Weekly Preaching: December 20, 2020

December 16th, 2020

Advent 4. "For lo, the days are hastening on..." {If you're prepping for Christmas Eve, check out my Preaching Christmas blog}. 2 Samuel 7 is a pivotal text in deciphering the origins and validation of the Davidic monarchy, but I’m not sure this is so preachable so close before Christmas. You could play with the portability of God, the you-can’t-box-me-in character of this God, who is content enough to live in a tent even though David has built a sumptuous house for himself (revealing David’s typical character). Once grown, Jesus will say that Foxes have holes, birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. This God in the flesh might show up just anywhere. Gosh, even in our people, in a divided world, perhaps in our churches!

Lovely that the Psalter isn’t a Psalm but Mary’s song — the one she sang when she visited Elizabeth in Ein-Karem (Luke 1:46-55). I sure wouldn’t over-explain things. I’ll invite my people to imagine Mary singing. What was her voice like? I tend to imagine it as sweet, lacking that big soprano vibrato — but maybe I picture it as sweet because I’ve been lulled into classic portrayals of Mary as sweet, lily white, a bit fragile. Maybe her voice was on the raspy side. And why not? The content of her song is the antithesis of sweet. Here she is, quite pregnant with God, and she’s singing about political upheaval and the overthrow of all the world holds dear, and the elevation of all the world despises. Good thing Herod didn’t hear what she had in mind. He’d have had an armed regiment waiting for her to show up in Bethlehem.

The Gospel, Luke 1:26-38, the Annunciation, which I like to treat earlier in Advent, as December 20 doesn’t leave her much time from conception to birth! This fact might itself be worth pondering. When you’re pregnant, the baby doesn’t show up five days later. Thankfully. You have to wait. It matters what you eat and drink. You become uncomfortable. Your old clothes don’t work any more. You’re awakened, your balance is askew. And it takes so much time. God coming to us, into us is like this.

So much about Mary intrigues. I love the sermon that simply looks on Mary with awe. No big takeaways, no moral points, no missional directives — except that in the Annunciation, God asked to take on flesh, to become real in her, which is precisely what God asks of each of us. In my new book Birth: The Mystery of Being Born, I devised a little chapter about her, lingering on how she “pondered,” and items like Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven.” I’ll simply excerpt parts of that for you now:

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If we want to make theological sense of our own birth, if we want to begin to understand God’s intimate connection with us as far back as conception, and then continuing through this moment, we can do no better than to ponder the marvelous, elusive and alluring story of Mary, the mother of our Lord. “Ponder” is just what she, so understandably, did after those mystical and perilous nine months from the first stirrings in her inner being to the arrival of her son, God’s son. As she tried to rest, exhausted and yet jubilant after delivering this most wanted, unexpected and desperately needed child in all of history, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). 

She “kept.” Luke’s Greek implies “treasuring.” And which “all these things” did Luke have in mind? I suspect that she treasured more than just the shepherd’s crazed report of an angelic choir, or the agony of birth, or the months of uncertainty during her pregnancy, the arduous journey to visit Elizabeth, Joseph’s tender mercy, and even Gabriel’s unasked for visit. Hadn’t she treasured the simplicity of her old life in Nazareth? Was it hard to treasure her interrupted dreams — not to mention what Rowan Williams called “the dangerous difference that God’s Word would make”?

All these things she “pondered” – a word derived from pondus, meaning “weighty.” We ponder what is substantial, maybe a burden; to ponder what is heavy, strength is required. The Greek suggests something even more picturesque behind “pondered”: sumballousa, meaning literally “tossing around together” or “debating.” Have you ever had so much substantive stuff in you at once that it seemed to churn incessantly? and then bat it around with yourself, you almost can’t help opening yourself to God? Richard Rohr sees Mary “in that liminal space between fascination and attraction on the one side, and fear and awe on the other.”

Luke tells us that Mary “pondered” again when twelve year old Jesus got lost (but not really lost) in the temple (Luke 2:51). We can be sure she pondered much as Jesus grew up, left home, gathered a passionate following, and then conflicted with the authorities. We shudder over what she must have pondered on that dark night after his crucifixion. And in the long years to come after his resurrection and ascension: who pondered (and missed) him more than Mary?

Luke’s telling observation of how Mary treasured and pondered all these things invites us to do the same, gifting us with considerable liberty to do so creatively. Mary: what woman’s name has been repeated more times in human history? Who has been the subject of more paintings, statues, jewelry and carvings? How many have fingered rosary beads, mindlessly or in desperation?

