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Advent 4: Comrade Mary

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The Blessed Virgin Mary – it’s complicated.

It’s been complicated for a long time, ever since Christian men started telling Christian women to be like Mary – passive and submissive.

It’s complicated, not least because Mary’s traditional title includes the word “virgin,” which has cast a Christian spell of suspicion over human sexuality for centuries. (And this is certainly odd since I’m pretty sure Jesus’ brothers and sisters were not delivered by storks.)

So is Mary the model for humble obedience to the will of God? Or is she the fierce pioneer of God’s intervention into human history with radicalized love?

Yes, both; it’s complicated.

Christians arrive to the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Mary greetsmary_elizabeth1 us. What she says ought to provoke in us what happened to her cousin, Elizabeth: our insides should twist and tumble and tweak (Luke 1:44).

Mary greets us in this week before Christmas having done quite a remarkable thing indeed: saying Yes to God. This is not easy.

This Yes is not passive submission, but deliberate, engaged, active participation in a divine encounter. This woman had precious few opportunities to chart her own course or even ponder it, yet she not only questions God’s own emissary but then boldly says Yes – as if that mattered, and it does.

Mary greets us as the One-Who-Says-Yes-to-God, and then tells us what this Yes means:

God has scattered the proud in their conceit.
God has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

Mary’s exclamation ought to send shivers down the spine of all those who wield power, whether through votes or by force or in the mechanisms of social privilege.

But no, not quite. That would be the rhetoric of the opposition party countering the power of the ruling class. Mary’s greeting is more revolutionary than that.

Mary echoes the words of Hannah, from centuries before her own time. Hannah lamented not having children of her own and dared to present herself in the Temple, repeatedly, to demand a divine remedy. The male guardian of that holy site even worried that she might be drunk. But then God answered her fervent prayers, and the prophet Samuel was the result. Hannah’s song of praise lingers in Mary’s exultations:

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth…
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil (1 Samuel 2:3-5).

Mary2Mary, in solidarity with her ancient sister Hannah, greets us, not with cozy platitudes but a challenge: God is found among the least likely; God attends to the forgotten, the outcast, the throwaways, the utterly insignificant. God pays heed to the ones not even the most “progressive” among us try to feature in our programs of charitable assistance. Mary voices the astonishing solidarity of God with the absolutely voiceless.

Where God is, most cannot hear – but Mary does.

And so I think of my own mother, Rosemary, who died this year at the end of March. That faithful, pious woman who refused to let God off the hook. Like Hannah, she fretted over not having children – and complained bitterly to God about it (whether she complained about the result is another story…).

My mother was tender and tenacious, stubborn and strategic, frivolous and fierce. She was complicated; and so was Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mothers do and speak and live what few take as important, significant, or laudatory. Most of us don’t even know the half of it.

Our complicated mothers are our complicated selves in countless ways, even as our social systems reduce us to the neatly drawn categories of gender, race, and religion. Mary said No to all of that by saying Yes to God – the God whom she encountered as our Uncanny Comrade.

Mary, too, is our comrade, who points to the outrageous God of Jesus by pointing at her own body – her rounded belly, the charges of scandal, the forced migration, the painful journey, the lack of any hospitality, the bloody, messy stable. Mary’s life and witness, her words and her body, are as complicated and as glorious as your body and mine. There, she says, in all that bodily complexity, right there is God.

But “comrade”? Why risk evoking a revolution? Because Mary voiced what Hannah voiced and my own dear mother voiced, each in her own way: take God seriously, and the world will not stay the same. Take God seriously, and your own world will turn upside down. Take God seriously…seriously enough to complain and cajole and insist and demand that God make good on God’s promises. That’s what mothers do.

Yes, it’s complicated, but not so terribly much. Because we are the story of Mary and her Child, a story of God’s unending, passionate love for God’s own creation.

So may Mary, the mother of a precious and vulnerable child, help us see the piercing love of mothers for their terribly vulnerable children – on the streets of Ferguson, in flimsy boats on the Aegean Sea, on the beaches of Greek islands, in our schoolyards playing, and in our backyards laughing.

May Mary’s brazen Yes animate our own affirmations of God’s justice, especially when it seems risky and unreasonable.

