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 daysthis 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.
In our worship, we speak of the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs.1We speak of the angelic hosts.2 We might use language such as, “the Church militant,” or, “the Church triumphant.” Our founder, Fr. Benson, once had a conversation with a stranger while out in the city. When he described his life as a member of a religious community, she exclaimed, “Oh, you must have found so much peace!” Fr. Benson replied, “No, madam, I’ve found a war.”
This language resonates with me, because it gives expression to a truth of my own life with God. I experience God as peace, as rest, as calm, as love. But this is not passivity, and my own proclivity to sin, the corruption of my own human nature, fights viciously to dethrone God from my heart. In my life, and especially my prayer, I often must fight back, asking God not only for the gifts of calm, rest, and silence, but also for the gifts of strength, vigor, and power, to aid me in the war over my spirit.
We continue our Epiphany preaching series, “Gifts for the Journey,” on following God’s call, focusing tonight on the gift of guides. Currently on display in the middle of our chapel is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Her hand gestures toward the child, in the classic iconographic depiction of the Hodegetria, Greek for, “She who shows the Way.” The tradition of iconography identifies St. Luke the Evangelist as the first iconographer, who painted the image of Mary while she was still alive; the icon he is said to have painted is the original Hodegetria, establishing this particular image of Mother and Child as both widely popular and a deeply reflective picture of who Jesus is, and, consequently, who Mary is. Jesus is the Way, and Mary is she who shows the way, her simple and silent hand gesture representing the life of the Virgin burning, brightly and endlessly, with the love and knowledge of God. In today’s Gospel reading, this is further encapsulated. At the wedding at Cana, Mary tells the servants to do whatever her Son tells them. Just a few verses beforehand, Jesus has told the disciple Nathanael that greater signs of Jesus’s work and identity await. John, in his gospel, then describes the scene at Cana, and so gives us the first of these promised greater signs. In this scene, it is Mary who initiates the interaction, and it is Mary who points the way: “Do whatever he tells you.” Mary is ever-vigilant, always pointing to her Son, always guiding us to the Way.
This is no surprise or coincidence. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her, overshadowing her with the power of the Most High. It is the Spirit, dwelling in and among us right now, who is constantly pointing to Christ. It is the Spirit who, in quiet whispers and gestures, points to the Son as the Way to the Father. It is the Spirit who binds us, uniting us to one another in Christ as his body, uniting us to the Bridegroom as his Bride. It is the Spirit who points the Way, and teaches us how to point the Way, if only we let him, as Mary did so long ago.
And though Mary is the fullest expression of this divine gift of guidance, it was taking place long before. Soon, we will sing the Nicene Creed. About the Holy Spirit, the Creed says that “He has spoken through the Prophets.” The long line of prophetic witness is another manifestation of the Spirit’s guidance, inspiring others to be co-laborers with him in his guidance. Tonight’s first reading is from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is my favorite Old Testament prophet. He is perhaps a mirror image of Jonah, whose single call to repentance of the people of Nineveh brought about repentance. Jeremiah has no such luck. He spends a lifetime prophesying to Israel of their sins and the impending destruction and exile coming from Babylon, to no avail. Jerusalem is sacked, the Temple is destroyed, and the Israelites are scattered throughout the empire. Jeremiah spends the rest of his life in exile, in Egypt; he is left with bitterness, and tears, and lamentation. But this destruction, this uprooting, is no final death. It is the clearing of the brush, the making of the paths in the wilderness. Despite their settling in the promised land of Canaan, the wilderness has not departed from the People of God. Thickets still obscure the sight of the watchers, thorn bushes still ensnare the ankles of the travelers, wandering and searching for the Way. After foretelling humanity’s long exile in the wilderness of Babylon, Jeremiah offers us a prophesy of sweet hope: that God has a plan for us, that he has not forsaken us, that he has not taken the Way from us, that he will restore his people to the place from which we were exiled. We will be shown out of the wilderness and into the Garden. The Spirit who blew over the waters at creation is still a wind, whipping over the wilderness, ever working his act of re-creation on a world and a race beset by the spiritual wilderness of the formless void. This whirlwind is the breath, the voice of the prophets in the desert, proclaiming to all who would listen: there is a way. Here is the Way.
But this prophetic speech is no ancient tongue. The Spirit has always guided the world, but at Pentecost, his descent onto the people Church is as fundamental as Christ’s Incarnation. At the Incarnation, God the Son became imbued with humanity. At Pentecost, humanity became imbued with God the Spirit. So the Spirit has not stopped moving over the waters, but now moves with more grace and more power, more gentle and more ferocious than ever before. Dwelling in us, imbuing us with gifts of divinity, the Spirit’s guidance persistently abides within us. He shows us the Way, and shows us how to imitate him in showing others the Way.
And this is, perhaps, the most likely place you may have encountered the Spirit. Often, it is very difficult to discern the Spirit’s guidance, thumping in our own chests. Instead, we look outward, toward our human fellow-travelers. In the voices of their mouths, we, often quite unexpectedly, hear the whistling of the Spirit’s divine gusts. If we are open and prepared, a single word from a friend or a lover or a stranger may strike a silent chord deep within us, might stand out as a bright and brilliant sign, pointing out the otherwise-obscured path. A conversation might take an unforeseen turn, and words that strike us as ridiculous at first glance are actually the work of the Spirit, doing his eternal labor of Creation, planting seeds in the chaotic uncertainty of our own lives, so that they might grow into trees lining the Way. Despite our best efforts to dismiss, ignore, or push aside this guidance, God assures us of the truth of his path.
And we are called to be guides, to be the co-laborers of the Holy Spirit. This is a path that requires serious discernment. But to be prophets, to emulate the Virgin Mary as She who shows the Way, is to live up to our full human vocation. We are to be guides just as we are guided. We are to travel the path of God while clearing the brush so that others may join us. The Way is narrow, and long, and often obscured, but we are assured of the Spirit’s guidance, and we are assured of our vocation to work with him in that guidance. Let us show forth our Way.
This sermon is part of the “Gifts for the Journey” series. We hope you’ll check out the other sermons in the series.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The prayer with which we opened our liturgy today includes a rather loaded word: “conscience.” We prayed, “purify our conscience, Almighty God…” I’d like to speak about your conscience… which may make some of you inwardly roll your eyes or duck for cover. “Yikes: my conscience!” Our conscience typically gets rather bad press. Our conscience is about everything we do wrong… and we know it. We may hope it all stays a secret, and yet we also know, “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sakes…”[i] Is that about Santa Claus or about God? Hmmm. Well it’s certainly about conscience, which comes from the Latin conscientia, which is a knowledge within oneself, an inner sense of what is right.”[ii] With our actions and our thoughts, there’s an inner knowing about our outer doing or saying, a kind of simultaneous overlay of direction and correction. That’s our conscience. In a few moments, we will be invited to make a confession of sin about things we know better about: where it is – don’t we know? – that things should have been different in what we’ve said or left unsaid, things we’ve done or left undone. And we know it. That awareness comes out of our “bad” conscience, i.e., our conscious awareness of being in the wrong.
In a fit of desperation, I asked God for a sign. A light, a feeling, a sound in the dead of one cold November night. I got nothing. But that nothing is the moment I have pointed to, for years, as the beginning of my conversion. Because, in retrospect, I don’t think I received nothing. I think I received silence.