The scene captured in this Gospel passage does not typically show up in beautiful stained glass windows in churches. This is a troubling scene. In the family system it is a rough day for Jesus, his siblings, and his mother, Mary.[i]
Here is the back story. Away on a mountaintop Jesus had just appointed his twelve apostles, and then he returned to Nazareth, which is the setting for this Gospel lesson.[ii] A considerable crowd has surrounded Jesus outside his family’s home as he teaches. There is very mixed energy in the crowd. Jesus’ mother and his brothers must have been inside their home, because the Gospel of Mark reports they then go outside and send word through the crowd for Jesus. Why? Is it so they can stand with Jesus and give their public assent to his teaching? No. Does his family want to protect Jesus? No. We read the family makes their appearance to restrain Jesus.[iii] The verb used here to describe their reaction to Jesus literally means “he is out of his mind” or “he has gone mad!”[iv] What we witness is an attempt at a family intervention.
The terse situation seems only to escalate when we hear Jesus’ reaction to the report that his family has appeared on the outskirts of the crowd. Jesus seems to respond rhetorically or dismissively: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, Jesus says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Merry Christmas. As is true of every holy feast of the church, each of us brings a different collection of needs, hungers, questions, and reasons to give thanks. You are here, probably, to listen – for the first or the five-thousandth time, to “hear the good news of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” in the words of Isaiah. But, probably, you are also drawn to see. To see and exclaim, even before hearing, even in the midst of many cares and sorrows: How beautiful. How beautiful: the messenger’s feet upon the mountains. How beautiful: the holy arm which the Lord has bared. My God, how beautiful: this Child we have sought with the eyes of our hearts for so long.
Christmas, for Christians in the West, is the foremost opportunity to re-embrace the Medieval impulse to look and to touch; to show things of great meaning first, then to tell as commentary on the showing. So for the next hour, and the next eleven days of Christmas after that: Look! Touch! Taste! Smell! Clap and point and jump up and down at every shiny, lovely thing. We need to engage these impulses in acts of worship. It is easy in this world to forget the path to this holy ecstasy, this self-spending in the pursuit of meaning rather than luxury and waste.
What if this story is all about Mary’s brain?
The beats of today’s Gospel reading are familiar to most of us. Here at the Monastery, we recount them in the Angelus, which we pray before Morning and Evening Prayer. “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary . . .” pause, “and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
So much happens in that pause. And what if it’s all about Mary’s brain?
Of all the young women God could have chosen, God chose Mary. And what is the first thing we find out about her? That she hears the angel’s news, is perplexed, ponders over his words, and questions him. The first thing we find out about Mary is that she responds to God by using her own God-given faculties of reason and intelligence.
Byzantine writer Nicholas Mesarites provides a cognitive description of this episode: “The word comes to the hearing of the Virgin, and enters through it to the brain; the intelligence which is seated in the brain at once lays hold upon what comes to it, recognizes it by its perception, and then communicates to the heart itself what it had understood.” This then leads Mary to question the angel to determine the truth of the angel’s words. Only after she verifies the truth does Mary gives her yes to the angel, and to God.
Feast of St. Justin Martyr
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
When I was inquiring about a vocation here at SSJE, my favorite musician released a new song, entitled “John My Beloved.” Given the charism of this community, I paid attention. One of my favorite lines occurs toward the very beginning: “Beloved of John, I get it all wrong, I read you for some kind of poem.” I like this line, because it is a direct challenge to the impulse I often have, many of us have, of reducing Christ, this beloved of John, to the realm of abstraction and metaphor. To be clear, the poetic and the abstract have their place, including in the interpretation of scripture. But when we behold the one to whom the evangelists point, we’re beholding not a metaphor, but a man, clothed in the very flesh and blood you have brought with you today.
Today is the feast of Justin, an early martyr. Justin would have been at-home in Harvard Square. He was born to a pagan family in Palestine around the year 100, and he was well-educated in philosophy. More than literate, he was an eager student and writer. But also (not unlike a great many of our local students and writers today) he was frustrated by the philosophies he encountered. He wanted something more. And he found it upon discovering Christianity, and hearing about, not philosophers, but prophets, who “did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief.” Justin began to see Christianity as a means to this truth, the beholding of God. He still appreciated philosophy, though, and argued that earlier philosophers were expounders of truths more fully revealed by the prophets and the coming of Christ.
