this afternoon to do a Google image search on The Annunciation. You’ll find hundreds of paintings over the centuries, from ancient murals and icons to John Collier’s very modern take. Even if you can’t call to mind any images of the Annunciation at this moment, some of the pictures you find will undoubtedly be familiar to you. (Your search may reveal a few early images in which Mary is wearing a chasuble and stole—the vestments of a priest).

The story has inspired hymns and spiritual songs, perhaps most notably Hymn #265, which we often sing at this time of year as well as on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th. And three words of Mary’s response inspired Paul McCartney to write one of the Beatles’ most celebrated songs.

If you pray the Rosary, or grew up praying it, you know that the first line of the Hail Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee,” comes from Gabriel’s greeting here.

All this familiarity with The Annunciation can desensitize us to its revolutionary nature: this is one of the most subversive stories in the Bible.

Let’s quickly address Mary’s virginity: the Church and our culture have developed an unfortunate fixation over the centuries on Mary’s sex life, and it has had an unhealthy effect on our broader conversations around sexuality, with some devastating consequences, particularly for young women.

Mary’s sexual innocence is not the point, and the message is definitely not that virgins have found favor with God and those who aren’t virgins are out of God’s favor.

The point—as Gabriel explicitly says—is that God can do what should be biologically impossible. This is God saying, “I know the parameters of human reproduction; I created those parameters; and I can transcend those parameters.”

Because what’s about to happen will change everything.

Mary accepts the strange news that follows the strange greeting, and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” echoes the response of God’s faithful servants over generations to God’s call; look through the Bible and you will see those words again and again. They’re good words to have in mind if God should ever call you to anything.

And when Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary becomes three things: one, she becomes a mother.

Two, she becomes in essence the first Christian priest, consecrating with her word the body and blood of Christ—a fact curiously overlooked or excused by two millennia of male church leaders opposed to the ordination of women, despite Mary being depicted in priestly vestments in liturgical art for nearly that whole time.

Three, she becomes Theotokos: the Mother of God. Now, I recognize that may be a controversial term for some of you. Calling Mary the Mother of God isn’t to worship Mary, or to say that Mary is greater than or equal to God or Jesus; it is acknowledging and showing reverence for her special role and place—as Gabriel clearly acknowledges in the text—as the mother of the incarnate God, the one who was chosen for and accepted this role—risking her impending marriage, her reputation, and in a time of both high childbirth mortality and the stoning of unmarried mothers, risking even her life—and gave birth to Jesus and raised him.

So Mary is special. And yet, very much human, and very much an example for all of us: for each one of us is called to echo her response: Here am I; let it be with me according to your word.

Every day, in every moment, God calls you and me and The Church to do as Mary did, and give birth to the incarnation of God in the world.

Most of you know that Erica and I are expecting our first child in April. And we have had countless friends and relatives telling us, “Your lives are about to completely change forever. You can’t even imagine how much everything is about to change.” And it’s something I don’t mind hearing over and over, because I know it’s true: I know that no matter how much I can intellectually grasp how profound an experience becoming a parent is, I won’t really know until I experience it first hand. Neither books nor movies, nor having nieces and nephews and the children of close friends in my life can prepare me: the experience is beyond my comprehension.

So is this true of the Incarnation. What we will celebrate tonight, what St. Paul calls “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed,” was foretold for generations as the coming of a king and liberator of a great kingdom—and yet turns out to be not a king and kingdom in an earthly sense, but a helpless baby born to a family of marginalized ethnicity in a time of occupation and oppression, and a spiritual kingdom whose citizens strive to live in marked distinction from the values of the kingdom they physically inhabit. Even the Prophets couldn’t grasp the astonishing thing they were foretelling. But they knew that everything would change.

Shortly after the Annunciation, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is unexpectedly pregnant with John who will become the Baptist, and Mary sings the canticle we call The Magnificat, which took the place of a Psalm for us in today’s liturgy. This Song of Mary hearkens back to the Song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel—another unexpected pregnancy—and it is perhaps even more subversive and insurgent than The Annunciation.

Mary begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” (in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum, my soul magnifies the Lord) and then she tells us why; she paints a picture of a world turned upside down, a world in which God has scattered the proud in their conceit, has cast down the mighty from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty; God has come to the help of God’s servant, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy.

The Magnificat is what love, justice, and power look like in God’s kingdom. It is the polar opposite of what love, justice, and power look like in our wounded world. It is the polar opposite of the greedy, heartless tax bill passed into law this week. It is the antithesis of the justice and power structures we see in our nation today. It is a world in which Mary’s consent is an essential element of the Incarnation, as is Joseph believing her story.

This song of subversion is part of the Church’s daily liturgy: it’s optional at morning prayer, but always part of evening prayer. If you’ve ever thought about memorizing a piece of poetry to calm yourself at stressful times, consider memorizing this canticle, and reciting it—praying it—regularly.

Note that Mary uses the past tense; these are the things that God has done. Even though Jesus is not yet born, and we may not see how justice is prevailing on Earth, it is already done, and cannot be undone. The powerful, the unjust, and the unloving just don’t know it yet.

Tonight Christmas begins. God is coming into the world through unlikely means: an impossible pregnancy through the consent of a brave and Blessed Mother.

God is coming into the world through the faith and love and justice of every person in this congregation and in the Communion of Saints—brave and blessed mothers all. And everything is about to change…

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child… of his kingdom there will be no end.”

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