Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sermon: C 4 Advent 23 December 2012

Mi 5: 2-5a; Cant 15 (LK 1: 46-55;) He 10: 5-10; LUKE 1:39-55

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior, Come and save us, O Lord our God. AMEN.

This antiphon or short sentence preceded and followed the day’s psalm or canticle historically. This is the 7th of the O Antiphons, the one written for the 23rd of Dec. Since we sang The Magnificat instead of the Psalm, and we sang two hymn versions of this canticle, we omitted either a regular chosen antiphon or this ancient one from these O Antiphons, those written for the seven days leading to Christmas Eve. We know them best from “O come, O come Emmanuel.” We ask the Lord, rex et legifer noster, our king and lawgiver, law bearer, to save us. This antiphon names Jesus, calls out to him: “God with us,” to come to save us.

In contrast, today’s collect addresses Almighty God for us: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, that your Son may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” so that we may in our own way be or become someone in whom Christ finds life, life to be his hands, feet, mind in the world. Then each reading tells us, that it is each of us, we ourselves, our souls and bodies, that is to be part of the work of the Lord, the life-bearer of Jesus. The lessons identify us in a variety of ways, but for me the first concern is how am I, how is each of us, as we are, going to let our own soul “magnify the Lord.” That rhetorical largeness in Mary’s great hymn doesn’t suggest that she’ll make the Lord bigger, or magnify the Lord, but rather in seeing, knowing, studying, emulating, living into or through Mary, we catch a glimpse of her, and that sight large, larger, and infinite, suggests something of the Holy One. She caught such a whiff, sight, or whisper of the reality of God’s largeness, in knowing and being with Jesus her son.

First things first, though, before we cast ourselves as a shadow, hint of the Holy One, we need to purify our consciences. How do we do that? “We confess that we have followed too much the desires and desires of our hearts and there is no health in us.” I’ve heard fuss at that concept, objecting to that absolute indictment, but if we can learn to allow ourselves to reach out to magnify the Lord, we can accept the same sort of expansive language of “no health in us.” How to do that? That’s less clear. What is clear to me is that we’re not supposed to be anyone else other than who we are, each of us. We are to pay attention to what we’re asked to be and do, take a deep breath following God’s will for us.

In our age of psychology, history, sometimes gloom, and often deep-seeded skepticism, we don’t permit ourselves many occasions to trust in that faith, and we’re wary to trust in ourselves as God-bearer. The one Sunday a year, though, when we honor Mary, theotokos, God-bearer, Mother of God, she provides us a working model. Gabriel had invited her; she’d asked the one good question, “How can this be?” and was told, “With God all things are possible.” She’d said, “Yes” to his invitation. Apparently though, she’d gone to visit her cousin perhaps finding it uncomfortable at home, being pregnant and unmarried. Elizabeth was old and beyond child-bearing age and had gotten pregnant outside the expectable course of the world’s events. However special she was, when Mary newly pregnant came to visit, it was Elizabeth’s child, John, who leapt with joy, “And why has this thing happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?”

Micah had said there’d be one to come from Bethlehem to rule Israel. He would feed his flock and they shall live secure, and he shall be the one of peace. The author of Hebrews offers a dialogue between Christ and him/her. Christ says, “A body you have prepared for me,” the author replies, “I have come to do your will.” Agreeing that the Lord took no pleasure in sacrifices, burnt offerings, and so on, then Christ says, “I have come to do your will.” The writer notes that in bypassing the Law, or the first order, Christ established a new 2nd order. Then he declares, “It is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The conclusion that Christ used his body as a sacrifice for all people is one of several theological approaches to how Christ achieved the salvation of the world.

What there is, is a consensus of belief about the real-life human body experience of the Christ through the agency of his mother Mary. People have reached out to explain how and what Mary did. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s image of Mary’s work says in his poem,  Mary's Girlhood This is that blessed Mary, pre-elect

 God's Virgin. Gone is a great while, and she
         Dwelt young in Nazareth of Galilee.
Unto God's will she brought devout respect,
Profound simplicity of intellect,
         And supreme patience. From her mother's knee
         Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity;
Strong in grave peace; in pity circumspect.

So held she through her girlhood; as it were
         An angel-water'd lily, that near God
                Grows and is quiet. Till, one dawn at home,
She woke in her white bed, and had no fear
         At all,—yet wept till sunshine, and felt aw'd:
                Because the fulness of the time was come.

Rossetti credits Mary with “profound simplicity of intellect, and supreme patience.” He shows her shaped by her mother’s training and with “devout respect” for God’s will. His picture of her having “wept til sunshine, and felt aw’d, because the fullness of the time was come” is as persuasive an account of the annunciation as there is. Less is more.

Other artists, poets, musicians, and painters have worked to bring Mary and her life and experiences to all. On our website, see the lovely image accompanying an earlier English version of Magnificat as well as a link to Bach’s expression of it. Carole-Jean Smith, St. John’s poet, knows Mary to be like this in her poem:    

Flesh and Blood

The left thumb held a knife cut
that hadnΚΌt healed yet. The nail
bed of the left forefinger was purple
and brown from when the water jar
fell on it. The skin of both hands
was wrinkled on top and calloused
across the palms from years
of grinding grain, lifting heavy
pots, and scrubbing tables. All
the middle joints were swollen but
she could still milk the cows and
weave sleeping mats for the many
guests and family members who filled
their rooms this year. The hands formed
fists for kneading and shaping
bread. They often smelled of olives
and hay. They were the first ever hands
to touch the head of God. 

We didn’t “touch the head of God,” and most of us can’t produce “supreme patience,” and yet we can recognize and work to announce, celebrate, and share in the reality that “the fullness of time has come.” Mary, herself, understood in her own way the mystery of which she was part. She was present at the times of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. She was there at the wedding at Cana, and urged Jesus to do what he could do to help the family’s awkwardness at running out of wine. She was forceful and directive, and she’d caused her Son to be religiously well educated. She’d insured that he’d learned psalms, since he could quote them aptly. She’d taught him to care about and for those around him.  He healed some people in dire situations, and even at his most desperate, saw to it that his mother would be safe and cared for.

She glimpsed the core of that relationship, when John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb; she expressed her wonder at the extraordinariness she knew to be happening; she never exalted herself. According to the Revelation of the Magi, she “became the gate for the great light that entered the world in grace to banish the darkness. And she became the way of salvation for God giving birth to himself, who appeared in the bodily form of a human being. And there will be for her a name, a memory, and a blessing for ever and ever.” While we spend Advent awaiting the birth of the Savior, simultaneously we understand that there is no need to wait, because the grace of Jesus Christ breaks into the world’s reality each day, constantly. Our Lady is the first person who lived that double reality, of expectation of what was to come with its existing presence. Her wonder in, and work for, the Savior is what we share, and long to emulate. Her strength and perseverance is what we hold to and try to live into. In another system of antiphons, long used also for the Dec 23rd we’d begin and end saying, “Behold, all things are fulfilled, which were spoken by the Angel to the Virgin Mary.” Good News. AMEN.

© Katharine C. Black St. John’s, Boston 23 December 2012

Image: The Girlhood of Mary Virgin  by Dante Gabriel Rossetti