What’s in the news? What political calamity is happening? On the cusp of Palm Sunday, what garners the attention of the general public is not Jesus, but rather the reports from various sources about all the political machinations – who is in and who is not – and the endless conflicts between various camps. Meanwhile the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Truth be told, Palm Sunday hardly gets noticed by most people, including the Roman and Jewish authorities.
I’m talking here about the original Palm Sunday, two thousand years ago. What garners the attention of the general public is not Jesus, but rather the reports from various sources about all the political machinations – who is in and who is not – and the endless conflicts between various camps. Meanwhile the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Truth be told, Palm Sunday hardly gets noticed by most people, including the Roman and Jewish authorities.
Hilary of Poitiers
Several weeks ago, we celebrated the feast of St. Martin of Tours. It was Martin, as we saw then, who introduced, even before Benedict, the monastic movement into the Western Church. From Martin, sprang monasteries all over Europe, which ultimately flowered under St. Benedict over a century later. If Martin can be described as the Father of Western Monasticism, then Hilary, in a sense can be considered its grandfather, as it was Hilary who took the young Martin under his wing, and supported and encouraged him in his endeavours to establish the monastic movement into Europe.
Hilary was born about the year 315 and was baptized when he was about 30 years old. In 350 he was made a bishop. The church in the mid fourth century was not unlike ours. It was a time of controversy, division, and fragmentation. Then it was over the nature of God and the person of Jesus. The Arians believed that Jesus was subordinate, and not co-equal or co-eternal to the Father. The Catholics, of whom Hilary was a prime proponent, believed that the Son was both co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. For the Catholics, and for Hilary, the Arian view was problematic in that it denied the full divinity of Christ. But so what? What’s the big deal? Why is it important that the Son is both fully God and fully human, co-equal and co-eternal?
The big deal is what it says about us. For Hilary, salvation was about much more than liberation from sin. It was about sharing in the life of God. As 1 Peter puts it, through Christ we are participants in the divine nature of God. As Athanasius, who lived about a generation before Hilary said, God became human, so that humans might become God. We Brothers pick this same theme up in our Rule of Life when, in the chapter on The Mystery of Prayer we say a ceaseless interchange of mutual love unites the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our prayer is not merely communication with God, it is coming to know God by participation in this divine life. In prayer we experience what it is to be made “participants in the divine nature” … If in the incarnation the Son is not both fully God, and fully human, then it is not possible for us as humans to share in the life of God. This doctrine, known as theosis or divinization, is central to Catholic theology, and remains so today, because in it lies the Christian understanding of the dignity of all humanity. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help we promise in the Baptismal Covenant. Humans possess dignity, not simply because we are creatures made in the image and likeness of God, but because through the mystery of the Incarnation it is possible for us to be participants in the divine nature of God.
That we can be participants in the divine nature of God is crucial to our self-understanding as humans. It is this understanding that is rooted in the teaching of Hilary, and others like him. He may have lived nearly 2000 years ago, but his teaching on the nature of God and the person of Jesus, is as significant for our understanding of what it means to be human today, as it was then. And for that, we give thanks.
 Martin of Tours, feast day 11 November
 Benedict of Nursia, feast day 11 July
 2 Peter 1:4
 Athanasius of Alexandria, feast day 2 May
 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Mystery of Prayer, Chapter 21, page 42
 Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 305
This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so endearing. On her breast the medallion of the infant Christ. Mary’s arms extended in the orans position, the posture of a priest at the altar. Here Mary pre-figuring how she is carrying and offering the body and blood of Christ who comes from within her.
Mary carries Jesus, who is hidden. God’s taking on our human form, hidden for nine months in his mother’s womb. It will happen again to each of us: Christ’s hiddenness. How Christ who comes to live within us is sometimes so hidden, sometimes working out in the secrecy of our own hearts what cannot be seen. Not yet. Not by us; not by others.
This image of Christ, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” Such a paradox, because the Word pictured in this icon cannot speak even one human word. The Word of God, alive and present in a completely silent way.
And then Mary, whose eyes are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on the world, which she sees and shares with Jesus from her heart. Since the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world, the Church’s primary mission must be worldly: the church, not radiating its holiness to a godless world, but giving itself to a world God so loves: people, skies, waterways, plants and trees, birds and creatures big and small. The Church’s primary mission must be worldly, offering God’s love and care to a world dying to be saved.
