Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 21st December 2008
What kind of expression do you think Mary had on her face when Gabriel approached? Panic is one word that comes to mind. Shock, maybe. Enough to warrant Gabriel to say, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” And then in the next breath she learns what God has in store for her, of what God will conceive through her. You have to wonder if she really felt favored by God, given the weight of responsibility now placed upon her, as well as the blessing and burden, hurt and pain his birth and life will cause her.
Every year during Advent, I stand shocked and amazed by this story. This story we think we know by heart, yet contains countless levels of meaning and depth. It’s inexhaustible. I’m shocked and amazed by what the gospel writers give witness to, of their firm belief – because they witnessed it firsthand – that God was indeed in this Jesus reconciling the world to Godself. “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” There’s really no precedence for such an act in the history of world religions. Sure, religions have deemed some births as miraculous or special, like Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) . But here in this child the glory of the Living God – Yahweh – the Holy One of Israel who dwells in light inaccessible unknown, will begin to grow in Mary’s womb through the creative power of God. This child will be holy – meaning set apart for God. This child will be called Son of God. We need to remember it’s the same title given to Caesar Augustus, by the way, “Son of God.” But this child is holy, meaning different, conceived through the power of God, here is a true Son of God, unlike Caesar. And his name will be Jesus: Yeshua, meaning “Yahweh is my salvation.” Yahweh is the source of salvation, not Caesar.
Gabriel’s message points us to the profound theological claim of the New Testament, that in Jesus’ birth we are confronted with the mystery of the Incarnation. The glory of God, divinity, and the fullest, truest humanity meet in the person Jesus, the Christ.
Now, before we try to wrap our heads around this – don’t. Let me just say we can’t. And I’m not saying this as an excuse not to try. This isn’t a theological puzzle that needs to be solved, but an experience, an awareness of who God is. Think of it as an expression of doxology. The epistle lectionary reading from Romans, these few verses, is a doxology attached to the end of Paul’s epistle. Doxology, meaning, words of praise, is fitting at the summation of Paul’s profound letter. But it’s also fitting today. It’s the final lection reading of Advent, the last text read before the hearing of the birth narratives on Christmas Eve. It’s been said that all our knowledge ultimately leads toward doxology and true knowledge flows from doxology (1). It’s the rhythm of our life in God. Doxology – words of praise – are offered in response to the amazing work of God and from that doxology we gain new insight in the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
The point here is that the lectionary intentionally links the Luke text of the Annunciation with the doxology at the end of Romans in the lectionary to lead us to this important insight: that in the coming and birth of Christ we are in over our heads in doxology and mystery. It overwhelms our senses, our expectations, and our reason. Praise is the appropriate posture as we await the coming of Christ. Doxology moves us toward God, away from ourselves. Doxology takes the focus way from ourselves and turns it toward God – toward the impossible thing God is about to do. Doxology moves us away from the present into the unfolding future God is about to give us.
This is the temptation: to make sense out of Jesus’ birth, to explain it all. What I hold out for us is a different way – let the mystery remain a mystery (don’t try to solve it), let God be God, let God’s glory do what God’s glory does, let doxology remain doxology instead of turning it into something else. For, if we don’t, doxology reduced to doctrine can be deadly. It’s deadly to our souls and to the soul of the church. When we do this, we suck the life and the joy and the glory out of this story, so much so that we’re not startled by it, surprised by it, shocked, even offended by Gabriel’s announcement.
The Brooklyn-based rock group, The Hold Steady’s wrote a piece called, “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night;” in this song there is a line that gets at what I’m trying to say, “We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen.” Doxologies can’t be dictated without them losing their power. No wonder our children fall asleep – and we with them, bored by God because we’ve lost the sense of awe, of the power and majesty and mystery and wonder and God’s glory revealed in the birth of Jesus. If we’re bored by God, then something is seriously – seriously – wrong.
What will it take for a changed perspective? Maybe it takes remembering that it’s not just about God’s glory and the power of the Most High along, but remembering that the glory and power of God were born within Mary’s womb. It’s impossible for any man to fully fathom the experience of carrying a baby to birth and to experience the birth of a child. It’s well-nigh impossible for men and woman to imagine what it must feel like to bear the birth of a God. We might have no problem imagining the divinity of God (we expect God to be divine), but to talk about God’s humanity or the humanity of God, that pushes us into new territory. It’s an imaginative reach. Yet, that’s what we have with his birth. This is the beginning of wonder, wonder, and shock.
Not only are we pushed to imagine God in a new light, we are also confronted with a new image of humanity, of what it means to be human. Jesus becomes the glory of humanity, the truest, most faithful person the world has ever known, fully alive, deeply grounded in God, therefore free to reach out to others, to give his life away for the sake of his relationship with God. Human beings were created to be in relationship with God. Jesus was fully, truly human in that his relationship with God was unblemished.
