December 20, 2015
Micah 5:2-5a, Canticle 15, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
We have a celebration of women today in the gospel—or better, a celebration of Jewish women. Young Mary newly pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin, old Elizabeth, 6 months into her pregnancy with John the Baptist, to support each other, to talk about their children to be, and the strange, loving God who intervened in their lives. Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary gives us two of the lines of the “Hail Mary”, that former Roman Catholics in our midst learned as children:
You remember it starts, “Hail, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you” which are the words of the Angel Gabriel greeting Mary at the annunciation.
Today Elizabeth, guided by the Holy Spirit, and not by human reason, says to Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.”
The rest of the prayer goes: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
The title “Mother of God” comes from the Church Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, not as a way of praising Mary, but as a way of protecting the identity of Jesus. There are always heresies afoot, then and now, that want to give us an understandable and manageable Jesus, a Jesus like the kid next door that we can take or leave, who can never make a claim on our lives. One such heresy said Mary gave birth to the human Jesus who was only later joined with the Divine after his birth—the human and divine in Jesus were only loosely connected—a mixture, not a compound.
No, the church says, Mary is theotokos—the God-bearer, the Mother of God. Jesus from the moment of his conception is fully God and fully Human in one person.
There was an earlier heresy that said God left Jesus before he was crucified, so just the man died, because we can’t imagine a God who suffers the pain, shame, and horror of death on a cross.
No, said the Church. Whatever God does not fully enter into, God does not save. If God doesn’t enter our birth and death then we are still slaves to the Power of Sin and Death, and Jesus on the cross is just another false messiah we should abandon.
But this is to get ahead of the story. Today all we see are these Jewish mothers-to-be who share a fundamental belief: that they are nobodies who depend on the God of Israel as their savior and master.
Mary sings, “”My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior who has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
Compare this attitude to the men following Jesus who argue about which of them is the greatest, even though Jesus keeps telling them the first will be last and the last will be first.
But they have an “invincible ignorance”, because that is not the way the world runs. Imagine at one of those Democrat or Republican debates one of the candidates saying: “Oh, that’s a good question; I have never thought about that, I don’t know the answer, let me get back to you on that.”
Such humility is not the way successful folk like us are wired.
One Sunday morning 25 years ago I was at the glorious gothic Duke Chapel, in Durham, North Carolina and the preacher Will Willimon said the dean of students had told him that it had been decided that first year students at Duke were no longer to be called “Freshmen”, because it was demeaning and insulting. Willimon asked the dean, “Well, can I still call them ignorant and uninformed?”
My father used to say to us when we were in school: you can tell a sophomore, but you can’t tell him much.
A quote attributed to Mark Twain famously says, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Of course, what I have also found after passing through middle age is that I can be every bit as arrogant as I was as a teen. How hard it is to hold knowledge loosely, to live with the mind open before the Mystery of God and the Mystery of Life, and to be open to instruction and correction from even children.
Mary puts it this way: She sings,
“God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
Of course Mary comes from a long line of Jewish women who say that same thing: Remember Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel who sings to God when God blesses her with a child:
“Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.”
The know-it-all gloats in his certainty, while the humble thanks God for the salvation that comes from outside herself.
When I’m my own savior then I have to present a strong persona to convince myself and others that I can save myself and don’t need anybody’s help.
Thankfully, however, God can also save the arrogant. Paul was so certain he was right he had no problem arresting followers of Jesus. But then on the road to Damascus God knocks Paul to the ground and blinds him for three days, making him totally dependent on others.
After this encounter with the risen Christ Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world…? For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength….
Mary sings: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
After being pulled by God into the story of salvation Mary doesn’t become a know it all. Rather she bows before the Mystery that claims her life. After the shepherds leave the manger Luke tells us that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” After the 12 year old Jesus runs away from Mary and Joseph in order to hang with the priests in the temple, Luke says, “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.”
We too bow before the Mystery of our election by God in Jesus Christ. Like Elizabeth, we say, “why has this happened to me?” Why did God choose us before the foundation of the world to be caught up into the Story of salvation?
Why does God call us to be witnesses for Jesus Christ? We’re not as lowly as Mary or as smart as Paul.
There is no reason…other than the mysterious love of Triune God that takes even ordinary, broken, and proud people like us and makes us pregnant with Christ.