In this morning’s gospel reading, we hear Luke’s version of what we know as The Beatitudes. Beatitude, from the Latin beatus, is defined as: a state of utmost bliss, and is synonymous with felicity, gladness, happiness, joy, and especially blessedness. It is the word blessed which we hear at the beginning of each statement Jesus gives. In Matthew’s gospel, we hear a longer version of the Beatitudes which comes from a sermon Jesus gives to his followers, known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is this version I remember hearing each year when Franco Zefferelli’s epic “Jesus of Nazareth” was broadcast on TV just prior to Easter. You may remember Zefferelli’s strikingly incongruous Anglo Jesus with crystal blue eyes delivering the Beatitudes to a great crowd assembled around him, augmented by the uplifting sound of a string orchestra, giving the moment a dramatic sense of beauty and hope.
Luke’s version, known as the Sermon on the Plain, is spare with only four Beatitudes. Besides the location and brevity of Luke’s version, the other difference is that each statement of blessedness is balanced by a woe, emphasizing two rival ways of human conduct and the reversal of human values that we hear throughout Luke. The gospel writer sets the scene by telling us that people had come not only from Judea and Jerusalem, but from the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Traditionally, we understand the gospel writer of Luke to himself be a Gentile, outside the covenant between God and Israel. Where Matthew’s gospel is written for a community of Jewish believers who are asking questions about how their belief in Jesus intersects with the faith of their upbringing, Luke is proclaiming the promise of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ, outside of Judaism. What do we notice about these Beatitudes and their subsequent ‘woes’ in Luke? Let me suggest two things:
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
These wise men who had come from the East, who are they? The New Testament Greek name for them is “magi,” which means magicians, fortune tellers, wizards. [i] The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that they reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew its significance, and followed it.[ii]
The wise men came from “the East,” but whether that is near East, or middle East, or far East is only a guess. St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, believed the three magi came from Yemen because, in those days, the Kings of Yemen were Jews. A very early Armenian tradition neither saw them as Jews nor as starting out together but rather meeting up along the way, each of them a king from a foreign realm, each of them following this star: one named Balthazar, a king from Arabia; another was Melchior, a king from Persia; and a third, Gaspar, a king from India. I am speaking of three magi, but we are actually not told how many wizards came to Bethlehem. Three is just a guess: three kings because of the three gifts so no one comes empty handed. The gifts were of gold, the most precious mineral on the earth[iii]; frankincense, a symbol of prayer, as the psalmist says, “let my prayer like incense be”[iv]; and myrrh, the fragrance of heaven, used in the anointing for healing and also in the anointing of the dead (ultimately Jesus’ own body).[v]
“The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”
Amazing, wondrous flesh: a baby with bright eyes and smile, tiny fingers, a bundle of new living love. Fragile, frail flesh: reliant on others for food, warmth, provision. Whether child, youth, adult, or elder, even with great care, each will sicken and die. Connected, touching flesh: face-to-face baby and parents bond before and beyond words. Human bodies relate in families and communities both given and chosen. Looking at each other, faces light up and we know love. The Word became flesh—amazing, fragile, connected—and lived among us.
Disconnected this year, we long to be together in the flesh, to see and touch, hug and hold. Fragile and frail, we mourn the dead and dying, struggle to tend the sick, to care for each other, to make ends meet. We are weary from so much change and adaptation.
Being human is amazing. Remember the wonder of our breath, every movement we make, our capacity for imagination and discovery, for being playful and creative. Remember how skin and other organs work to protect from and then restore after injury. Remember the healing power of touch, listening, tears, and laughter.
God became human in Jesus, to live as one of us. “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel.”[i] God was pleased to fully immerse into being human. The “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Mighty God, … Prince of Peace”[ii]came and still comes for, with, and as one of us. Jesus longs with us, mourns with us, and with a twinkling eye reminds us of amazing bodies and wondrous love.
Look at the Child of Bethlehem. We have hope. God still comes. Take a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. With one hand on your heart, reach out to another. This is a way to show and feel affection on Zoom. Though distant, we are still connected. Look to the glory embodied, and share the love. Merry Christmas!
[i] Charles Wesley, 1739, alt. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” verse 2
[ii] Isaiah 9:6