The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth always captures my praying imagination.
I see an old, tough woman suffused with the giddy joy of a young girl, the kind that visits mothers, grandmothers, and aunts at wedding receptions. In squeals of laughter, flushed cheeks and bare feet on the dance floor, a youthful radiance gleams from the young at heart.
And I see a young girl, centered, purposeful, and wise beyond her years, with a confidence and vision that are usually the gifts of chronological maturity. She declares words of passion and purpose about the true order of things in a voice that does not quiver. It is a strange combination of purity and precociousness, the kind that we glimpse in the old souls of certain children.
The Spirit touches the first with a buoyant exuberance and a cry of joy that begins deep in the belly. The Spirit touches the second with anchored assurance and a song that echoes down the generations.
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
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Luke 2:41-52
When I was in sixth grade, I got to take the second major journey of my young life. By major I mean, pack a bag and get on an airplane which is very exciting for a young boy. The first trip was the summer before my first-grade year to the strange and mysterious land of Ohio where my Mom’s cousin lived. When we had crested the clouds, I asked my mom if we were in heaven, a question that she remembered fondly her whole life. The second trip was even more exotic! California. My father was the assistant band director of a successful high school band program that had been invited to perform in the 1984 Rose Parade in Pasadena. I was halfway through my sixth-grade year and since the parade was on New Year’s Day and the trip fell on winter break, my parents thought it would be a great experience if I could go. Mom stayed behind as Dad took me to California with his students and colleagues. Naturally, one of the most anticipated parts of the trip for me was the day we spent at Disneyland, the original park conceived in the imagination of animation and fantasy pioneer, Walt Disney. It was here that my father had one of the scariest experiences of his life.
All of the high school band kids were to be in groups of five while in the theme park and had a midday check-in with chaperones at a specific location. To give me a little freedom and perhaps my father a break, I was assigned to a group of high school kids. They all wanted to go on Space Mountain. However, having never been on a roller coaster before, I was afraid and did not want to ride. So, I turned around and went to wait at the exit. It was at that point I got separated from my group and began to wander around the park on my own. As I remember it, I did not panic because it was not long before I found another group from our school to hang out with. When my original group checked in at their assigned time and location, I was not with them and they had no idea where I was. My new group had already had their check-in time. So, I was never truly accounted for. My father was beside himself with worry. There was no telling what evil lurking about this park would be looking for a susceptible youngster to harm. Would my father be able to find me or would I be the newest face on a milk carton that was iconic of that era. Eventually, I was found by my father and spent the remaining couple of hours allotted in the park with him. By the grace of God, we got back to our home in Appalachia, all present and accounted for and the trip went down in our memories as one of most amazing experiences of our lives.
This morning’s gospel reminds me a little of my father’s telling of that experience. Mary, Joseph, and their son had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival with a group of people whom they were familiar. When the festival was over, they all began their journey back to Nazareth. Mary and Joseph thought Jesus was with others designated as chaperones in the caravan. When they stopped after a day’s journey and realized their son was not where he was supposed to be, panic set in. They headed back to Jerusalem on their own wondering if they would be able to find Jesus and worried about what evil was lurking about the city looking for a susceptible youngster to harm. Can you imagine the panic, desperation, and fear they must have felt? The gospel writer of Luke says that after three days of searching, they found Jesus. Where did they find him? Not in a Jerusalem back-alley, having fallen prey to people of questionable repute, but none other than in the Temple among teachers. For the Passover season it was the custom for the Sanhedrin to meet in public in the Temple court to discuss, in the presence of all who would listen, religious and theological questions. ‘Hearing and asking questions’ is the regular Jewish phrase for a student learning from his teachers.[i] Jesus was twelve years old and would have been at the cusp of adulthood in Jewish culture. Perhaps this is why Mary and Joseph undertook this momentous pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover. It is likely that this was a part of the customary rite of passage for a boy in Judaism. Was Jesus like the typical twelve-year old boy, hearing only half of what was said to him, ignoring or missing instructions, lost in wonder in the big city? Or do we get a glimpse of a newly recognized young adult, taking the reins of responsibility for his life, breaking free of the bonds of familial ties and recognizing the first fruits of his vocational call?
