Sunday, December 24, 2017

Saying Yes: Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B

Our Gospel today opens with the Archangel Gabriel appearing in Galilee to a virgin named Mary. This scene is beautifully depicted as one of three scenes at the bottom of our high altar. There,  Gabriel stands with a lily, symbol of purity, in one hand, and with another reaches toward the young woman, who turns from a book of devotions resting upon a prayer desk, a popular image in medieval piety. The Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove, hovers just above them on the edge of the picture, awaiting the young woman’s answer, waiting for welcome. It’s a beautiful and imaginative depiction of the ways that Mary has inspired artists, poets, and musicians for centuries.

In reality, Luke’s gospel makes it clear that Mary is not a person of high position—far from it. She is a teenaged peasant girl in an obscure, dusty corner of a mighty empire. Yet Gabriel greets her as “O favored one,” and says that the Lord is with her. When Mary was declared to be God’s “favored one” one wonders if she did not have to fight off the urge to look behind her to see if the angel was talking to someone else.

Although she’s a very young woman, her response is interesting: in the face of this messenger from God, she’s not afraid, but rather is perplexed and puzzled. Prophecies are then made about the child she is going to have, with even more amazing titles being used to describe the child. Mary responds, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” and Gabriel explains to her exactly how it’s going to happen. 

To give credence to this prediction, Gabriel references Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. Yet, there are some fascinating differences between the stories of the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. When, earlier in Luke’s gospel, Gabriel tells Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah he is going to have a son named John after years of childlessness, Zechariah scoffs, and then is deprived of his ability to speak. Where Zachariah was made mute, Mary reacts not with doubt but with wonder, and then she gets the last word: Yes.

This is an important point. Mary agrees to bear this child of God of her own volition. Mary had the freedom to say “No,” but the courage and the faith to say “Yes.”

Mary had the freedom to say “No,” but models for us the courage and the faith to say “Yes.”

And her yes has consequences that she herself witnesses—she is the only person in scripture to be present at Jesus’s birth, obviously, as well as at his crucifixion (John 19:25), and on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:15). In her Magnificat we hear her thunder with a prophetic voice a very specific vision of the justice and economy of God’s kingdom—a vision that undoubtedly resonates with the message her son himself will embody.

God’s call to Mary is an invitation, not a command. It seems impossible. And yet, “Nothing is impossible with God” Gabriel reminds her—and us. As crazy as this all sounds, Mary ponders… and says “Yes,” even though her entire world will be changed in unimaginable ways. In giving her assent, with faith, hope, and heart, Mary is one of the most astounding examples of human free will joyfully and humbly collaborating with God.

The poet Denise Levertov described the incredible strength and audacity of Mary in her poem, “Annunciation,” which I want to share with you today.

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
       Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
       The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
         God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
         Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
      when roads of light and storm
      open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
  only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                     Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–

but who was God. 

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Can we share in Mary’s courage and faith? Can we say yes to God, and allow God to work through us to transform us each and every day, and therefore to transform and restore the world?

Can we say yes to bearing Jesus within our very selves, to making ourselves a home in which Christ can dwell? Can we say yes to acting as Christ’s hands and feet into the world in ways great and small?

Can we say yes to Christ’s enduring gifts to us- faith, hope, and charity- and receive them abundantly?

Can we say yes to testifying to who Jesus is in our lives, to the thousand ways he is present to us and alive in us today, in faces both beloved and unknown to us?

Can we say yes, and let that yes change us?

To remember that in working with us and through us, Christ’s healing power helps gather up the shattered places within ourselves and repairs them so that we can have new life and hope, living lives of purpose and meaning far beyond our imaginations?

To remember that God became human so that humans could know and embody the healing love of the Holy One of God?

God became human
so that humans could know
and ourselves embody
the healing love of the Holy One of God.

Can we respond to God’s invitation to us with joy, and make an imaginative leap of hope and light that endures even in darkness?

Even now, at this moment before Christmas comes, God invites us to carry Christ out into the world, every day. Mary is a model to all of us who seek to follow in the Way of Jesus. Her story reminds us that we all have the choice as to whether we will bear Christ into the world—or not.

The greatest gift of this season is love, and love waits to overshadow us. All we have to say is yes. Come, Lord Jesus, and fill our hearts to overflowing. Alleluia!

2 Samuel 7:1-11,16
Canticle 15
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Preached at 10 am, December 24, 2017, at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, MO.

Photographs: The Annunciation, carving on the High Altar at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis- my photo.
Robert Campin, the Annunciation from the Merode Altarpiece, 1425.
John Collier, The Annunciation (commissioned for St. Gabriel's Church in McKinney, Texas), 2000.

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