Monday, December 22, 2008

Year B: Advent IV (12/21/08)

Luke 1:26-38

Romans 16:25-27

II Samuel 7:8-16

She was an ordinary girl, this Miriam. Her parents, Anne and Joachim, were good people, though not remarkable. Her home town, Nazareth, was a decent enough place to live, though it had never won any “most livable city” awards. She’d had a good Jewish upbringing, pious, synagogue-attending, respectful of the history and traditions of her people. Oh, and now she was engaged. Her parents had arranged it all, of course, but they had not done too badly by her. Joseph had steady work, he was a carpenter, and it looked like he would be able to support her comfortably. Miriam was sure she would grow to love him over the course of time. Their betrothal was now official, a legal contract, and soon she would move in with him as his wife.

Life was not stress-free for anyone in Nazareth at that time, of course, including for Miriam. (Her namesake, by the way, was the great heroine of Israel, Moses’ own sister, and Miriam was proud of this fact; the Greeks and Romans would have called her “Maria.”) The village of Nazareth, and the province of Galilee, had been annexed into the Roman Empire about a hundred years earlier, and it was not an entirely happy arrangement. In fact, there was a good bit of political unrest in the air, and anxiety about the future. But that very fact is itself testimony to the ordinariness of Miriam’s, or Mary’s, life and times. How many eras in human history have been devoid of political unrest and anxiety about the future? Everyone lived one day at a time, hoping for the best, praying that everything would somehow just all work out.

Which doesn’t sound all that different from the way you and I live. We work and play and shop and try to have relationships and raise families. We try to experience joy in life, but sometimes it seems like sorrow is all there is. We try to stay healthy, but we all get sick. We have times of depression and times of elation, times of alienation and times of unity. At times we’re overwhelmed by guilt, and at times we’re overwhelmed by forgiveness. All of which is to say, we lead ordinary lives. We are tempted to despair, and we are tempted to hope.

And if we are indeed tempted to hope, invited to hope, we owe a portion of that invitation to Miriam, to Mary, and to her people. They were good at hoping. They had perfected hoping into a fine art. They had been promised, and were hoping for, a deliverer, one who would free them from the oppressor’s yoke, and lead them into a time of peace and justice and prosperity. This deliverer would be known as “messiah”, the anointed-one of God, cut from the same mold as the heroic messiah—King David. Indeed, the prophecies were that this messiah would descend from David’s own royal lineage. The prophet Nathan had promised David that 

“...the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled, and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. …Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

So Mary, ordinary Mary, had a special hope, an extraordinary hope. She hoped that her generation would be the one to see the messiah, who would be not only the deliverer of her people, but a light to the nations, an ensign to the peoples, a beacon who would draw the whole world into God’s gracious reign of righteousness and justice.  Perhaps Mary, ordinary Mary, allowed herself to fantasize on what it might look like if her extraordinary hope were to be fulfilled. The Hebrew scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, certainly did not lack for vivid pictorial representations, both frightening and comforting, of the Day of the Lord, the coming of the messiah. In her fantasy, Mary could have drawn on this rich supply of images. Would the advent of Messiah be preceded by troops of angels doing battle with and defeating the legions of Rome?  Would there be an awesome celestial light show and a spine-tingling chorus of trumpets in the heavens as the storm clouds parted and Messiah descended to earth in a flaming chariot as he claimed his kingdom in an unmistakable public display?

These are just a few of the visions that may have danced in the head of an ordinary young Hebrew woman on the eve of her marriage to an ordinary Nazarene carpenter at the time when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman empire and Quirinius was governor of Syria. But the imminent fulfillment of Israel’s hope also has meaning for us who are not genetically of the house of Israel. For us, the content of our hope in the advent of the messiah is summarized by St Paul in the concluding paragraph of a letter he wrote to the Christian community in the city of Rome, when he spoke of the

…mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of God, to bring about the obedience of faith…

From a Gentile perspective, the significance of the Messiah’s coming is not merely national, but  cosmic.  God’s motivation for sending his messiah among us was, in the words of the ancient Latin hymn,

In sorrow that the ancient curse should doom to death a universe…

God himself had pronounced the curse on Adam and Eve when he banished them from the Garden of Eden, but it was not within his heart of love to see that curse come to fruition. The mystery kept secret for long ages is a plan of salvation, a plan of redemption from the ancient curse, a plan to “no more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground…”, but, rather, to “make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” It is a plan to deal definitively with violence and oppression and injustice and cruelty and even natural disasters. Yes, even earthquakes, fires, and floods are signs that the ancient curse, the curse that threatens to doom to death a universe, is indeed found far and wide.

