Dec. 22, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Dec 22, 2019 in Advent, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)

December 22, 2019

One of my more perplexing sabbatical sights was in the Galicia region of Spain in a church’s side chapel. On the left is a statue of the archangel Gabriel looking like he just landed. He has a strong stance and a small message scroll in his hand. He’s pointing in annunciation to a larger-than-life-size richly crowned Mary, who is raised above and behind the altar, where she would dwarf any priest who stood there. Here is Gabriel bringing the good news of the annunciation fresh from heaven, —yet this Mary is about 7 months pregnant! She looks at him with her hand on her extended belly and a wry smile as if saying, ‘Yeah, I know; I got the crown, got the baby, got the message … you’re a little late, Gabriel!’ It is an out of sequence tableau, but then ‘out of sequence’ is part of Mary’s experience. The child growing in her seemed bizarrely impossible; he’s come in an unusual way at a premature time of her life. We who get to look back at this can nod sagely, knowing that’s how it often is with Christ; arriving in our lives unexpectedly, be it odd or perfect timing, bringing blessing, or perplexity, or both.

This has happened to Mary. The Son of God needs a womb in which to grow and a woman to bear him, to mother him, and so she does. It happened to Joseph too; anticipating marriage, he may have had an expectation of time for just the two of them to find their way as a couple, hoping to figure out his soon-to-be wife, to discover whether he had the temperament to be a good partner before becoming a father. Now this! It appears that Mary has become pregnant by someone else. He’ll avoid some of the shame and humiliation by separating himself from her quietly, but people will still talk. Then his dream changed it all again. From happily betrothed and planning a life together, to it all falling apart around this pregnancy. Now they’re back on, but through a whole other path. Accusations dissolve, tensions ebb, and the new questions are about what “conceived by the Holy Spirit” means, or how exactly this baby will be “saving the people.” What will life be like with this child?

Like them, our lives are sometimes extensively unsettled by unforeseen events, and often we have little choice, or the choice we make turns out differently than we expect. Still, like these two, we take stock and risk opening ourselves to the Spirit’s grace working in us when we could have turned rigid. Perhaps we promise to follow through on something like Joseph did, or we chart our course for the future, and then find the whole thing changed—do we renew our awe at What God might be inviting from us and adapt, or do we resist it, maybe even run? Do we let go of our imagined control and trust God to be with us on this unexpected path, or do we cling to that route we thought we’d planned so well and obey our fears?

We don’t know much about Joseph in those later days, but Mary is mentioned throughout Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. In orthodox iconography Mary is identified by her actions. She is revered first as Theotokos, God-bearer, shown either pregnant or holding Jesus on her lap. When she holds and points to her Son in icons, we call her Hodegetria, one who points the way. She’s often depicted embracing the infant Jesus, cheek to cheek, flesh on flesh, motherly care touching her son, God’s son. In these icons we call her the Eleousa, the one showing tenderness or mercy. Finally, we see her as Agiosortissa, or intercessor, with empty lap and hands she reaches out to Christ in supplication, motioning to an icon of Christ with his hand raised in blessing. Alternately this icon is set as if she is at the foot of the cross looking up. Mary seems to look out to draw us in as well as if looking to her son. An example is on the cover of your bulletin, with the original here in front. We see Mary as she continues to embody that very real and living link between the incarnate God as divine presence, and Jesus her flesh and blood son as the human one. In this pose she is praying with us and for us.

