As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I alluded to the fact that Advent is not merely a countdown to Christmas; however, I have an Advent calendar that years ago my mother gave to me. And I admit that I use it to count down to Christmas. (Someday I will need to make a few repairs to it… The pieces have Velcro on their backs are quilted and are stuffed into little numbered pockets; and there is wear and tear on these pieces from repeated entrances and exits.) While pondering the repairs that are needed, I noticed that the pieces seem to progress in the order of their application to the felt manger, from celestial to earthy things. There is a star, and angels, and a candle lit, shining in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. And there are presents, animals, shepherds, and kings, which of course, we know arrive with Epiphany, but for the Advent calendar their order is just before Joseph and Mary. And of course, we finish with Jesus, Divine Incarnation, bringing the whole circle round again, bookending, uniting both celestial and earthly.
On Christmas Eve, out comes Mary from her little pocket, mother of our Lord, venerated over centuries, more so in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, but also in the Episcopal church. Within the church Mary, if not in her traditional blue or red robe, is often depicted as a Queen. To some degree, I understand venerating her, and so I understand wanting to make Mary appear special, perhaps even as a queen. However, let’s look again at who Mary is in scripture; she is a pretty ordinary person to be chosen to be the Mother of God… This has much to say about the very process of incarnation and how God uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary. There are some who get hung up on the conception of Jesus by way of the Holy Spirit, but I think we lose sight of the message if that is our focus. Theologian Paul Tillich has said, “Revelation does not destroy reason, but reason raises the question of revelation.” Reason, in the face of the mess we make or find ourselves, asks: what can humanly be done about this? And the answer of revelation: nothing can HUMANLY be done about this. But God has something miraculous to offer….
At the same time, there is something very everyday and human about Mary being the mother of our Lord. Mary proclaims God’s greatness, and we hear her interpretation that God noticed her, an unlikely candidate by our standards. Jesus comes to the downtrodden, and he doesn’t have far to go —because Jesus is the downtrodden. He comes to a people oppressed by Roman rule. He comes for the least as prophet Micah tells us, just as God comes to Mary. He comes for justice, just as Mary sees and proclaims justice. A pregnancy out of wedlock does not see the usual result, but instead sees a result that is justice. Jesus comes to the least of these, and brings justice.
I know I have mentioned this before in a sermon, but my own understanding and appreciation of Mary is a fairly recent event in my life. My favorite pietà (a pietà is statue of Jesus and Mary when Jesus is taken down from the cross) which I let work on me was at Canterbury Cathedral in the summer of 2013: this particular pietà is life-sized. The original work was created by Balthasar Schmitt in 1904, but it was caught in a fire in the 1980s. A lighting artist, Stefan Knorr, resurrected it in 2009 and lined the edges with 24K carat gold, a true gilding. Because the fire blurs the features of the people such that they are completely charred wood, it results in Mary appearing to be every mother, every woman, every person. The fire makes Jesus every person ever incarnate by God, made man, made woman, made holy, made righteous before God.
In my mind, this simple structure captures all of what Mary knew. It pulls all of us into the role of parent who suffers as Mary, as Jesus who dies, all of us beaten by the world, but never forgotten by God. Jesus is our burnt sacrifice, not because God needs sacrifices, but because God doesn’t. There is not an angry God to appease, there is God who knows our hurt, who knows Mary’s hurt, who enters into the sacrifice that so many of the downtrodden pay. God who still lifts us up above all of this. God who is praised as Mary and we praise God in the Magnificat.
As we await and count down the days to Christmas, to the Feast of the Incarnation, and we pause to focus on Mary, the book of Hebrews reminds us that it is Jesus’s offering of himself, that sacrifice that redeems us. And Mary as mother of Jesus, it is Mary’s offering of her body, her sacrificial love, that enables this incarnation to happen at all. Praise God that God comes to us and looks with favor on the lowliness of each of us, servants of the most high God.
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
Canticle 15 (or 3)