Archive for the ‘mother’ Tag

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.”

No Motherless Children   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 8 January 2017

Biblical texts: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Sometimes atheists make the most spiritually resonant art. The great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, an avowed atheist, made a painstakingly-faithful and shockingly reverential cinematic adaptation of The Gospel According To Saint Matthew, with all dialogue straight from the Biblical text. And as his film comes to the scene we’ve just heard, we see John baptizing peasants in the Italian countryside while on the soundtrack, the Blues singer Odetta sings “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.”

As Jesus approaches John, there is a smile of recognition between the two of them. John protests, saying he needs to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus assures him this is the right way. And once it has been done, God’s voice comes from the heavens, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Words reminiscent of several passages in Isaiah, including the one we heard a few minutes ago.

Today is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the day the Church remembers that Jesus, like most of us, was baptized. We have entered, as of Friday (or Thursday evening) the Epiphany: We have passed through Advent’s season of waiting, and the twelve days of Christmastide celebrating the incarnation of Christ in our lives, and now we celebrate Christ’s revelation to the world. Today is one of four days in the year that the Church recognizes as “especially appropriate” for baptizing newcomers to the faith, and though we are not baptizing anyone at St. Thomas this morning, we will renew our Baptismal Covenant together in a few minutes.

Baptism, according to The Episcopal Church’s Catechism (which is in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 845), is one of the two great sacraments of the Church—the other being the Eucharist. A sacrament, you’ll recall, is an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. The Catechism says, “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” The simple act of pouring a bit of water on a person’s head becomes a sign of God’s welcoming that person into the family.

When I was born, my parents decided not to baptize me as an infant; they wanted to wait until I was old enough to make the choice myself. And that choice came when I was about 13 years old, when the Presbyterian Church in which I grew up held a year-long confirmation class for middle school children, which would culminate in confirmation—full membership in the church—preceded by baptism for any of us who hadn’t been baptized earlier in life.

I was enthusiastically on board with confirmation: I wanted very much to be a full member of the Church, primarily so that I could vote in congregational meetings—I was already very interested in church governance. But I was terrified of baptism, to the point at which I really struggled with the decision to be confirmed.

My fear was entirely rooted in my adolescent vanity. First, I was simply embarrassed: Why hadn’t my parents taken care of this earlier? Why on earth would they have waited for me to make up my own mind when this was clearly something done to unknowing infants? Learning that roughly half the class was in the same boat as me somehow didn’t diminish that embarrassment.

But the more significant reason was my hair. I had thick red hair that required about half a bottle of hair gel every day to control. And for some reason I got a notion in my head that the pastor—who was known for his sense of humor—would, upon putting water on my head, make a joke to the congregation about how much gel was in it.

He was a compassionate person and a good pastor in the midst of a sacrament of the church, so of course he made no such joke. I was baptized, without any fuss apart from my own distraction.

Years later, days before I officially joined the Episcopal Church, I witnessed my first Episcopalian baptism. The whole congregation followed the altar party’s procession back to the font, and we all read or recited the Baptismal Covenant together. The adult baptizands were all dressed in a white alb after baptism and handed a candle: the Light of Christ. I was filled with a deep wish that this could have been my baptism, not the experience that my anxious teenage vanity kept me from appreciating at the time.

But: the wonderful thing in The Episcopal Church—and I think this is part of God’s grace in baptism—is that it didn’t really matter whether I was baptized as an unknowing infant, an unappreciative teenager, or a discerning adult: that baptism at Grace Cathedral was my baptism. As has been every baptism I have experienced since then. At every baptism we attend and participate in, each of us has the opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, our Baptismal Covenant with God. We remind ourselves that we are beloved children of God and part of God’s family. We renew our commitment to be in relationship with God, not simply as individuals, but in community.

We recite—in question-and-answer form—the Apostle’s Creed. And then we promise, with God’s help, to continue in the teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayers of the Church. To resist evil and repent of our sins. To proclaim the Good News. To see and love Christ in the person of our neighbor. To strive for justice, peace, and the dignity of every human being. We say aloud together our shared beliefs about our Triune God, and we recommit to our responsibilities to God’s kingdom and our siblings in it.

Going back to the Pasolini film: Pasolini uses that “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” cue several times in the picture, not just as prelude to the baptism scene. And motherhood was a recurrent theme throughout his work; perhaps its most significant sign in this film is the fact that Pasolini cast his own mother in the role of the Blessed Mother Mary.

I don’t know why he used that song in the baptism scene, but it seems a significant contrast to God’s proclamation moments later: “This is my beloved son.” Jesus is no motherless child.

Nor are any of us motherless children, even if we feel as if we are: I don’t know if Pasolini had any knowledge of the wonderful English mystic Julian of Norwich, but this Gospel message—perhaps particularly in the way Pasolini tells it—makes me think of a key theme in Julian’s work. In the late 14th Century, Julian had a series of powerful visions from God, which she later wrote about in her book Revelations Of Divine Love. Among many other things, God gave her in these visions an understanding of Christ as a mother to us all. She writes: “…Our Saviour is our true mother, in whom we are endlessly born, and out of whom we shall never come to birth…“We know that our mothers bear us and bring us into this world to suffering and to death, and yet our true mother Jesus, he, all love, gives birth to us into joy and to endless life—blessed may he be!”*

I know that not everyone has a good relationship with their parents, and so: if you are someone who has not known a parent’s wholehearted, unconditional love, know that God’s love is that for which you have hoped. This is Julian’s message—and, indeed, the overarching message of the Bible. God loves you as dearly, as abundantly, as a mother should—and more.

In the humility of God’s incarnation comes the deepening humility of the Messiah’s submission to the rite of Baptism, despite the Baptizer being less worthy than the baptized. God welcomes Godself into God’s human family, into the Beloved Community. Jesus, though fully divine, is fully human: he is one of us.

And all this shows God’s love for us: that God would take part in this human life, and in particular today would take part in this rite to which each of us is called in righteousness. That one of the ways God makes the human family holy is by participating, in the flesh, in its holy rituals.

I’m sure there are 13 year-olds who approach baptism with far more grace than I had. And I am equally sure that there are mature adults who approach baptism with as much anxiety and trepidation. But at that font—as at this altar—we are received with the love that a parent has for their beloved children. God gives generously regardless of our ability to appreciate or understand what we receive.

Come to this font and be readopted. Come readopt your siblings. Come to this table and be made one with all of God’s people. Come be welcomed into the arms of Jesus, your loving mother.

 

*Julian of Norwich (2015). Revelations Of Divine Love. (Barry Windeatt, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1395).