Sunday, December 21, 2014
Gospel text: Luke 1:26-56
“Mary, Did You Know?”, a song we’re hearing a lot this season thanks to Pentatonix, makes me wonder what Mary could not have known. According to today’s Gospel reading, the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to an extraordinary son who would “be great” and would be called “the Son of the Most High” and would be given the “the throne of his ancestor David”(Luke 1: 32). But how would Mary have understood that? If a Jewish peasant were to take back the throne of David, a major shift would have to take place in the political conditions of a subjugated people. Mary must have heard the good news Gabriel brought to her as good news for all her people—emboldening her to sing a subversive song we now call the Magificat to extol the God who would bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly (Luke 1:52).
But Mary couldn’t anticipate who her baby would become. Even nowadays, when ultrasounds tell expectant parents the gender of their child, not much else can be predicted. S__ and K__ know their baby will be a boy; but it will be a long time before they will know how tall he’ll become or what his favorite foods will be. K__ and S__ will wonder and hope and dream about the man he’ll grow into for a long, long time.
You and I will have the joy of watching with them as God shapes a new baby boy into a fine young man. Our faith community can be ready to assure this child and his mothers that he is growing into exactly the person this world needs at this hour.
Because each new baby born into this broken, tired, troubled world is potentially the next Messiah.
What I mean by that is every little girl or boy can become our savior by living God’s love so fully, so decisively, so radically, so hopefully that salvation comes to our earth. I name the child we’re expecting in our congregation as our savior without any expectation that a new star will settle over Mobile on the night of his birth and without any hope he’ll enter this world wearing a halo. (If he does, be sure to take pictures, S__.) I’m not contradicting the distinctly Christian meanings of the words messiah and salvation—and there have been many Christian meanings of these terms over the centuries. I’m not predicting this child’s impact as if I’m some kind of prophet. I’m simply professing this belief: our violent, selfish world can be changed one life at a time—by love and love alone. That is the saving Gospel Jesus lived and preached. “Our” new baby has the potential to live God’s love in saving ways. I think Mary knew that about her baby.
Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?
A new baby can begin his saving work in our lives from the very start. Through his vulnerability, WE are required to care. God comes to us in the face of a defenseless child who calls forth our love.
Our very planet is saved when we think beyond the span of our brief lives to the needs of the next generation and the next. Environmentalists value a saying from the Iroquois Nations that we should make decisions with a view toward the impact on seven generations into the future. If we are not thinking about our children and their future children and their children when we make choices, then we are not living in sustainable ways, meaning we are destroying rather than saving our earth. A new baby calls us to care about conditions on this planet even after we are gone. And so we are saved by caring for this baby and each new baby. We must think about the world he or she will inherit. We must prepare them then to think about and protect the world their children will inherit.
Mary, did you know . . . when you kiss your little baby you kissed the face of God?
Thirteen years and one day ago, a baby girl was born to T__ and K__. Thirteen years ago those new parents kissed her sweet face, and I’m pretty sure they knew they were kissing the face of God. They knew, in that season of Advent, on the darkest days of the year, that God was with them in a special way because of a tiny infant.
But let me step back if I’m too close to confusing the sacred power of love with mere sentimentality, as we’re susceptible to doing at this time of year. Let me not romanticize babies or mothers. Instead, let me, let us, see in the ancient story these representatives of vulnerability. Advent tells us that we all live lives pregnant with possibility. And responsibility.
What a terrible responsibility to deliver a baby into a world where he would be feared and despised by the dominant culture. According to Matthew’s account, by the time Jesus was two, King Herod would order the murder of all male Jewish babies. Mary’s fears and hopes for her child were tied up with her fears and hopes for an entire people. That meant Jesus would learn that his life mattered not just to his parents, but to his people. Mary’s love for her son was part of her love for her people. God’s love for that new baby was part of God’s larger love for humanity. Mary sang a protest song about a God who would “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and bring down the powerful and “fill the hungry with good things” but send the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 52-53). Hope for one child is tied to the welfare of all.
As these children are saved, so are we. We’ll be saved when we recognize the face of God among young men gunned down by a militarized police force, among the poor who are getting poorer, among the victims of the Ebola virus and their heroic nurses and doctor, in the tenderness of two young mothers whose marriage is blessed by this church but not by the state of Alabama. Well guess what, Alabama? God didn’t care about official marital status in choosing the mother of Jesus. In fact, the story of Jesus’s birth stresses that it’s the unlikely ones who do the saving; it’s the folks some consider disreputable who are most likely to usher in the reign of God’s peace and justice.
The Orthodox Church calls Mary Theotokos—meaning “God bearer”, “the one who gives birth to God.” I like to think we’re all a bit pregnant with God. Pregnancy, like Advent, is a season of waiting and of not knowing, of anticipating the emergence of God in our world, of feeling within us a maturing and expanding love.
The Mother of Jesus helps us appreciate the maternal in God—as does my favorite medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich. Lady Julian wrote a book describing visions she had of Christ, and that fourteenth century book called Showings became the first book written by a woman in the English language. She interpreted her visions about Christ this way: “Love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For Love. So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.”
Interestingly, she visualized the loving Christ at times in a feminine form. She wrote, for example, that “Jesus is our true Mother.” Seeing the feminized Jesus altered her imagery for the sacrament of Holy Communion. Quaintly, she explained, “A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself. . . . The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side . . . .”
The Eucharistic meal is interpreted by Julian as a mother’s giving of her body’s milk for her child. For love.
Mary, the mother of Mother Jesus (to use Julian’s metaphor), loved her own child. But she loved others enough to teach her son a kind of love that might require him to give of himself. Did Mary know that we cannot love only our children if we want to love our children truly?
When I was a new mother, another new mother in my church learned that her baby had a medical condition that prevented the child from being able to digest any formula or milk other than human breast milk. Unfortunately, that mother was not able to produce milk for her baby. So I became one of a few other mothers in the area who volunteered for many months to express breast milk to help feed another child. I hate to admit it, but in the earliest days of anxious motherhood, I worried my body wouldn’t produce enough milk for my child and this other baby, too. I was afraid to share. But here’s the miracle of the human body and the human heart: the more you nurse a child, the more milk your body produces; the more you give, the greater your supply grows. My child and my friend’s child grew fat and healthy. My love for my child could not be limited to my love for my child. Love was all of a piece.
Mary, did you know that your child could not be fully himself until he could give himself with love for others? Mary, did you know, as Julian did, that the meaning is love? Mary, did you know your child would save us with love?