The scene we just heard from Luke’s gospel is a familiar one to us here at the monastery. We remember it twice a day, six days a week as we pray the words of The Angelus. Our tower bell rings the Angelus daily at noon, three hundred and sixty three days a year, silenced only to mark the solemnity of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
I confess that as I sat with it these past days, I struggled with its familiarity. Centuries of representation have layered upon the narrative the assumptions and preoccupations of so many ages. These layers of meaning tend to pile up, and Mary—the woman herself—often ends up lost in the various coats of semiotic varnish.
Think, for example, of the domesticated angels that litter Marian scenes—those chubby, adorable, benign little putti of the Italian renaissance who minister to Mary, Queen of some distant, unattainable heaven. “Mary on the half-shell,” as my friend Steph Budwey often calls this trope.
Or consider the many ways a cultural preoccupation with feminine submission speaks through the various portrayals of this very scene from Luke, and the ways such a preoccupation overshadows the very bold agency of a Mary who lays her doubt and concern at the feet of the messenger. How can this be? I am not yet married. This could be devastatingly scandalous. No, really God, how can this be?
I think it is important to let this moment startle us anew every time we hear it. For Mary is not any of these cultural projections; not merely a type; not merely a model of an unattainable gentleness or meekness; not some kind of surrogate for figures Venus, Brigid, or Minerva; and certainly not queen of some distant heaven.
For Mary is a woman. A flesh, blood, and soul woman. A woman caught, as are we, within the same messy, ill-defined workings of a sin-sick world. Poor, maligned, and subject to the same dangers and failings as we are. Tempted as we are to despair over our circumstances, our fragility, our inadequacy. How can this be?
Yet at the same time, a woman whom we believe to have borne in her body the very being of God, flesh, blood and soul; a vocation that doubtless exposed her female body to ridicule, danger, and scandal. A woman who still invites us to rely on and cooperate with the agency of God’s grace—for with God, nothing will be impossible. We remember her not for her accomplishments, or successes, or refinements, but for the grace of which she was (and continues to be) full. Hail Mary, full of grace.
God’s free grace. Grace, which armed her with a humility that would disarm the powers and principalities of the world and crown her queen not of some remote heaven, but of God’s new heaven-and-earth creation breaking in on our present darkness, even now.
The Annunciation is a familiar scene for us here at the monastery. We remember it twice a day, six days a week. It recalls for us that moment when God’s New Creation began to break into our world. A New Creation revealed not in kingly courts or around respectable tables. But within the messy, turbulent, and confusing life of an ordinary, flesh, blood, and soul woman.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners.
 Luke 1:34
 Luke 1:37
In my mid-twenties I worked for a non-profit agency in Boston’s Chinatown. The mission of the organization was to offer educational and social services to new Chinese immigrants and their families. Though generously supported by a base of donors, largely Chinese-American Christians, our budget was always tight. As the director of the organization’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I had just finished the long process of completing and submitting a complicated grant application that would give us access to some state funding. We did not receive the grant, and I was crest-fallen as I went into my regularly scheduled performance review with our executive director and founder – a charismatic, successful pillar of the community who had emigrated forty years ago. She worked her way through a long list of things she felt I could be doing differently. With each item, I began to feel a gathering energy of discouragement, like yeast molecules feeding on sugars of self-doubt and inadequacy. When she finally paused, I took a deep breath and asked – Was there anything she felt I was doing well? She let out an astonished laugh. “Everything! Your work is excellent!” I saw her face shift and her eyebrows furrow as she reasoned aloud that this must be a cultural difference. She took for granted that I knew what I was doing well. She had seen plenty of grant opportunities come and go, and had intended her feedback only to leaven my sense of resolve for the future by pinpointing areas for growth. After losing the grant, for which I felt personally responsible, I had needed a different kind of yeast: a balanced assessment that included reminders of my strengths, and her confidence in me, in order to make my dough rise.
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”1 James and John respond to this in the affirmative, with no further questioning. I wonder if this is an example of loving faith, or naïve foolishness, or both. Regardless, it is reasonable for us to ask, “What is this cup?”
The most obvious answer is that the cup Jesus mentions is a reference to his own death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in the hours before his arrest, Jesus refers to his impending death as a cup that he desires to pass from his lips.2 If this is the case, Christ’s assertion to the sons of Zebedee that, “The cup that I drink you will drink,” is a truthful one. James becomes a martyr, the first of the Twelve apostles to die, beheaded on the orders of King Herod in Jerusalem.3 John, the Tradition of the Church holds, lives on, the only one of the Twelve not to be martyred, instead spending his days watching his companions meet their deaths, each one a new nail in John’s own inner crucifixion.
