Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Sunday, December 20 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4,19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
The church has done Mary no favours. Deeply important as she is to me now, I spent years trying to come to terms with her, and I was able to do so only when I realized that the Mary of the church, a doe-eyed woman of apparently limitless mildness and passivity, has essentially nothing to do with the Mary we meet in the scriptures, whose every appearance speaks of an extraordinary strength of character, a powerful combination of deep thoughtfulness and fierce determination, qualities we see on full display in today’s canticle and gospel.
The story of the annunciation is far more radical than we may immediately realize. There are many stories of miraculous conceptions in the Bible, but all the others involve women who are married, aging, and usually desperately wishing for children. The child restores the social order, gives the woman a proper place again, resolves the discord. This story is utterly different—this is about an event which creates discord, which disrupts the social order. From the first seconds of the human existence of Jesus, the world is being turned upside down. Mary is a young, probably very young, unmarried woman. She does not want to be pregnant at this time. And it is not just an inconvenience; it is a potential disaster. This girl stands to lose everything, even her life, for pregnancy outside of wedlock was punishable by death. In a best case scenario, she might have been able to run away, and make a sort of living as a prostitute in the next town over. We know, because we’ve also read Matthew’s gospel, that her life will be saved by Joseph’s decision—also quite radical and unexpected—to stand by her, as no “real” man of his time would have done. But she doesn’t know that when the angel comes to her.
Angels, when they appear, invariably tell people not to be afraid; angelic visions are frightening, and those who seem them are almost always described as frightened. And yet Mary is not. She is understandably perplexed, but she is not described, at any point, as being afraid. This intrepid girl remains self-possessed as the angel makes his strange announcement to her. Characteristically, she thinks about it, and asks questions—she doesn’t treat this as inevitable or predetermined.
And, perhaps even more important, the angel answers her, although every other character who asks angels questions in a similar situation is dismissed or, sometimes, punished, like John the Baptist’s father Zachariah, struck dumb for asking questions of angels. Nothing happens until Mary gets an answer, and until she responds. What this story most resembles, in fact, is not any other story of miraculous conception, but the calling of a prophet, Mary’s “Here am I” echoing the response of Isaiah, and placing her Magnificat squarely in the tradition of the great prophetic writings, where it belongs.
But her response is even more than that. It is humanity’s point of choice. One of the things that is too often ignored is that the annunciation is a story about consent. In this moment, this all-important moment, the omnipotent God will not act without her agreement. The Incarnation is too important to be undertaken without humanity’s consent, and the one chosen to give consent, on behalf of us all, is a brown-skinned peasant girl in a backwater town under military occupation. In the moment when the angel waits, the fate of the entire human project is put into her hands.
And she says yes.
She takes her stand, this girl, in the face of all the risks. She speaks as someone who knows the weight of what she is saying, who understands that she is taking on something both great and terrible, but who is undeterred. She says yes. She makes this her choice, not a fate imposed from outside, but her own decision. She claims this, knowing all the dangers, knowing all that she could lose—the next time we see her, she is fleeing across the countryside to the house of one older relative. She will never be really settled again. She claims this because she believes that the work of God is beginning in her body, now.
The Magnificat is modelled on Hannah’s song in the book of Samuel, yes. But Hannah’s song is basically a song of personal vindication by a woman who has been restored to social respectability. Mary’s song is a revolutionary anthem, not about herself but about all the world, a girl announcing that, despite all society’s rejections, what is happening in her body is the decisive work of justice, and this work cannot be denied. She sings her song in the accomplished tense, in the tense of prophecy which must come to pass. The mighty are already cast down. The poor are already lifted up. She knows, clearly she knows, that it sounds mad to say this. Mary lived in a world full of poverty and illness, a world full of death and grief and pain, a world in which too many were cast out and ignored while a few lived in wealth and power and privilege. A world very much like our own. And yet she has the audacity to claim that God has already triumphed, and that this triumph begins in her, in the life she lives and the life she carries, however much it may seem otherwise.
We live in Mary’s moment—in the already and not yet of God’s kingdom, begun, and in some sense completed, in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, but still hidden in this world, not clearly visible to us, the shape of God’s plan for all creation still forming in our lives and our bodies, in the choices which each one of us makes. This Christmas will be a time of hard choices. For many of us, it is a time when we will have to make some of the hardest renunciations of this pandemic, choosing loneliness, choosing the sacrifice of traditions deeply cared for. For others, it will be a time of anxiety, of working in the dark and the cold and the now omnipresent threat of illness, because people need food and people need medical care, no matter what; or just because inadequate government supports mean that many must keep working, even at considerable risk. But Mary stepped forward to accept both loss and risk, to accept isolation and danger, and to call it, in all the paradox of that declaration, God’s work. To sing, despite it all. Despite it all, to say yes.
And still we are called to make that choice, to say yes to God’s coming into the world through us. To be both fierce and vulnerable; to think deeply, and to ask questions, and yet finally to be ready to risk everything, to leap into the unknown, if that’s what we come to believe is needed from us. To know that the Almighty has done great things through us, has done them already, even beyond our understanding, even if we sit alone in silence. To live as if the humble were exalted and the outcast brought in and the hungry fed, even as we know that this is not yet true in the world we see around us. But it can begin to be true in us.
Later this week, we will move into the celebration of the coming of God among us in our frail flesh, as the child of humanity who is also the Word of God. Emmanuel, God with us. But that coming in ancient Palestine required the consent, the active cooperation, of this one human girl. And God’s coming now requires us, requires each one of us, the complex selves we are. In the Eastern church, she is called the God-bearer; but she is this only because we all may be—we are all called to carry the justice and beauty of God, to bring them into the world. A danger, a burden, an extraordinary privilege.
There are many givens in our lives. We are thrown into a context we cannot control, we are born into a society, a family, which we had no hand in making. We are born into contexts of violence and social sin and complication, into moments of conflict or pandemic. And we are born into bodies, bodies with particular desires and needs, weaknesses and limitations, synapses of the brain and chemical processes which make us, to such a large exent, who we are. We did not choose any of it. But, like Mary, we can claim it. We can claim that context, we can claim the mud and the blood, the problems and broken places in our societies and our lives and our selves, and we can, like her, declare them God’s work. We can declare them—declare ourselves—to be the channel by which Christ will enter this world. In our time, in our place, in our own faltering lives, let the tiny, fragile kingdom of God be born.