And it all hangs . . . it all hangs on the ordinary obedience of ordinary Mary, from ordinary Nazareth, engaged to ordinary Joseph. The angel Gabriel was sent by God, not with a police escort, not in a horse-drawn carriage, not in a Cadillac limousine with a full media contingent, but, it would seem, rather inconspicuously. There’s no indication that he had any contact with anyone other than the intended recipient of his message, Mary herself. Her ordinary life would never again be quite so ordinary. Oh, she had intended to become pregnant, probably pretty soon after her marriage, but this was just a bit…too soon. It was a lot to ask of ordinary Mary.

 Yet, she was well-trained. She realized that to be chosen to be the mother of the messiah was indeed to be “highly favored.” For a moment, everyone’s fate was in her hands, the fate of captive Israel mourning in lonely exile, the fate of a universe doomed to death by an ancient curse. But in that moment, Mary chose to recognize God’s claim on her, she chose to obey. And in her obedience, Mary chose hope, Mary chose life. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” 

Let it be to me according to your word. From that brief declaration of consent flows everything that we know as Christmas. From that brief statement of ordinary obedience by an ordinary young lady, issues the extraordinary fulfillment of every human hope. The glory of Christmas, the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages, came about through the willingness of an ordinary woman to obey God’s claim on her life. And in that light, we may well ask ourselves, what other glories might God be ready to reveal in response to the ordinary obedience of his ordinary disciples? Mary is unique in the particular nature of her vocation, and for that all generations will call her blessed. But she is not unique in the fact that God has a registered claim on her life. Through the death and resurrection of the messiah, God’s son and Mary’s son, God has “redeemed” us for himself. We belong to him.

So Mary is exemplary. Her response to God’s move to exercise his claim as our redeemer is an example to us. If we, in our ordinariness, were to make Mary’s words our own—“I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”—if we were to make these words our own, what results might we expect to see? As individuals, we might well experience great awkwardness, virtually unbearable awkwardness, at first. Mary certainly did. Despite the euphoria of her angelic visitation, it was never easy to explain her pregnancy to her family and friends, let alone to Joseph! And it was not easy, several years later, to watch the one who has been born as a messiah-king die in disgrace as a criminal. But when we say “yes” to God, we experience the kind of peace that protects us, not from the storm, but in the storm. We know ourselves to be securely grounded, and experience profound wholeness and joy.

What might it look like if, as the parish of St Anne, we said in a concerted way, “Behold the servant of the Lord; be it unto us according to your word.”?  In the near term, there would be some moments of panic, as we experience the pain of being close to the pain of others. But before long, I believe, we would find ourselves in the midst of resources—human, financial, and material—more abundant than we can imagine. I suspect that God’s philosophy of inventory control is “just in time,” and he will not release his blessings upon us until we are committed to putting them to use. That same results would accrue, I believe, on a diocesan level. If, as the family of the Diocese of Northern Indiana, we declared in a united way, “Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be to us according to your word”, I would expect to see us blessed with courage and confidence, together with our bishop, to make our witness to the rest of the church and to the world with clarity and peace.

And as a result of such re-commitment to God’s claim on our ordinary lives, I would expect to see blessings overflow into secular society, with an impact on the level of violence and ethnic and cultural animosity and social disintegration in our cities and towns, and an impact on the level of suspicion and fear with which we approach this economic recession. In short, by saying “yes” to God, in emulation of blessed Mary, we lay the foundation for the fulfillment of all our hopes. So let us not hold out for a chorus of trumpets and a celestial light show. Our ordinary angel is greeting us and telling us that we are highly favored. Let us “just say yes,” and allow Christ to be formed in us, that we may give birth to his kingdom of justice and righteousness. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen

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