20 December 2009
Luke 1: 39-45
For the Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 20th December 2009
We might expect from Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary a skeptical response, shock, surprise. But there’s nothing in the record. There’s no debate or even protest with Gabriel, there’s no, “I’m not worthy.” Instead, Luke tells us, Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word (Luke 1: 39).” There’s no argument from either Mary or Gabriel.
When one encounters the holiness of God – or God’s holy messengers – all one can do is be open to the experience, to receive it, humbly – and then share it. In the encounter with Gabriel, Mary came to know of the unfolding mystery of God’s work of salvation. Something happened and in that holy act Mary received an insight into the nature of the child growing within her. All she could do is receive this news, which is what she did. Some might view Mary’s response as unrealistic, unnatural – there’s no struggle, no doubt. But she did do something – again, she took the experience seriously and then she did as everyone who encountered the holiness of God has ever done: she bore witness to it. “With haste (Luke 1: 39),” Mary went into the hill country, to Judah, to see her cousin, Elizabeth. She had to tell someone.
This is how the God of the Bible moves in the world. Indeed, the foundations of the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition were shaken by the Judeo-Christian view that truth is not an idea, but a person. Truth, particularly religious or theological truth, is arrived at, is known through personal encounter. For example, “When speaking of how God is known, the Bible seldom speaks of insight or illumination or demonstration; rather, it says that God appeared, [God] did something, [God] showed [God]self, or spoke to someone…, the way to God begins not with arguments or proofs, [which we are wont to do in our skeptical, overly rationalistic world], but with discernment and faith.” This is because the “the Word of God makes its way not by argument but as men and women bear witness to what happened.” (1) When we bear witness to what we know, God is known.
This is what made and makes Mary so significant. She models a way for us to be open to the movement of God in our lives and then shows us how to respond to it. It’s in the midst of her witness to Elizabeth that Luke has Mary signing a song of praise in the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Yes, Mary is significant, of course. But, needless to say, Protestants have been hesitant when it comes to her important role in Jesus’ birth. Martin Luther (1483-1546) speaks for many when he preached in a Christmas sermon, “…the text does not proclaim the honor of the mother,… I am to accept the child and his birth and forget the mother, as far as possible, although her part cannot be forgotten, for where there is a birth there must be a mother.” Forget the mother? How? “We dare not put our faith in the mother,” he said, “but only in the fact that the child was born.” (2) At least Luther could admit and affirm, “Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, [and] prepared broth…for God.” (3) However, Luther, along with the other reformers, could not support the kind of Marian devotion that evolved in Roman Catholicism through the Middle Ages, using texts like, “Blessed are you among women (Luke 1: 42) or “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed (Luke 1: 48), as proof texts. Marian devotion within Catholicism continued and developed after the Reformation, maybe because of it. Beliefs about Mary were actually codified quite recently (without Biblical support, it must be said), such as Mary’s perpetual virginity, her freedom from actual and original sin (Immaculate Conception, 1854), and the idea that she did not die but was taken directly to heaven (Bodily Assumption, 1950). “We Protestants also get agitated about exalted language that sounds like Mary is a co-redeemer of humanity. And finally, in popular devotion the cult of Mary can drift into excess and superstition. For these reasons, Protestants emphasize a distinction that both Catholic and Orthodox believers acknowledge, that Christians honor or venerate (duleia) Mary as the Mother of God, but we don't worship her (latreia), which worship is due to God alone.” (4)
Perhaps a deeper theological claim can be made about Mary, one also shared across the ecumenical spectrum. It’s that Mary is significant because she shows us how to be receptive to God’s will. She demonstrates how one encounters the holiness of God, how we engage mystery.
