Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA (virtual worship in the time of pandemic)
Scripture Readings Referenced:
For the record, I want to say that I’d like Dorothy White and the good people of St. Mark’s to gather for a womanist bible study on the scripture text every time I’m scheduled to preach! On Wednesday evening, the thoughts and ideas that flowed out from the group that gathered was a balm for my end-of-semester tired and weary soul. If you weren’t able to be there, I commend it to you for a listen. We were focusing in that conversation on the characters of Mary and Elizabeth, who are central to the scripture texts we read on this fourth Sunday of Advent. We came away with a renewed conviction that these two expectant mothers…one in her age, and one in her youth…were necessary for each other. And I was reminded of how necessary we are to each other as well, as the Word of God in Holy Scripture breaks open for us in our lives, in our questions, and in our holy conversations. So, this morning, I invite us into relationship with this Gospel text. I want us to spend some holy time with holy Mary.
I read an article this week in which feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson said, “as a result of the Reformation disputes, Catholics developed a severe case of fixation on Mary, and Protestants developed a severe case of amnesia.” Now, as a faithful Episcopalian of the Anglican “via media” (the “middle way”) I think it’s fitting for us all to journey together into today’s Gospel lesson, no matter on which side of that polarity we may find ourselves. I’d like to offer three reflections about this story that I hope can open our hearts and prepare us to receive the Christ child with wonder and joy.
First Reflection: with apologies to lyricist Mark Lowry and a star-studded host of musical performers who have crooned the question, “Mary did you know?” I have to assert that Yes, Mary did know. Mary as presented to us in Luke’s Gospel may be a young woman, but she is a fully aware, engaged and active participant in this unfolding of God’s plan. For any of you who have…or once had…a young woman in her teens living in your household, let me remind you that what they may lack in life experience, they more than make up for in enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is often based on the giving of one’s word: promises of friendship, of time, of love, of relationship, of trust. In today’s story, the conversation related to us takes place between young Mary and the heavenly visitor Gabriel. But, I want to note that this portion of the narrative we read today immediately follows the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist. Zechariah, John’s father, also receives a visit from Gabriel and is described as “terrified and overwhelmed by fear” and ultimately, responds to the angelic message with skepticism about its validity due to the age of both he, and his wife Elizabeth. Suspicion and skepticism, the hallmarks of adulthood…and as a result, Zechariah’s adult voice is taken away until the birth of his son. But it is a different story with Mary, when she is visited by Gabriel. Mary pays attention, wonders, listens, and takes the risk to act on the information given to her about God’s choice and invitation for her to participate in this unfolding of salvation history. Mary hears God’s promise and takes God at God’s word. This trusting participation comes at a cost to Mary; it may compromise her social standing, her relationships and her own sense of identity. But she has also heard the word of God revealed to her, and she believed what she heard even without certainty. Faced with a heavenly messenger and a mind-blowing message, Mary says with a willing heart that both consents and assents to God’s invitation: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Yes, Mary knew.
Second Reflection: Mary is a preacher of the good news. She may have been young, and she may have been socially on the bottom rung, but this woman preached from the depths of her heart. Having said her holy “yes” and being filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary literally embodies and nurtures the Good News of God’s inbreaking into the world. Like the pregnant young woman she is, she grows more deeply into awareness of herself in relation to the child forming within her day by day. I can close my eyes and imagine Mary, so filled with the Spirit of God, that she cannot contain the glow. The ancient hymn we read today, which we have come to know as the Magnificat, emanates from Mary in response to Elizabeth, who acknowledges her as one filled to overflowing with the grace of God. Mary is filled, pregnant with the holy and now growing in her lived awareness of God’s fortune-reversing, liberating justice that comforts the afflicted, frees the imprisoned, feeds the hungry, and lavishes abundance on those who have nothing. This song that her spirit sings is the song of God’s love and humanity’s liberation through God’s intervention. This proclamation pours forth from Mary, who has herself been marginalized by society and yet is lifted up by God. Her joyous praise is not tied up with earthly prosperity, but is abundant with heavenly promise. And oh, does she preach! You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation; You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Mary, preaching as a prophet of the poor and marginalized of this world represents hope renewed. Mary, who we have come to call theotokos, the God-bearer, bears the Goods News not only in her womb, but through her fully embodied proclamation of the loving, liberating and life-giving God. She even preached that before Bishop Michael Curry preached it, and I don’t think he’d argue with that one bit!
My third and final reflection: Mary helps us see and know that when we participate with our whole selves, the main actor in this story, and in our lives, is always God. Mary knows this truth from the first greeting: Greetings, favored one: the Lord is with you. This is the heart of the story, my friends. Mary recognizes the presence of God with her, in her, and through her. She is not irrelevant or passive. Mary is the one God chooses as the first face of the incarnation, who shows us the joy of wholly embodied trust in God’s sustaining providence. As John the Baptist proclaims the unfolding of the ministry of Jesus, Mary proclaims the incarnate reality that God has, and is, and will continue to be the one who enacts love in the world of God’s own creation. This story is all about Mary AND it never ceases to be about God. God is the source, the action, and the Word made flesh. It is through Mary’s willing embrace of this call placed upon her life that we are able to see God’s action on behalf of all of us reflected in her. This doesn’t diminish Mary; this magnifies the visibility of her faithfulness, her trust, and her steadfast witness to God-with-us.
So, you’ve heard my reflections. Now, I offer some questions for us to ponder in these remaining Advent days: How is God inviting us to know the truth of God’s presence in our lives, and in this world? How is God proclaiming the Good News through us, in our words and in our actions? How do our lives reflect God’s action in the world?
The gift within these questions is the mystery and the miracle of Christmas. Jesus comes to this world anew through us, as we live in this world as the hands and feet of Christ. This world still craves and yearns to know and experience that love. We need Christmas. The world needs Christmas. And this gift of the incarnation that is Christmas is lived out in the unfolding of our lives, in response to the call that God has placed on us.
So, in these final Advent days, as you bake the cookies and wrap the gifts, hold these truths and ponder them in your heart. Mary knew. Mary preached. Mary magnified the inbreaking of God for the liberation of God’s people. And we, like Mary, are invited to hear, to trust, and to respond to that transforming and divine love in our own lives, too.
Come, Lord Jesus.