Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
I was in the church last week in the afternoon the other day, visiting the windows. The late sunshine was streaming through the Prophets’ Window—I saw Isaiah standing with one foot on the Scroll, and an angel carrying a flaming-bright coal extended to touch his lips, to go forth to speak the Word of God to those who will listen, and those who will not. The shape of the glass and concrete suggest both tongs to hold that bright coal, and the silhouette of a bird in flight. The bird—the Dove of Holy Scripture, which in the Celtic church of the British Isles becomes the Wild Goose—indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that same shape appears again, mirrored in the Nativity window, with an angelic figure on one side, and a human figure dressed in blue on the other side. The bird in flight, the Holy Spirit’s outward and visible representative, comes to rest and nest and initiate a miraculous transformation in Mary and Elizabeth, and Joseph and Zachariah, to stir up the beginnings of their own lives’ transformation.
When the angels visit, they always begin with the same with the introduction: Fear not. Do not be afraid. Even though your life is about is about to change: Fear not.
Mary’s world, and Elizabeth’s, and Joseph’s and Zechariah’s, have all been turned upside down. How can this be? This should not be! But it is. An unmarried adolescent girl, and a woman well past childbearing years are both pregnant with miracle children, and there they stand together in Elizabeth’s front room, hollering and singing and laughing until the rafters ring.
We’ve had some world-turning-upside-down-events lately. On Friday at 9:30 am we kept silence as a nation, in memory of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School only a week previously. We forget, far too easily, to remember the people in our own town who have died because of violence—some of whom are laid to rest only a few feet from where we sit this day. We hear speculations of the end of the world, predictions of disasters great and small; we hear shrieking voices threatening a plunge over the edge of a fiscal cliff, whatever that might actually mean.
And we’ve welcomed William and Ehlana and Addison into the world; we have seen the joy and delight and wonder on the faces of their parents. We have given thanks for these new lives. We’ve gathered in each others’ homes for our Cottage Meetings, and told our own stories about how God has touched our lives—those “Thin Places” where we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears, and touched and tasted and smelled the very Spirit of God present with us.
All of these things, both joyful and terrible, have the power to turn our world upside down, and bring us into a reality that forces us to take another look, think another thing, change the direction in which we are going. Metanoia.
Mary has come in haste to the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah. She has been visited by the angel, who tells her that she will have a miraculous child—if she is willing. (An early legend not in the biblical account suggests that Mary was the first one to say “yes”’ to the angel’s message. All the others before her had rejected the invitation outright.) She finds Elizabeth in the sixth month of her own pregnancy, she who had been childless all those years. And they both have had an invitation, a miraculous visit by the Spirit of God, prefaced by that formula: Fear not.
It is a LOUD scene in the gospel this morning. Elizabeth feels the baby leap inside her, and commences to hollering: “Blessed are you! Blessed is the child you bear! Blessed is she who believed that God’s word to her would indeed be fulfilled!” They are shouting and embracing, laughing until the tears run down their faces, a teenager and a post-menopausal woman, at the greatest joke of the cosmos, that the messengers and servants of God, whom we now call “Blessed”—Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and all the others—are simply the ones whom God chooses, through no great merit of their own, to do something amazing. To talk to Pharaoh, tell him ‘Let my people go.” To leave home and family and livestock, and become the king of Israel. To bear a child, the child of God. And in the company of all these ancestors, with Moses and Miriam, David and Esther, Isaiah and Deborah and and all the others, Mary says “Yes.” And she begins to sing aloud—the words we know as the “Magnificat.”
Words which we know well—possibly too well. We’ve gotten used to them through frequent use. Perhaps we’re afraid of them. And for good reason. Listen to this:
“My soul magnifies the Lord…he has shown the strength of his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones; and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Them’s fighting words, folks. In the ‘80s the Song of Mary was on the forbidden list of several South American governments, who considered it too revolutionary for public recitation—even in the monasteries and convents. The monks and nuns kept on saying and singing it, of course.
In 21st century America, we may miss, ignore, or deny the political tones of Mary’s song, but Herod wouldn’t have missed it; not even for a second. Herod had family members executed if he so much smelled a hint of insurrection in the air. Any man, much less any woman, who would so openly sing of his downfall; any woman who would so openly sing of a world turned upside down, was nothing short of a subversive radical.
WE may have reduced Mary to a demure vehicle for the birth of a child, but she is nothing short of a prophet singing of a new world order. She is the slave singing a field chant of a coming day when the slave will be exalted and the master turned out. Mary is more than merely the apparatus for Jesus’ arrival: she is the first member of Jesus’ household. She says yes to that call, to that invitation, knowing that her life will change but not having any idea what that will look like. Nor does she ask for any such assurance.
Instead, she says Yes. Yes to incarnation—yes to taking into herself the power and potency of God Almighty, to being Theotokos—the “God Bearer” as our friends at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church would name her. She said yes, not simply to a God who dwelt outside of her, beyond her, but yes to a God who desired to dwell within and through her. That is incarnational theology. God isn’t just with us, but can be within us; distinct yet inseparable. This is what Mary’s yes was about. She chose to participate in the divine and the holy, even as the holy and divine chose to participate in and through her.
But here’s the thing. This word of invitation hasn’t just been extended to Mary; it’s been
extended to me and you as well. Every single one of us is receiving an invitation this Christmas, not to a cocktail party, but to start establishing the world that Mary sang of in the Magnificat.
What God asks of Mary of Galilee back then and there, God also asks of each of us, here and now. God wants nothing less than for us to become pregnant with divine possibilities and then to give birth to the holy and precious in our own time. To be “God-Bearers” in our own places of work and play, in our homes and neighborhoods and communities.
This morning a teenage girl and an old woman are laughing in delight at God’s irrepresible desire to be in our midst, even if it must be by the most undignified means imaginable.
But that’s Mary’s story, and Elizabeth’s.
What’s yours? What’s our story, St. Augustine’s Church?
Do you say yes to God’s intrusive invitations?
Do we say yes to new horizons, new possibilities, new lives?
Do you and I say with Isaiah, “Here am I, send me”?
Do you say yes to questions that challenge “the powers that be” with the dominion of God? Will you bear and give birth to the holy?
Let us pray:
The angel of the Lord announced to Mary: and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.
Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it unto me according to thy word.
And the Word was made flesh: and dwelt amongst us.
Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.