Sunday, December 24, 2006

Elizabeth and Mary - Icons for Advent

Advent 4 – Year C
Micah 5:2-4; Psalm 80; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-49(50-56)
Sunday, December 24, 2006 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Where do you see God in your life? Where do you meet the holy? In what ways does the Divine touch your life?

Last week, the LA Times reported how the holy and the mundane intersected in a rather interesting, if not unusual way, right here in Southern California. In August, the workers at a chocolate factory in Fountain Valley, just down the 405, experienced what they described as a miracle. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord, appeared to them. This was not an ordinary appearance. She did not come to them in a vision. Rather, she appeared to them in a material form. She appeared in the form of a two and a half inch glob of chocolate. The miraculous confection, extruded from a mixing vat spout, was in the likeness of the Virgin Mary standing in prayer.

This was not the first such miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to humanity. While I was living in Chicago several years ago, the image of the Blessed Virgin appeared in a rust stain on a retaining wall of an expressway underpass near downtown Chicago. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it, as the Illinois Department of Transportation promptly painted over the image, much to the consternation of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the local media, and the faithful of Chicagoland. She has also appeared in such items as pretzels and grilled cheese sandwiches. And such unique appearances are not limited to the Virgin Mary. Being a family trait, even Jesus has gotten in on the act, appearing on such mundane items as a tortilla.

Now it may just be me, but being a chocoholic, the appearance of the Blessed Virgin in the form of chocolate is most certainly divine – or at least a sign from on high that chocolate in and of itself is divine.

I always approach such reports of miraculous appearances of the holy in such everyday items as food products and expressway underpasses with mixed feelings. There is the skeptic in me that thinks, “yeah, right. Why would the Virgin Mary appear on a grilled cheese sandwich?” Seems kinda silly to me. But then, there is the part of me that recognizes that people are hungering for a glimpse of the holy in their lives, longing to be touched by the Divine in their otherwise ordinary, even downtrodden, existences. People want to know that they are loved by God. They yearn for assurance that God is really with them, blessing them in a world where no one else seems to care, let alone bless them. They want someone to point the way to that divine assurance – even if that someone is only an image on an everyday object.

Throughout Advent we have heard and reflected on the stories of those who pointed the way to God’s assurance of his love for us – to Jesus Christ. In our lectionary, the Gospel readings for both the second and third Sundays of Advent focus on John the Baptist. The words of the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” invoke in us the image of John the Baptist, the one who points the way to Jesus, to the Messiah. This is our traditional image of Advent. John the Baptist serves as the primary icon for our understanding of Advent. But I think we’ve gotten it all wrong. John was not the first person to point the way to Jesus as the Messiah. Rather, as today’s Gospel lesson clearly shows us, it was two women who first pointed the way to Jesus – Elizabeth and Mary.

In considering what this means, it is important to remember that at the time of Jesus’ birth, women were little more than property. Their only importance was to provide their owner, their husband, with an heir, with a male child who would carry on the family lineage. Otherwise, they were insignificant. With that understanding, let’s look at each of these women, these remarkable women, and see what they can teach us about the meaning of Advent.

As we’ve already established, the Gospel lessons for two of the four Sundays of Advent tell the story of John the Baptist. What we do not get, however, is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John’s parents. Only the Gospel According to Luke tells us of these two remarkable people and the circumstances surrounding the birth of he who cries in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord.” But even so, the lectionary selections for Advent do not even give us the full story. Today’s Gospel lesson comes closest, only picking up a small piece of the story – the interaction between Elizabeth, John’s mother, and Mary, mother of he whom John would precede. But if John the Baptist is an integral part of the story of the Incarnation, then his mother is likewise integral to that all-important story – to the story of our faith – to the foundation of our faith.

If you recall the remainder of the story, Elizabeth and Zechariah, like most married couples, desperately wanted to have a child. Being persons of profound faith, both being from priestly families, they undoubtedly prayed endlessly, at least in the early years of their marriage, for a child – preferably a male child, who would carry on the family and who would care for them in their old age. But as time went by, and their prayers remained unanswered, it became obvious that they were not destined to have a child. This would have been a source of despair, particularly for Elizabeth. Not only did she not have her prayers answered and her dreams of motherhood fulfilled, she would have also had to endure pity and scorn from her neighbors. If she and Zechariah were unable to conceive, surely they must have done something to deserve their fate. For these antiquated and misguided impressions, Elizabeth would have had to endure disgrace.

But then, their fortune changes. Literally, by the grace of God, Elizabeth was able to finally conceive a child. But not just any child. She would conceive and bear a son who would become one of the greatest prophets of all time, at least for Christians. She would be mother to the prophet who would bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New. He would point the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament.