It is this image of Mary I’ve been praying with during Advent, and the one I spent much close and meditative time with on sabbatical. I came to ‘know her’ anew while carving her icon, working in Kisii stone (a type of steatite from Kenya). The Eastern Orthodox icon-carving experience wasn’t just about my creating something ‘arty’ or learning new tools or a technique. It became a way of coming into a closer and more intimate relationship with God, this time through Mary. Putting a small steel chisel into stone to shape her neck, her cheek, constantly reminded me of the flesh and blood woman who dared to say yes to God. It was frankly both daunting and endearing for me since I’d never been especially interested in studying or revering Mary. Shaping her fingers with a tiny pointed knife gave me to consider her hands which had held and fed the infant Christ, bathed him, washed his clothes, taught him to become a man, and given him to the world. It was humbling and left me anxious, wanting to do those holy hands justice. As I worked shaving away the thinnest stone dust I thought of all the ways you help raise up each other to be Christ in the world. The ways you teach our children – and adults – to trust God even when the way is unsure, to do what needs to be done even if there is a cost to it. Mary became a forgiving presence as I slowly (agonizingly) shaped hands that had done so much, and it led me to consider her as a person. Was she forgiving? Was she the quiet idealization the ages have depicted, or the gutsy original glass-ceiling-breaker that her words to Gabriel revealed? Did she ever feel inadequate? Stressed? Scared? Daunted that her first time being a mother was to the Son of God? I’m quite sure she must have been all of those things, and part of me wanted to carve worry lines into her forehead! Her generous spirit was what I came to in the end, those empty hands had given Jesus to others and yet were still pointing the way, raised in prayer, reaching in love. Please feel free to come up to see and feel it—touch her hands with yours.

The piece of stone I chose has rose-colored striations in it. Our teacher, Jonathan Pageau, held it back at first thinking it too marred by this odd variation to be desirable, but I wanted it for that very characteristic. Often God’s greatest gifts arise out of what we think are our flaws or imperfections! The others were a smooth, even, light grey, and this felt more real, from the earth, with attendant variations just as in each of us. Liturgically Mary’s color is rose, so the veins of color suited well. Those veins turned out to be harder and denser, carving through them was a challenge, demanding I work more slowly, let my hands and the stone speak to each other. Surely Mary had things she saw as flaws too; was she overly impulsive or eager to serve God? And aren’t each of us challenging in our own unique ‘hard places’ too? Some parts of us are harder to penetrate, and more densely rich. There’s times finding Holy Presence is easy; think beautiful sunsets, children laughing, mountaintops, puppies, —but we’re going to have to dig a lot deeper to find it in the unrelenting rain of these grey days, your kid’s sports schedule, in the man begging spare change where you shop, the aftermath of a disaster. Mary’s life makes it known that each of us is called to be a God-bearer, and through this, our spirits are informed and transformed by Christ.

Through the days of this carving Mary became increasingly alive for me, and I set aside my ambivalence wrought by the church’s historic focus on her ‘purity’ as a high value. She moved with strength and courage, making a life-changing decision of her own, at a time when women seldom did. As this woman emerged I began talking to her, asking her questions and listening to her life speak truth about love. In her ‘yes’ Mary becomes the flesh and blood connection between God’s divine presence and that presence with all humanity in the person of Jesus.  The powerful action wasn’t in a virgin getting pregnant, but in the enormity of trust to welcome the Son of God’s life into her own body, carrying him amidst others’ doubts, giving birth in a Bethlehem barn, loving him and raising him, to then send him forth, and see him die; love alongside all it cost her. She knew something about being overwhelmed, feeling both joy and grief, and hope when it seemed all was lost. Imagine her praying with us and for us when we cannot find words or reason to pray, when our prayers echo hollowly in sadness or grief.

Mary and Joseph’s life ceased to be what they planned in a way that’s true whenever we love God, whenever we love others—we give our beloved a claim on us by the simple fact that we are vulnerable in that love. We do it anyway. That’s Mary’s first act as a mother really, its Joseph’s first act as a husband and father; they say yes to God even though it will mean upheaval and uncertainty. Both family and community could judge, condemn, gossip, they might begin married life with this strange occurrence between them, each wondering if the other is honest in it all. Mary and Joseph let their love of God make a claim, as it always does.

Look at her arms – are they empty of her son or filled with love and hope? Is she reaching to him on the cross with her mother’s heart breaking, or is her gesture showing us the way to Christ so long promised? She prays for us who accept the cost of such love, and thankfully, faithfully, choose it again and again.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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