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
“It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”[i]
In her masterful study of the book Genesis, Jewish scholar Avivah Zornberg notes that this is the first statement uttered by God in the creation narrative that does not immediately bring something into being. It is a brief soliloquy, an aside, a window into God’s thoughts. God does not act upon this thought directly. He creates the animals, and brings them to Adam to receive names. Among them, “there was not found a helper as his partner.” In his commentary on this text, the medieval rabbi Rashi proposes that God knew this would happen. He imagines Adam, the Human,as the one who seeks yet does not find, as God presents the animals to him already in pairs. At the conscious, painful realization of his human aloneness, sleep overwhelms him. Like God, Adam has been great in this aloneness. He has stood vertically, upright, among all the animals who creep, slither, and swarm horizontally upon the earth. But in greatness, aloneness, verticality, he has known no equivalent Other. For this to happen, Zornberg writes, Adam “must, in a sense, diminish himself” and “come to know the rightness of a more complex form of unity.”[ii] He falls, horizontally upon the earth, as if under divine anesthesia. Eve comes into being.
Who is Jesus Christ? This is a question that as Christians we must ask ourselves continuously. Who is this figure that stands at the heart of our faith? There is a tendency, a perfectly natural tendency, to focus on the humanity of Jesus, to see him, as it were, merely as a better version of ourselves. Jesus the good man. Jesus the wise teacher. Jesus the political activist. The one who hates to see injustice. Whilst none of these ideas are necessarily untrue, indeed they’re all right, by their very nature they only tell half the story. They only unveil half the picture.
Our Gospel reading today helps to shine light, perhaps give us some insights, into how the divinity of Jesus is manifested in his humanity. We hear of Jesus the healer. The miracle worker. The one who in raising the sick, and elsewhere in the Gospel of raising the dead, prefigures his own resurrection with the salvific importance that event has for all of creation. We hear of Jesus the cosmic warrior who, in casting out demons, is fighting a sort of proxy war on Earth in the constant, cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. We hear of Jesus Christ seated on his throne of judgment, looking forward to the end of all things when those who will dine at the heavenly banquet will be separated from those who will be cast into the outer darkness where we hear there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. We hear of Jesus the dynamic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The Messiah. The Christ. The one in whom all the hopes and expectations of Israel are met.
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Leviticus 19: 1 – 2, 9 – 18
Psalm 119: 33 – 40
1 Corinthians 3: 10 – 11, 16 – 23
Matthew 5: 38 – 48
It is hard to believe that our journey from the ashes of Ash Wednesday to the baptismal waters of the Easter Vigil begins in only ten days. It seems that just a few days ago we were gathered here, around the Christmas crèche, singing carols and celebrating the Feast of the Nativity. Already, the season of Epiphany is almost over and we stand at the threshold of Lent. Our Lenten journey will begin, as it does every year, with the mark of our mortality, which we will wear on our foreheads, until newly washed and smelling of the oil of chrism, we emerge dripping wet from the baptismal font. This journey which we take each Lent is not simply a liturgical or sacramental journey, it is a journey through life, when we face again the paradox of our humanity, which is that we are both fallen and redeemed. We are both sinners and saints. We live both in the wasteland outside the gates of Eden and in the garden outside the Empty tomb. We have something about us both of our First Parents, Adam and Eve, and the Second Adam, our Lord and Saviour.
While growing up, I was fascinated by questions like “What does it mean to be a human being? What makes us who we are? Why are we the way are?” I would read a lot of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and probably a few more “ologies” I can’t remember at the moment. And it was all very interesting, if ultimately not quite as enlightening as I had hoped. And I remember often encountering one particular sort of statement about human beings that would always give me pause, a doubtful, skeptical kind of pause. It was the kind of statement that would compare humans, usually very favorably, to other forms of life on our planet.
Jesus said to the disciples,“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property… 29And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes…” 10 Luke 16:1-13
We could easily find this Gospel lesson appointed for today either confusing or offending. It seems that Jesus is praising the practices of a dishonest account manager. The manager falsifies the amounts owed to his employer so that when this manager is out of a job – mind you, he’s being fired because of his dishonesty! – these same creditors with whom he is currying illicit favor would admire him or owe him, and ultimately welcome him into their homes!
I wonder if Isabel Myers and Katharine Briggs ever considered adding a Mary and Martha continuum to their MBTI: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. What type of person are you? Are you an introvert or an extravert? Are you sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving? Those are the various “dichotomies” in the Myers-Briggs test, which measures how far you lean to one side or the other or if you hit the sweet spot right in the middle.
If I were to show you a drawing of a person with a tiny angel perched on one shoulder and a tiny devil perched on the other, I’m sure would recognize immediately what the picture was trying to convey. Temptation is a universal phenomenon, isn’t it? All of us know what it is to be tempted. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t had the experience of being torn between the desire to do good and the desire to do evil, between the impulse to help and the impulse to harm, between the wish to speak and act kindly, and the urge to be hurtful and cruel. We know what it is to have the devil whispering in one ear and an angel whispering in the other.