And the relationship with God is lived out through the fragility of human flesh. In the two thousand year history of Christianity, we have affirmed in our creeds that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Yet, in our practice and attitudes we have problems holding the two together. We either say he was really only a man (not divine) or we focus on the divine part and say he was a special kind of human, not human like the rest of us are human. We say he was a special case. But that’s not what the Gospel writers say to us – there is no doubt in their mind who Jesus is. In fact, they have no problem affirming that the Jesus they see in the flesh (even as they are in the flesh) is an embodiment of the Living God.
Yet, we have problems with this. Back in the 1940s, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) wrote a play called, “The Man Born to be King,” which was transcribed for radio broadcast on the BBC during the Second World War. C. S. Lewis had a hand in getting the show produced. But what a ruckus it caused – who would play Christ? First, she writes, “The one kind of Christ I absolutely refuse to have at any price whatsoever, is a dull Christ; we have far too many of these in stained-glass windows.” And she said, it could be “Anybody other than a parson. …Well you, see,” she said, “they will sentimentalize it.” “There were no guidelines for the dramatist to follow or to prepare the audience and critics for the shock of hearing an everyday Christ.” Beyond this, there was actually a British law that “banned the representation on stage of any member of the Holy Trinity – God the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit.” This led to the view that such representations were intrinsically wicked – as if embodiment were somehow bad – see how we have problems with the flesh? Sayers said the law didn’t apply to radio; therefore the Lord Chamberlain of London had no jurisdiction (2). You see, we really don’t know what do do with a fully-human God in our midst.
Last week I was reminded of what his birth means. I was out on my porch sawing off some branches at the bottom of my Christmas before bringing it into the house and placing it in the stand. Somehow the saw ended up being too close to my index finger and I cut a gash in it. It hurt and it started to bleed – a lot. It took me a while to get the bleeding to stop. As I thought about it, it seemed odd getting blood, my red blood, on the green Christmas tree and then it seemed to make perfect sense, even seem profound. Because his birth was really in the flesh, God’s glory in the flesh, like mine – a flesh that bled like mine bled and yours bleeds. I came to have a sense of wonder and awe in that moment – couldn’t explain it, but accepted it, yielded to the experience, the insight, the truth.
What if a messenger of the Living God approached you and said that you would bear the hope of the world in your body? What would you say if you discovered that someone would be birthed through your DNA, through your blood-line who would embody the power of the Most High? And what if we answered to this news, not with “how can this be?” but with humility, allowing the experience of God’s glory, God’s holiness come upon us, come over us, and overshadow and move us? It seems to me that this is the posture required for such an experience, required for Advent. Instead of resisting the holiness of God, what if we accepted it and yielded to it, with the posture of praise and doxology? What if we said with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Imagine what could still be born of God through us.
For these weeks of Advent we’ve been preparing, getting ready for the birth of Christ. We prepare by getting out of the way and letting God do God’s new thing. We also prepare by yielding to the movement of God so that we can be swept up into the movement of God’s love poured out through Christ.
The great psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), used one word to describe how we should respond to every experience of the Holy – surrender. No easy task, as Mary knew and as all of us know, which is why we resist Holiness so much, because we know it will inevitably change our lives. How could it not? But we can’t live out the purpose of our lives, the goal of our calling as humans, unless we attend to that which summons us to life and place our lives at the disposal of God’s will. “Surrender to God,” Jung wrote, “is a formidable adventure….He who can risk himself wholly to it finds himself directly in the hands of God…Christian faith insists on the deadly danger of the adventure (3).” That’s what Jesus came to know in his life. It’s what we have come to know about life in him. That’s what Advent is, the adventure that invites us to take the risk and receive and embrace what the mystery of his birth really means, with all its life-changing implications. That’s the adventure of the Christian life.
So, who knows what might be birthed in you again or for the first time on Christmas Eve. My guess it that it will be found in those moments of doxology and praise and wonder, when our praises lead us to God, the God who took on flesh to redeem us all, who showed us what it means to be really human.
1The comment of pastoral theologian, James E. Loder (1931-2001).
2Cited in Justin Phillips, C. S. Lewis In A Time of War: The World War II Broadcasts That Riveted a Nation and Become the Classic Mere Christianity. Foreword by Douglas Hopper. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), pp. 204-206.
3C. G. Jung, “Letter to Pere Lachat,” in The Symbolic Life, vol. 18 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, para 178, cited in Ann Belford Ulanov and Alvin Dueck, The Living God and Our Living Psyche: What Christians Can Learn from Carl Jung (Grand Rapids: Eerdams, 2008), 50.