The birth of God’s son is a mystery that overwhelms reason and thought; it cannot be demonstrated or argued. The ancient world made a distinction between a mystery and a puzzle. A mystery, by definition, cannot be explained or explained away. A puzzle can be solved, figured out. A mystery is not a puzzle. A mystery remains a mystery and in the presence of, engagement with, encounter with the mystery, knowledge is gained. Similarly, the birth of God’s son is a mystery – it is experienced and received with holy awe. It cannot be domesticated, made comfortable, or safe. It cannot be prettified, tamed, or contained. It cannot be put in a box, wrapped with a nice ribbon, placed under a Christmas tree, and adored from a distance. The Magnificat is Mary’s song of response to the mystery she encountered and was about to experience. It is sung in awe before the Holiness of God whose glory cannot be tame or contained, who chooses to dwell within humanity in order to redeem us and to restore us. The Akathistos Hymn, first sun for the Patriarch of Constantinople in 626 beautifully captured this image, “Hail, space for the uncontained God.”
The revealed, uncontained mystery unleashes the power of God’s redemptive work in the world. Mary’s blessing is shared with the world because of what God will do through her son. Then and now these claims – these amazing verses – are extraordinary: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away (Luke 1: 51-54).”
God will overturn the imbalance of power; all authority will be subjected to the authority of God. The song identifies and anchors God’s salvation in the lives of God’s people in concrete, physical, tangible ways; not only in “spiritual” ways, but in touchable, solid, real, and social ways. Through this one about to be born the proud and haughty will be scattered. God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and put the lowly ones there instead. He is coming and will be born for the hungry ones, not for those who are rich and satisfied. Radical stuff, indeed – it’s all there in the text. Now imagine this text circulating through the Roman Empire, under the nose of Caesar. This is what the birth of Jesus means in Luke’s gospel. These claims are unsettling, troublesome, disturbing, and disruptive. One of our church school teachers said to me once after reading this text, “We let third graders read this stuff?”
Mary models for us how to be servants of the mystery of God. She shows us how to say, “Yes,” to God, and through her life she bears the Son of God. In this way, Mary was literally Theotokos, the Godbearer, the title given to her at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Godbearer. It’s a powerful image. It’s an apt description of Mary. But, I wonder, if it doesn’t also, in some way, also apply to us? Yes, Mary was special and significant. There was only one, actual, Mother of God. Yet, if Mary is held up here as a model of faithful witness and discipleship, then I wonder if perhaps Luke wants us to also claim the “Mary” in all of us – both women and men. (5) I’m not talking literally here, of course (!), but metaphorically. We are not asked literally to bring Christ into the world as she did. But are we not filled with grace? When we receive this grace, can we recognize ourselves in the salutation, “Greetings, favored one!”? Are we not, too, the object of God’s address? Can we see ourselves this way? Do we not desire to be servants of this grace? Are we not then also in some sense called to be Godbearers – Godbearers who help to give birth to the presence of God in this world through concrete, tangible, physical, social ways for all to see? Are we not called, with Mary, to do the impossible, to bear the impossible into a world that forever wants to give up on hope? Are we not called to carry signs of new life and hope with our lives to the world in the name of Christ? “Christ is born!” we will proclaim on Christmas morning. But is it not also true that Christ is being born – and wants to be born – again and again through you and me? Is this not what we’re called to as followers of Christ? In this sense, then, we are Godbearers – bearing witness to God’s amazing grace and love, God’s tidings of great joy and peace and hope.
I close with an Advent Credo, written by the Roman Catholic priest, writer, activist, Daniel Berrigan. It calls us to affirm what the birth of Jesus means, to claim it’s truth, to live from it, to share it, encouraging us to bear witness to another reality, other than what the world wants us to believe is true. (If we were in worship this morning at Catonsville Presbyterian Church, we would have shared this responsively.)
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us [leave] Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world. (6)
Come, Lord Jesus. Come.
1 Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 6.
2 Martin Luther in John D. Witvliet and David Vroege, eds. Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel: Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Christian Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 109.
3 Cited in Time, March 13, 2005. For Protestant views of Mary see Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999) and Cynthia L. Rigby, Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
4 Daniel B. Glendenin, Journey with Jesus, http://journeywithjesus.net/index.shtml.
5 Kenneth E. Kovacs, Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XXI, Number 1(December 2009-January 2010): 8ff.
6 Daniel Berrigan, S. J., Testimony: The Word Made Flesh (Orbis Books, 2004).