We come to Saint John’s on this last Sunday of Advent,the season of expectation, of examination,of introspection and of welcome.
I love the Advent collects, the prayers that we say at the beginning of each service on Advent Sundays. These traditional prayers are filled with images to help us prepare for Christmas. First, we asked God to help us to “cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”
Coming as it does in the season of darkness, of the winter solstice, when the days are growing shorter and shorter, and we long for the brilliance and warmth of the sun, this prayer is so attuned to my mood in winter, to how I long to be awakened by the sun instead of the alarm clock.
And it makes me an actor in casting – in throwing out -those parts of my life that are of the dark, turning instead towards those things that are hopeful.
The second week, we prayed that that we might “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest (God’s word) … and that we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life.” This is not abstract thought; again this is physical action. We eat and digest, and through this nourishment we gain the strength to embrace and hold fast to hope.
On the third Sunday, we say, “Stir up Thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” We can imagine the stirring; a whirling ocean tide; a great wind or blizzard, an enormous storm, a sign of power outside the control of people. We yearn for the leader that such a whirlwind could mark, the leader who would, by the very force of their being, bring change and hope.
Finally, today we ask “that when thy Son Jesus Christ comes he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” We must prepare our physical bodies to house the Lord, to actually have a heart big enough and a will strong enough to incorporate, in the truest sense of the word, Jesus into our very being.
The imagery used by the writers of these prayers is so useful as we attempt to imagine what our lives with Christ can look like. I see that shiny breastplate or bright forcefield of light that protects me, and my heart, from despair, reflecting evil like a mirror. A table of good food keeps me strong; the stirring of the earth and sky and oceans deep remind me of the power of God’s creative majesty; I see the large home, warm and ready to welcome guests.
Imagery helps us think of tangible ways that we can understand what it is that we are called to do. Without such concrete reminders, evil can be hard to recognize and resist. Scriptures are hard to understand, never mind to live by; the majesty of the universe and our small place in it frighten us. Our earthly hearts may feel too full of sadness and grief to make room for hope.
In the same way that imagery helps us call to mind those deep understandings, so do stories. Stories have a way of drawing us in to hear truths that we might not understand without the right context.
The story of Elizabeth and Mary’s visit is one such story. Mary, expecting her first child, goes out to visit Elizabeth, her older cousin, in the hill country of Judea. We can, although it’s not said, assume that Mary and Joseph have married. Her pregnancy seems to be known, at least to family members like Elizabeth, who is six months pregnant herself.
Of course, the historical fiction reader in me wonders if the family is putting Mary away for a bit so that the timing of her pregnancy might be a bit obscured for those who might wish to gossip or point fingers.
Mary is going to a cousin, but an older one, one married to a respected priest in the temple. She may be walking into a home where she will face judgment and disgrace, recriminations and shame.
Now, you may remember that God has struck Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah dumb for doubting that God could possibly arrange for his elderly wife to conceive after a long, barren marriage. So we hear nothing of Zechariah’s opinion on the matter of Mary’s situation. Instead, we have the joyful welcome of Elizabeth, who has, over the years, borne her own sadness, and in those days, shame for exactly the opposite reason--not being able to conceive.
Luke doesn’t say whether Mary is confident or nervous as she arrives. Happily, she finds at her cousin’s home a haven, a place where she is sheltered and safe. And not only is she safe, but her pregnancy, which certainly might have been seen as shameful, is recognized as a great gift, a wonderful blessing.
Elizabeth feels her baby move in her belly just as Mary arrives. Elizabeth had given up hope she would ever experience such a feeling, and that sign of her baby’s being alive and well becomes a sign for her that the baby Mary carries is also a blessing.
Basking in this acceptance, Mary understands the goodness of God more clearly, as reflected in her generous open-hearted cousin. Now she utters her most beautiful words, the Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For he has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.
Now, I have to tell you that for many years, actually until just this year, that’s the only part of the Magnificat that I heard: Mary the blessed, the lowly handmaiden. I never really gave it much thought, except to compare myself unfavorably to this woman who could so gracefully accept her powerless position in life, who could achieve her greatness by meekly accepting her lot.
I have to tell you that in my family, lowly, meek and obedient women are not much in evidence. Yet, I believed Mary’s demeanor to be the ideal; it’s just the world I was born into. A woman’s role was largely viewed through the lens of this image of Mary.
I know that this story is not, in its essence, only a story about how women should behave. But the fact is, that at a certain level, that is what I heard. And it stopped me from hearing the rest.
The majority of this song is not at all an affirmation of women’s powerlessness, but actually a statement that those with no power will be lifted up,and those with power will be cast out.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
This is a statement about social justice, one of the cornerstones of Luke’s gospel. Luke constantly pointed out inequalities and the way that God views earthly hierarchies and power structures.
Mark reminded me that Luke often says “Blessed are” in this gospel, but usually follows closely with a “but Woe to.”
Both Elizabeth and Mary knew what it meant to feel lowly, powerless, and ashamed. Yet, in recognizing the blessings God had given them, and in sharing their joy together through acceptance and generosity, these women cast away the darkness of shame, radiating the light of the new power of their understanding.
I have thought a lot about the fact that I missed this key part of the Song of Mary for so long. And, I am also interested in the fact that now I am busy wondering whether I am rich and powerful enough to make the bad list in the second half of the Magnificat. Am I still missing the whole by examining myself in relation to a part of it?
Also, I wonder what I do, and what we as a church community do that people get stuck on, that stops people from seeing the blessings, missing the signs of God around them.
In our church, each of us gets a chance to be both Elizabeth and Mary. Sometimes, we have had experience enough to be the elder person, accepting others who need love, advice, an embrace. Sometimes we need the support when we are facing a challenge, when we need to be brave and do not know how.
When I don’t get caught up in whether I am Mary or Elizabeth, whether I meet expectations; when I don't get caught up in my little part, but instead see the whole of our church community, I can see clearly that we do show acceptance, and welcome, and we do recognize blessings.
I know that each and every one of us has had the experience of bringing a joy here to be celebrated, a sadness or loss to be shared, a question seeking answers, an idea to mull, a need to help others, or a need to be helped ourselves.
At the Fall Potluck, Mary, Chris, Tim and I sang a song called “Where are we Bound?” Some of you might remember the chorus: “Where are we bound?” and “Here is my home.”
When I chose that song, I was thinking about our shared discernment process, about where we want our church to go in the future. Now, like other things I see a little more clearly, I ask “where are we bound?’ and I think not just of a journey, but of the ways we are bound together, of the ties that bind us.
What I see in our parish is that we are bound to one another in the images of our Advent collects, in the promise of light, in the fullness of nourishment, in the warmth of embrace, and in the stirring power of God to give us strength to help us to repair our world.
May we, like Mary and Elizabeth, recognize and embrace our blessings, and with our bodies and as the corporate body of St. John’s, carry out His work of hope and justice for all, together.