The exchange between Jesus and his parents in the Temple points to the fact that the answer to both questions is ‘yes.’ Mary admonishes her son, probably feeling the intense mixture of relief and anger, the output of love and concern for her first-born. ‘Why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been scared to death!’ In my imagination, this scolding interrupts the discussions, inviting curiosity among those in the Temple. The gospel writer states that all who heard Jesus were amazed both at his questions as well as his understanding and answers. This young lad was prodigious in a way that none of his elders had experienced in another his age. When his humble parents burst in on the scene exasperated by all that was taking place, I imagine you could hear a pin drop as those gathered observed with curiosity not people of means and high education, but rather a modest carpenter and his wife from a town most notable for being on ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ You may recall that scene from the gospel of John when Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel replies incredulously, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[ii]
I do not imagine Jesus’ answer to Mary and Joseph disrespectful or as flippant as we may read into it. Certainly, in our youth we have all experienced a scolding with our retort in questionable tone, “….but Mom?!” However, I can see the wheels of revelation and self-discovery in Jesus’ mind as he is coming into full acceptance as to the identity of his ‘real’ father. We all know that children can be brutal in their honesty and at times take on the opinions they have heard their parents discuss. Jesus may have already experienced the taunts of friends who have caught wind that this small family had developed out of the bounds of traditional marriage. Jesus very well was coming into the knowledge that Mary was indeed his mother, but Joseph…? Joseph may have been his ‘dad,’ but he was not his father. Jesus response to his Mother’s question was direct and honest. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In a sense Jesus is saying, “Mom, I’m okay. I have come home. Why did you not look for me here first?” Luke says that his parents (and perhaps all that were ease-dropping on this exchange) did not understand what he was saying.
I find this curious since from the very beginning, Mary and Joseph knew perhaps more than anyone who their child was. Countless dreams and angel visitations had occurred telling them what was to happen, who this child was and was to become, giving counsel as to how best to protect this precious boy who was to be the target of the powerful. While they had every right to be concerned for their son, we behold them at a pivot and transition in their lives. Jesus was coming into the knowledge of his identity;[iii] Mary and Joseph were learning twelve years after the birth of this special boy, that his miraculous conception had not been a mere dream. The star of Bethlehem that had guided so many to witness the birth of Jesus, was now guiding Jesus himself into full revelation of his vocation and identity, one step at a time until he would be ready to initiate his public ministry.
So, what does this all mean for us today? Well I imagine that we could pray with this scripture in at least two ways. First, we could pray about our own search for Jesus. In a world that is unpredictable, unsafe, and seems filled with evil looking to exploit and harm the most vulnerable, we could wonder where in the world is Jesus in all this? While we may have many wonderful experiences in our life, I would say we all recognize that goodness is not static. We know there is suffering, malice, hate, greed, fear, and evil lurking about. Sometimes we feel like we experience this more acutely than others leaving us with questions as to why. Many of us are following the proverbial star of Bethlehem, searching for Jesus frantically, with the hopes of familial comfort, love, safety, and nurture that comes with being in community and with the one who knows us so intimately. It is no mistake that Jesus can be found here not only in the faces of those who sit next to us, but in a piece of bread put into our hands and a sip of wine from a shared chalice; Jesus body and blood nourishing and sustaining us back to health and wholeness.
We could also pray with this scene from Luke imagining Jesus searching desperately for us. You are the apple of God’s eye. You are his beloved, created by God, for the love of God, for relationship with God. In our temptation to be in control, we separated ourselves from God, becoming susceptible to evil lurking about, (and in the words of 1 Peter) seeking someone to devour.[iv] In this place, this beautiful church, you can be assured that you have come home and have been found by God in Jesus. As you come forward in a few moments and lift your hands to receive the gift of bread and wine, you can be assured that you have found your true identity and to whom you belong. In this place we can know that we are among family and in the midst of an uncertain world, claim that we have been found and marked safe. This is good news.
[i] Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Print.
[ii] John 1:43-46
[iii] Wright, Tom. Luke for Everyone. London: SPCK, 2001. Print
[iv] 1 Peter 5:8
Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Those of you who have joined us at one point or another for one of our meals, will know that most of the time, on most days, we listen to the reading of a book during the meal. It’s only on Sundays, Tuesdays and some feast days that we share in conversation. A number of years ago, our book of choice was a little denser than we normally read at meals, as we read Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin. Mother of God was a heavy read, and as we joked at the time, in the end we knew more about Mary than she knew about herself! One of the underlying themes of the book was that before she became known as the Mother of God, before she became known as the Queen of Heaven, she was simply Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus. In essence, underlying all the titles, and the various devotions, that is who she was, and that is who she remains, Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that young girl of Nazareth. It is a feast not spoken of in scripture but one deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church from ancient times, and one which says as much about us, and our life in God, as it does about Mary herself, and her life in God. So while the focus today is on Mary, we see in her the source, and ground, of our own life of faith. In looking at Mary we gaze not outwardly, or even upwardly, but inwardly to our own adoption as children of God because it is there that we find Mary’s true vocation, and ours as well, to be the adopted daughters and sons of God.
Celebrating: The Nativity of Mary
When I was a child, one of my favorite Christmas television shows was Frosty the Snowman. It was a short cartoon made in 1969, and narrated by Jimmy Durante; who also sang the song the story is based on. The song begins this way:
Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul
With a corncob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made out of coal
Frosty the snowman is a fairytale they say
He was made of snow but the children
Know how he came to life one day
What happens in the story is that some children build a snowman, and name him “Frosty.” While they’re admiring their new creation, a chance gust of wind carries a magical hat to the top of Frosty’s head, and suddenly Frosty comes to life. A number of adventures follow where the children foil the plans of an evil magician, intent on taking the magical hat for himself. During all this, Frosty sometimes loses the hat, and whenever the hat is placed on his head, including that first time, and as he springs to life, he lets out a joyous shout of: “Happy Birthday!”