Amy Grant intoned her catchy “Breath of Heaven,” getting inside Mary’s mood: “I am frightened by the load I bear… Do you wonder as you watch my face if a wiser one should have had my place” — and then she pleads, “Hold me together… Help me be strong. Help me be. Help me.”

Heaping attention on Mary would make her blush, and she would gently insist that we stop. Martin Luther was right: “Mary does not desire to be an idol; she does nothing, God does all.” Her loveliness, her holiness, and her appeal reside in her unawareness. A simple young woman saying Yes to the life of God already growing in her: without realizing it, she was now the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies, the open space where the infinite, uncontainable God became finite, contained in her womb.

An illiterate reader of the word

So much we’ve spoken of here is the result of imagination, and pondering — so skeptics will argue that we cannot know such things. Here’s what we do know. Mary lived in Nazareth, a small, backwater village of no account, population in the dozens, her family and neighbors eking out a hardscrabble existence. We would say that she married young — but so did most women back then. Even cynics will grant that she had a son, and probably other children, and a husband, Joseph, a carpenter or stone mason.

We yearn to see her face. Much of Christian art depicting her is kitschy. I have always been fond of the serene, lovely paintings of her by Sassoferrato — although her skin is terribly white, while the real Mary would have been, like middle easterners of her race and place, more darkly complected. To visualize the feel of Mary’s face, we might veer toward something like Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother,” her 1936 photograph of a mother exhausted and yet courageous. Herbert O’Driscoll’s wise devotional book about Mary, Portrait of a Woman, features Garibaldi Melchers’ “Woman and Child” on the cover. Her more weathered complexion suggests strength and gentleness, maybe endangered, with a ferocious kind of love, shielding her child from danger.

We are pretty sure Mary was illiterate. Certainly as a poor young woman from the middle of nowhere, she didn’t own a book; her family didn’t have their own Scripture scrolls. But she had seen the scrolls unfurled in the synagogue; she had listened attentively to the regular readings. Like most devout Jews, she had committed the Psalms and much more in the Bible to memory. She was, as her son was, an Israelite, the people of God’s promises. Thomas Torrance put it elegantly: “And then at last in the fullness of time, when God had prepared in the heart and soul of Israel a womb for the birth of Jesus, a cradle for the child of Bethlehem, the savior of the world was born, the very Son of God.”

Through the centuries, artists have tried to figure out how to paint or sculpt that shimmering moment when the angel came to Mary and asked her to let Jesus take on flesh in her. Almost always, as the artists have reckoned it, she is holding an open book: God’s Word, the Bible. The angel didn’t flit into her life in a vacuum. Mary was a student of God’s Word; when asked to become the mother of God, she replied, “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Martin Luther called the Bible “the swaddling clothes in which Jesus is laid.” To ponder Mary’s pregnancy, we ponder the Scriptures that were very much alive in her mind and heart during those days of anticipation, anxiety, discomfort, probably nausea, something going on inside her she could not entirely fathom — in a unique way, and yet like all mothers in waiting. The Psalms resonated, with their dark cries for help and comfort. I wonder if she was deeply moved to reconsider the story of Hannah, barren and then surprised with a son? Once Samuel, her dream, her loveliest ever gift from God arrived, she didn’t cling to him but gave him back to the Lord, to serve with Eli in the temple at Shiloh. That boy in turn heard a voice in the night, and after some confusion responded, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9). Did that moment shape her reply to Gabriel? “Let it be to me according to your Word.”

Which texts spoke most deeply to her? Did she have favorites? Surely the stories of Hannah’s pregnancy and the stirrings in Rebekah’s womb moved her. The blessing in Numbers 6 (“The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you”) must have resonated encouragingly. When the birth pangs were intense, did her mind drift to Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), as her son’s did in his hour of agony? After he was gone, what pulsated in her heart when she heard 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”), which would have been circulated and read where she lived out her years? What if pregnant women, or young mothers read the Scripture during their days of wonder and struggle, picturing Mary pondering the words in her heart?