May this blessed and ancient comrade in divine mysteries inspire us to see and treat all bodies as blessed – all of them, without exception.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Padvent_3_altrayer
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Advent 3: And Still, Rejoice

The daily newsfeed is hereby interrupted. That worrisome, wearisome, ongoing stream of animosity and violence, of bigotry and racism, of a global climate running amok now pauses, at least for a moment. And in that poignant pause, the sound of rejoicing.

No, I’m not hallucinating; I’m just attending to the Christian calendar.

Apocalyptic visions and prophetic denunciations launched us into the first two weeks of Advent (a bit like an infusion of religious caffeine to jolt us awake.) And now we arrive to what some churches call “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin for “rejoice.”

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“Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4)

There’s a rather complex liturgical history lurking behind all this, which only the truly religious geeks among us (ahem) likely appreciate. Advent used to have a much more Lent-like character and lasted longer (forty days, like Lent). The midpoint in the season was a time to relax our discipline, catch our breath, and anticipate more fully the coming feast – in this case, Christmas.

Thus the rose or pink candle for this week, to signal a shift in tone.

But isn’t this a bit too soon, far too early, grossly out of synch? I don’t see any pause in American-style xenophobia, no break in the outrageous political rhetoric, and few seem willing to relax their violent postures. If anything, the planet seems to be spinning even more wildly into a deadly spiral of chaos.

And still, rejoice.

That surely qualifies as at least peculiar if not offensive. Yet percolating in this odd calendrical rhythm is the equally odd character and energy of hope itself, which marks this whole season. In contrast to optimism, the object of hope remains unseen, often annoyingly elusive, perpetually beyond our grasp.

And still, rejoice.

Many Christians on the third Sunday of Advent will hear from the ancient prophet Zephaniah. True to form, this prophet is thoroughly disgusted by the state of his own community. God will “utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” Zephaniah writes – humans, animals, birds, and fish. And that’s just the first three verses.

But that’s not what we’ll hear from him on the third Sunday of Advent. We’ll hear this instead:

Rejoice with all your heart…for God has taken away the judgments against you. God will save the lame and gather the outcast and turn their shame into praise (3:14, 19).

Same prophet. Same God. Same conflicted human society. The whiplash-like turn in this biblical text has little if anything to do with humans figuring out how to fix things. God will do something to make the shift, the same God who was angry enough just two chapters earlier to eradicate life as we know it.

Who can say, exactly, how God does this, or even why? Zephaniah is pretty vague about the whole thing. But he’s convinced that God will indeed do something, a game-changing move.

And so, and still, rejoice.

For several years now I have practiced a daily moment of gratitude, of giving thanks – for something, anything at all. It could be as small as having coffee in the morning or as large as a life-saving cure for a friend who was sick. It doesn’t matter whether or not I actually feel grateful; I give thanks regardless. And I have to say, this has been life-changing.

Recent psychological studies suggest that an old aphorism might actually be true: I’m not grateful because I’m happy; I’m happy because I’m grateful. Of course, ancient biblical writers beat these researchers to the punch by many centuries. The importance, even the primacy of gratitude appears in countless texts of the Christian Testament (see Philippians 4:6 among many others) and it marks the primary act of Christian worship – the Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving.

Giving thanks when there seems no particularly good reason to do so can break the cycle of despair, open fresh avenues for engagement with others, and inspire that unreasonable and oddly motivating energy of hope.

And so, and still, and even more, rejoice.

John_baptistThat’s how I read Luke’s rather strange editorial comment about the preaching of John the Baptist, which many Christians will also hear on the third Sunday of Advent. After John warns about the coming judgment (“the ax is already lying at the root of the trees”) and urges a life befitting repentance, Luke notes: “so, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:18).

Why would these wilderness diatribes count as “good news”? Here’s a possibility: In a world that seems so impossible to fix and so resistant to change, we can still do things that matter. For John, that meant clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, resisting corruption, and disengaging from systems of economic exploitation (Luke 3:10-14).

That won’t change the world! But it still matters.
We can’t measure the impact! But it still matters.
My voice is soft, my body slow, my courage weak! But it still matters.

It matters because we can never see the full impact of even the smallest gesture or the seemingly insignificant act. It is enough to do what we can, and then trust God to do that oddly mysterious thing that Zephaniah seemed so convinced that God will do.