For all intents and purposes, though, it is not John who first points the way to Jesus, but rather, Elizabeth. As we hear in today’s Gospel lesson, it is Elizabeth who first realizes that Mary is pregnant, and not only pregnant, but that Mary is carrying within her womb the Messiah. Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit – the only woman in all of Scripture to be so characterized. Because of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth speaks from an inward witness and boldly asks “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

In that moment, Elizabeth knows unimaginable joy. Her dreams of having a child have been realized. Her disgrace at being barren has been removed. And she experiences the most wondrous joy of realizing, not just for her personally, but for all of humanity, for the whole world, that the Messiah is about to be born. In that moment, Elizabeth realizes something that we all long to experience – that God not only comes into the world, but God comes to us individually. God meets us where we are in our own particular life’s situations. God wants to be in relationship with each of us individually, and because of this, comes to us one by one.

We know from our own lives that relationships are delicate things, built one on one, built one person at a time. We have to invest our time and energy in those relationships if they are going to grow and to last. And each relationship is unique. Elizabeth learns first hand that the same is true of our relationships with God. God invests time and energy into building relationship with each of God’s beloved children. And because of this process, each relationship is individual and unique and precious. Through Christ, God comes to us to enter into a unique relationship. Through Christ, we enter into relationship with God. Advent is about the anticipation of that relationship. Advent is about preparation for that relationship – a relationship that is as unique as each of us, and that is as eternal as God.

And now, for Mary. Since Mary is the mother of our Lord, we know a little more about her. She is certainly featured more prominently than her cousin, Elizabeth, both in Scripture and in our understanding of divine history. Again, as with the story of John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth, only the Gospel According to Luke gives us the full story of Mary. Again, our lectionary lessons for the season of Advent do not give us the whole story, but we, of course, know what happens. Just before the Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us of the visit from the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God. Or rather, was Gabriel asking her permission? After all, there is a period of discussion, of Mary asking questions of Gabriel, attempting to understand what was being proposed. It almost seems as if Mary might have a choice in the matter. This is particularly emphasized when, after being satisfied with Gabriel’s answers, Mary finally responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Wow! Talk about faith. Talk about discipleship. Mary, a young, naïve girl from a backwater town in Galilee is asked to agree to something that is completely unimaginable – to become the mother of the Son of God. Most of us would have gone running from the room. But Mary had faith in her God. She was willing to do whatever God asked of her, even if it did sound a little out there, if not downright impossible. She was willing to trust her God and to allow herself to be used as an instrument of God’s grace.

Mary could not have fully understood what she was being asked to do – to bear the Son of God. But she accepted her assignment willingly. And in the course of her personal Advent, her time of anticipation and preparation for the birth of her son, the Messiah, she came to accept her role and to embody what she was being asked to do. And that’s were we find ourselves in today’s Gospel lesson – at that moment of Mary’s realization of what all this means – at that moment where Mary lives into what it will mean to be the one who will bring the Messiah into the world. In that moment of realization, facilitated by the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth, Mary boldly states “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She realizes not only what her willingness to bear the Messiah means for her personally, but also what it means for all of humanity. Through the Magnificat, she proclaims what this action of God’s, made possible by her willingness to serve as an instrument of God’s grace, says about God – about God’s mercy, about God’s strength, about God’s desire for justice.

In this proclamation, Mary is pointing the way not just to the person of Jesus, but to the very message that he would himself proclaim – that his Father is a God of mercy and justice, and not just for the Jews, as had been professed in the Old Testament, but for all of humanity. She points the way to the Good News that God loves and cares for all God’s children.

The Message, the contemporary translation of the Bible that uses everyday language and idioms to convey the meaning of Scripture, translates the first lines of the Magnificat as “I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.” To me this translation says it all. Mary is filled with the news of God, with the Good News, with God-news. And in her joy, she doesn’t just proclaim it in words. She proclaims it in her very being, as in a dance. She dances the song of her Savior God, expressing God’s message, but at the same time making it her own through her own movements and actions, just as a dancer interprets music through the outward and visible form of her movements.

John the Baptist may be credited with pointing the way to Jesus Christ, to the Messiah. But it was his mother Elizabeth who first recognized how God operates in the world, through individual relationships with each and every one of us – through relationships only made possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. And Mary points the way to the embodied message that God is a loving, caring, merciful God who desires justice for all people. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Christ, may we all be blessed with the joy and wonder that Elizabeth felt in the days leading up to the birth of our Messiah. And may we embody the message of our Lord as we proclaim the God-news that bursts within us, expressing it in our lives for all to see, as we dance the song of our Savior God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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