Monday, December 21, 2009

Advent 4, Year C, Sunday December 20, 2009

Micah 5:2-51; Canticle 3; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

In the town of Nazareth today there is a re-creation of the ancient village where Jesus grew up. There’s a village carpenter’s shop, an olive press, and a boulder where grapes were stomped and aged into wine. There’s a shepherd with a little flock of sheep. There is a woman who is dressed in traditional costume and who demonstrates the spinning of raw wool into yarn, which is then dyed and woven into blankets.

There are also examples of villagers’ homes, with thatch roofs, stone walls, and mud floors. These homes were lit with little clay lamps, about the size of a cupped hand. We can imagine that the life there was very, very hard.

In Nazareth there is also the Church of the Annunciation which has been venerated for centuries as the exact place where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. Inside the church, downstairs, we can enter a spacious sanctuary built in a circular design, with the main altar in the center and seating for the congregation surrounding all sides.

As you look down at the altar, on one side there is a gate through which you can see into a little grotto or cave. Inside the cave is a small altar, and in the back you can see rough stairs and maybe shelves in the walls. The cave is very natural and simple, and quite small. This space is venerated as the actual place of the annunciation, and the cave itself is simply called “Mary’s house”.

We don’t know for sure whether this was the house in which Mary grew up or the exact place where she heard the message from God that she had been chosen to bear the Savior of the world. We do know that there is one ancient well in Nazareth, not far from the church, which is called “Mary’s well”, and archeologists are convinced that Mary must have drawn water from that well. “Mary’s house”, on the other hand, holds no clues that can definitively prove its identity.

When our tour leaders gave us some quiet time to meditate and pray, I sat for several minutes by the gate in front of the front of the cave. For a short while there was no press and or bustle of crowds. It felt so peaceful and quiet. I thought that this could be the house of Mary, and it could be the very place where she was astonished, afraid, perplexed, and finally knelt in acceptance of Gabriel’s words. I could feel the prayers of millions of people over the centuries that have soaked into the stones, and I felt the peace of her gentle surrender to the will of God.

The cave is very simple, but the church surrounding it is quite magnificent and it was built to honor and enclose the simple little cave. It serves as a fitting symbol of the words of Mary’s song, the Magnificat. The poor and simple little cave dwelling has been exalted and sanctified and honored. God has indeed looked with favor on the lowliness of Mary. God has brought down the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.

We could also translate the song of Mary into more modern words: as God has given favor to a simple, young girl, so also God gives blessing and hope in our own time: serenity of spirit to the depressed; healing of body, mind and spirit for the sick; hope to the unemployed; consolation to the grieving; compassion to all those who suffer.

This is so much a part of the Christian tradition that we forget what a scandal it was in ancient times. The idea of the blessing of God going to the poor and lowly was counter to everything that ancient people believed about God. Everyone knew (or thought they knew) that it was exactly the opposite: the wealthy and healthy were the most blessed by God, and the lowly and poor were out of favor with God and perhaps even notoriously sinful. Mary’s song celebrates the upside down world of God’s mercy: it is exactly those who are meek and humble and suffering whom God will especially bless and heal and comfort.

Mary’s song echoed in our hearts as we left the Church of the Annunciation and explored the courtyard outside. On the walls enclosing the courtyard, there are paintings and frescos and stone inlays of Mary donated by many countries. There is a Japanese Mary who looks like a lovely geisha in a kimono. There is a Mexican Mary who looks like a Spanish peasant. A Korean Mary has a traditional high-waisted gown and big bow. There are Marys depicted in folk art style, and Marys in traditional icon style, and highly modern Marys who are hard to discern at all.

Mary has been adopted by each culture and tradition, and each of us may find her reflected in our own experience and prayer. She is for all times and all people, the eternal mother of Jesus and the one most blessed and favored by God. The call to Mary is to a unique one, and also a reflection of the message that God sends to us all: to be faithful, to trust, to hope, and to open our hearts to receive the Christ child.

While we were in Nazareth, someone noticed that there are hills surrounding the town, and we wondered whether Mary went to visit Elizabeth in the “hill country” nearby rather than traveling far south to Judea, as reported in the Gospel of Luke. I think that it doesn’t really matter where they met. The two women greeted each other in joy and anticipation of the birth of their two very special children, and they both believed in the promise of salvation.

As we draw nearer to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, may we also be pregnant with the hope and anticipation that God gave to Elizabeth and Mary. In these humble and faithful and holy women, in the midst of their daily work and struggles, God entrusted the hope of all the peoples of the world, and they provided the humble hospitality for the one who came before and the one who would come after, and who would be our Savior. May we also provide our own humble hospitality for God to come to us, and may we also say “Yes!” as Mary does, to whatever surprises, blessings, and challenges God may have in store for us.

We may feel that we are poor vessels to receive such a call and to receive Christ and to do God’s work. It sounds like that’s just the point: in the upside-down world of God’s mercy and grace, we are all chosen and entrusted with the precious gift of God’s son, and in Him, we are also blessed with the hope of salvation.

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