And so, whether or not it feels like the right moment, rejoice.

 

The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; aadvent3_rosend, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

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Advent 2: Peculiar Prophets for a Peculiar Faith

What or who, exactly, is a prophet? Among the many possible responses, try this: Prophets simply cannot digest the crap of their own societies. They take it in and it burns in their hearts and minds, like a severe case of acid reflux. And out spews lava-hot invective that has mostly nothing to do with anticipating a cozy fireside scene with a baby in a manger.

The modern rhythm of Advent devotes the second week of Advent to prophets, and especially to John the Baptist, the path-burner for Jesus. John is no modern day front man, no feel-good warm-up act to get the crowd pliable and eager for the real deal. John instead relishes calling out the religious leaders who visit him in the wilderness as hypocrites, a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7).

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John the Baptist preaching to religious and civic authorities

John clearly never took the Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people. Yet John is pretty mild compared to his ancient forebears. Episcopalians have been reading from Amos during Morning Prayer the last couple of weeks, a prophet who could barely contain his disgust at the sight of his own people oppressing the poor, giving lip service to religious duty, and growing fat on clever strategies for economic exploitation.

“I hate, I despise your festivals,” Amos imagines God saying, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21). Set all that aside and “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

Amos is not alone. On the second Sunday of Advent this year, many Christians will hear from the ancient prophet Malachi. When God sends God’s own messenger, Malachi writes, who can possibly stand it and endure? That messenger is like a refiner’s fire (3:1-4).

The baby in a manger so many anticipate in these early December weeks comes only on the heels of the flame-throwing prophets, the ones who speak to unsettle, disrupt, and cajole. The ones who make plain why the world needs that baby in the first place.

So why doesn’t God just fix the mess? Why doesn’t God rend the heavens, come on down, kick some butt, and set things right?

Well, maybe God does exactly that – through us, a peculiar people of a peculiar faith who listen carefully (if not anxiously) to God’s peculiar prophets. Perhaps we are the ones who take in the white supremacy, the violence against women, the xenophobic diatribes of privileged politicians and spew it back with righteous indignation, the kind sufficient to light up the fires of change.

Perhaps, but quite honestly, that is just not me. I can flame and rant on Facebook with the best of them, but then take it all back (with the delete button) when I worry about losing friends. I’m not really any good at standing on street corners spewing harangues nor marching into institutional hallways of power and demanding justice.

Mostly, I’m just not any good at taking risks all by myself, as ancient prophets so often did, not to mention modern ones, too, like Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Whmlk_dream_speechat I can do and will do this Advent season is join with others. I mean, go to church and gather around the Eucharistic Table.

Not terribly prophetic at first blush, to be sure. But then I recall how often Jesus got into trouble for table fellowship, for eating with the wrong kind of people, and how the earliest Christian communities did the same thing and kept winding up in jail for it. And still today, when Christians set a Table in the midst of a deeply divided society and say, “All are welcome here.”

In a society marked by so much fear and suspicion, the Table invites a shared vulnerability and a revolutionary intimacy – and even that starts to sound quite prophetic indeed. I don’t mean that Christian worship does this automatically or that Christians haven’t sometimes or even often forgotten the radical character of this liturgical act (we have) or that the Table hasn’t been easily co-opted for nefarious gain countless times in Christian history – it has.

I do mean that God makes space at the Table where grace can happen. Breathing space for the kind of grace that makes friends from strangers and neighbors from enemies; the kind of grace that transforms betrayal and violence, not with revenge or retribution but with tenderness and care; the kind of grace sufficient to inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things for the sake of peace and justice.

I go to that Table to find the solidarity I need with others – and God has already beat me to it. First and foremost, the Table marks God’s deep solidarity with us, before any of us even thought to ask, the very point of that baby in a manger. This divine solidarity, to be clear, will not keep us safe from violence or moments of doubt or making mistakes. But it will foster courage, the kind of fearless and peculiar faith that creates prophetic communities.

The Table will not solve our problems; Christianity’s peculiar faith and prophetic potential isn’t about solutions at all. I do think it’s about creating the conditions for gracious generosity, bold risk-taking, and astonishing intimacy – conditions from which fresh solutions just might emerge.

And, these days, not a moment too soon.

 

The Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Prayer:advent21

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the day for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.