The echo of her calling

Mary perceived the new life dawning in her belly as a call, as her divinely ordained vocation. Having a child wasn’t her pursuit of fulfillment or security in old age. She was responding to God’s calling. Or we could say the nascent life in her became her calling. How do mothers, when the news sinks in that, Yes, I am pregnant, begin with Mary to discern what God is asking of them, and how the nurturing of the child in the womb, and then after birth, can be the embodiment of a life of service to God, of a determination to follow the one Mary nurtured in her womb?

Tradition suggests that Mary was about to draw water from a well when she was interrupted by the angel. A well in Nazareth supposedly marks the place, housed in a massive basilica that fields more visitors every day than the entire population of the Nazareth Mary knew. There is something mystical about water, our thirst for it, the beauty, the shimmering ripples eliciting a kind of simple awe. Water will matter for her, and for all mothers. They need to stay hydrated. Their fetuses live in a numinous, aquatic realm until the water breaks. And then the bath, a lifetime of drinking, and Baptism, and the delight in rivers, lakes, ocean waves and the gentle rain.

The appearance of the angel must have been terrifying. Gabriel was, in Jewish lore, the mighty warrior among God’s heavenly host. And yet, if God’s plan was to make God’s mind and heart accessible, and for people not to be terrified, perhaps Gabriel toned it down, or came in a more humble guise. Luther suggests that “Gabriel did not resent being used as an errand boy to carry word to a lowly maiden. His glory was laid aside, and he appeared to her simply in the guise of a comely youth.” Even if he showed up in the most inviting form imaginable, Mary still had good cause to shiver. Elie Wiesel was right: “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.”

Whose assignment was ever bigger than Mary’s? And yet, isn’t ours similar? Herbert O’Driscoll captured our inevitable kinship with Mary: “She had felt the divine visitation which in some way comes to us all. What had been asked of her was unique, and yet an echo of it reaches all of us if only we have ears to hear. She had been asked to offer herself to the divine will, to become a servant. She had made her choice, as we all must. Fully and freely she had said Yes. For those who say Yes nothing is ever the same again.” God’s calling is always like hers: God asks to become real in us, to take on flesh in our lives.

In the Bible, those who are called have their reasons not to say Yes. Moses has his speech issues, Jeremiah’s too young, Isaiah is unholy — and now Mary, who knew their stories: she has not been with any man. God always counters, and uses the unusable. We might ask, Why Mary, of all people? We presume she was of immense holiness; Wordsworth called her “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” She calls to us out of her holiness; Richard Rohr suggests that “somehow she is calling all of us to our absolute best.” She was a virgin. But in those days, as a matter of both holiness and family honor, most newly betrothed women were — hence, not the shock this sadly would be today. Luther pinpoints her humility — a humility that did not even know it was being humble: “She gloried neither in her virginity nor in her humility, but solely in God’s gracious regard… True humility does not know that it is humble.”

Her ordinariness, and in such an ordinary place, makes her the sort of person God would choose for this extraordinary mission. Ultimately, what we realize about Mary is not that she had this or that ability; what she had was simply an availability. “Let it be to me.” As with all of us, God is looking for a readiness, an availability, or what Maggie Ross called “a willingness for whatever.” She heard the angel speak of what was impossible. With considerable courage, naivete, and trust, she went with it, she let it be in her. And I feel sure that over time she came to realize what was dawning in her was not for her or even her people but for the whole world.

People who have gotten born, when they fix their attention on Mary, eventually begin to realize the wisdom of Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth century German mystic: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.”

St. Augustine, overly enraptured by Mary, wrote “In conceiving you were all pure, in giving birth you were without pain.” He should have consulted Monica, his own mother, on this. Rachel Marie Stone fills in the blanks of the biblical story more fittingly: “A girl was in labor with God. She groaned and sweated and arched her back, crying out for her deliverance and finally delivering God, God’s head pressing on her cervix, emerging from her vagina, perhaps tearing her flesh a little; God the Son, her Son, covered in vernix and blood, the infant God’s first breath the close air of crowded quarters… God the Son, her Son, pressed to her bare breast… God the Son, her Son, drank deeply from his mother. Drink, my beloved. This is my body, broken for you.”

I admire an Ethiopian prayer to Mary from the ninth century that doesn’t overstate things at all: “Your hands touched him who is untouchable and the divine fire within him. Your fingers are like the incandescent tongs with which the prophet received the coal of the heavenly offering. You are the basket bearing this burning bread and you are the cup of this wine. O Mary, we earnestly pray to you that, just as water is not divided from wine, so we may not separate ourselves from your son, the lamb of salvation.”


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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