And today we give a joyous shout of “Happy Birthday” for Mary, Jesus’ mother. Actually, we are a bit late, since the date in the church’s calendar was a couple of days ago, but a belated “Happy Birthday” is better than none at all. In some ways, though, and no offense to Mary, it’s not a very obvious choice to add to the church calendar. Many Christians don’t even celebrate Mary’s birthday, and we don’t have a biblical account of her birth to lend that kind of authority to the celebration. Still, the celebration of Mary’s birth is an ancient tradition going back to at least the sixth century.
Isaiah 43: 16 – 21
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
John 12: 1 – 8
Some of you will remember that in the old days this Sunday in Lent went by the title of Passion Sunday. It was on this day that the liturgical colour changed from purple, or Lenten array, to red, but not the fiery red of Pentecost, rather the deep, dark, blood red of Passiontide. At the same time, the focus in the readings changed and they began to point, not to what Jesus was doing, and the miracles he was performing, but what would happen during that last week of his life.
In many ways, while the liturgical colour has not yet changed, and today is no longer called Passion Sunday, the same shift has happened, and the readings invite us to ponder the way of his suffering. They do that by pointing us to the day of [his] burial.
The gospel for today is for me, one of the most tender of passages. It puts us back in the home of Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. It is this family, you will remember, whom John tells us that Jesus loved.It’s important to remember when thinking about this family in Bethany, that it is about this family that we hear for the first time, in John’s gospel, that Jesus loved someone. Yes, we hear in other places in the gospel of the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father. And we will hear about the disciple whom Jesus loved. But it is only when we arrive in this home at Bethany, on the occasion of the raising of Lazarus in the previous chapter, do we first hear that Jesus loved another person.
Going to camp often means away up a mountain, or in my experience, out to a desert island. One gift of camp is the night, though it may be scary. With no neighbors and limited electricity, new guests, especially youth, swing flashlights the first nights, anxious at seeing much less. They point to the path and all around trying, it seems, to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We are similarly afraid these days in the deepening darkness of our world. With questions increasing, anxiety swirling, violence striking, fear infecting, prejudice multiplying, and sadness swelling, we want to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We just sang: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” We ask for the light of God’s face turning toward us. Small yet significant. When another’s face lights up at seeing ours, we are loved.
In the days of our Gospel story, Mary set out and went quickly to visit Elizabeth. A normal visit turned extraordinary. By divine power and blessing, now both Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren elder, are pregnant. Dark days since they also bear the burden of public shame. The scandal since Mary claims pregnancy through the dream of an angel. Who did she think she was? The long years of ridicule for Elizabeth who had never born a child. Rumors swirled about why she was now.
And the angel said, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Or, as another translation has it, “for no word from God will be without power.”These angelic words of assurance to Mary can sometimes pass our ears quickly. For my own part (depending on my state of mind), they not only pass my ears with haste, they manage to leave behind an echo that always seems to ring a little trite. Yet Luke begs us not to hear them with such haste or detachment.
The first chapter of Luke presents two annunciation scenes, one to Zechariah and one to Mary. Each angelic scene bears an almost identical, four-fold structure, the message with which Gabriel greets both Mary and Zechariah perplexes each of them, and it is my hunch that Luke places these two similarly constructed annunciations next to each other at the opening of his gospel for a reason.
Both Zechariah and Mary question Gabriel; yet the question asked by each is met with—we might be tempted to say—a somewhat disproportionate response. Mary receives a word of assurance, while the angel gives Zechariah not a word, but rather takes Zechariah’s words themselves from him.
“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.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This Gospel account speaks of Jesus’ miraculous birth; however our celebration today remembers the miraculous birth of his mother, Mary. There’s no record of this in the Scriptures. The best we can do is found in the Gospel of James, which dates back to about year 145. The Gospel of James is “apocryphal,” i.e., it doesn’t have the authority of the Scriptures but it does give us an early picture of the piety that developed around Jesus’ mother, Mary. According to the Gospel of James, Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, fervently prayed and prayed for a child, to no avail. But then they received a miraculous promise from God that Anna would conceive a child, and this child would herald God’s plan of salvation for the world. God was especially present in Mary’s life from the beginning. Two second-century teachers, Saint Irenaeus and Saint Justin Martyr, who lived at the same time as the Gospel of Thomas appeared, wrote that if Jesus is the new Adam, then Mary, his mother, is the new Eve.[i] Saint Augustine, writing in the fifth century, said that through Mary’s birth and the birth of her son, Jesus, the nature we inherit from our first parents Adam and Eve is changed from “original sin” to “original blessing.”[ii] Mary, then Jesus, change everything.