Year B – Advent IV
December 21, 2013
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck
and at some point you are likely to hear it.
“But…. you don’t really believe in the Virgin Birth, do you?”
“I think Jesus was a good teacher, but I just don’t go for all that doctrine.
Like the Virgin Birth!”
or may even say it yourself:
“There’s just so much in the Nicene Creed that I can’t say or that I don’t believe.
Like, Jesus was ‘born of a Virgin’.”
And, of course, if a bishop, priest or deacon were to say anything like that publically,
they’d risk being charged with heresy,
Just ask Jack Spong.
So I’m not about to say it!
But I am going to use this Sunday,
this Sunday in which we hear the Gospel story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary,
as a time for us to consider who and what Mary is for us.
and who and what Mary is for Jesus.
First the story.
[In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…..” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.]
It is known as the Annunciation,
because Gabriel makes an announcement to Mary.
It is not to be confused with The Visitation.
That comes later, when the pregnant Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant,
pregnant with the baby John the Baptist.
Neither is the Annunciation to be confused with The Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception in a non-biblical teaching made doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century.
It claims that Mary herself had to be immaculately conceived in order to be a clean and pure vessel into which Jesus could be poured.
And certainly, this is not the Assumption.
that’s another non-biblical story that is said to cover what happened to Mary at the end of her life.
Jesus ascended, you see,
but the Assumption declares that Mary was “assumed” into heaven.
It’s a story featured inside the dome of the church in Parma, Italy,
which is also the birthplace of parmesan cheese.
Today we are talking about the Annunciation:
This is the story that tells us how Jesus was conceived.
And it makes plain:
– Mary is young
– Mary is not yet married
– Mary is a virgin. Which probably means that she has not yet had sex with a man.
– Mary has somehow been chosen to be the one to bear the baby who is Jesus, who will be called the Son of God.
Now, it is not uncommon for stories to be told about the miraculous beginnings of famous and honored people.
The gods of ancient mythology are often said to have been conceived in unusual ways
or to have unusual circumstances surrounding their birth or early childhood.
Moses certainly has quite a birth narrative.
Here in the USA, we have stories about the boy George Washington.
How he chopped down a cherry tree and did not lie about it.
How he threw a coin across a river.
So, we could explain away Jesus’ birth narrative as being just that.
You know, it’s just a story that the ancients came up with in order to set Jesus apart as really, really special.
But, if we do,
If we dismiss the story of the Annunciation in that way,
I really hope we don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Because in order for Jesus to be fully human,
he had to be born of a human mother.
And in order for Jesus to be fully God,
he had to have a different kind of conception.
Can you come up with a better birth narrative for him then?
In my late 20s, I set out on a pilgrimage from Rome to Geneva to Canterbury,
seeking discernment about Christian faith and the feminine and God.
Women’s ordination was new in those days,
and matters of the feminine divine were very controversial.
I scheduled appointments with clerics and scholars along the way.
I had plenty of time for prayer and reflection, too.
But no single conversation or event clarified my thinking more that spotting a simple mosaic over a door to a restaurant in Florence.
The mosaic probably pre-dated the restaurant,
but there it was over the door of a secular, commercial establishment, none-the-less.
A mosaic of the Virgin Mary.
Clad in blue, as always.
I took a picture of her.
Because there over the door to the restaurant,
she was proof of what I was beginning then to understand:
Human beings need a feminine image of the Divine.
Human beings need a feminine image of the Divine.
This makes a lot of sense.
Because male and female we were created in the image of God.
As we relate to God, therefore,
we need images that are male and images that are female.
And, since God the Father and God the Son are traditionally both very male,
Mary necessarily emerged as a feminine balance.
Of course, Mary is never said to be divine, per se.
But in the Eastern Church her humanity is pretty much indistinguishable from divinity.
In tradition and icon, she is the Theotokos,
the God bearer.
And is ju-ss-st under God in many ways.
In the west, particularly in the Roman Catholic and the Anglican traditions,
she is “Mother of our Lord”.
Which is pretty high up there.
Not quite divine,
But she sure is said to be ultra holy and pure.
The Anglican hymn goes:
Sing of Mary, pure and holy
Virgin mother undefiled.
Though accounted as human,
her humanity is, in effect, inimitable.
Through the millennia,
MAry has been lifted up as exemplary, and the bar, of sorts,
that the faithful,
especially faithful women
are to aspire to.
Blowing past Mary’s incredulous initial response:
“How can this be?”
Mary is presented in art and story as
Submissive and obedient to the masculine God’s wishes.
“Be it unto me according to thy word.” she says.
And while the church acknowledges the quirkiness or sinfulness, even,
of other saints,
not so with Mary.
It is as though her holiness holds an edge over her humanity.
It is ironic, then
whom, we believe,
is fully human and fully divine all at once,
gets his humanity bit,
his human genome, if you will,
by being born of Mary.
Mary’s humanity is essential to the equation.
Sure, it makes sense that the Church’s theology of Jesus,
also known as Christology,
has swung back and forth between over-emphasizing either his divinity or his humanity.
Because it is, quite frankly, hard to get your head around this fully-divine- fully-human-all-at-once concept.
But it doesn’t make sense that Mary should swing along with him.
Mary is human.
She’s got to be.
And the story of Mary, and the story of Jesus,
are both improved,
by the more gritty Mary,
not the more pure.
The original is a life-sized fresco at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, North Carolina.
When it was unveiled in the 1970s,
it was widely criticized for it’s earthiness:
– Mary is visibly pregnant.
– Her robes are red, not blue,
– and her feet are not only bare, they are kind of dirty.
Seen this way, the virginity of Mary is not about her purity.
It is, rather something that makes plain that her pregnancy was not by the usual means.
It also makes her story as a human being all the more compelling.
Because we can only imagine what this bizarre story of conception meant for her.
It is this very human Mary who can be a comfort and a guide to us.
And not just as a mother with a child who has a will of his own, either.
Mary also knew all to well what it was like to feel overwhelmed by the demands of life and the demands of faith.
She endured hardship, mockery, discomfort, shame.
When we do not understand the ways and mind of God,
we can know that Mary knows that exasperation.
“How can this be?” she says.
When we are perplexed or stuck,
Mary nods at us from her two dimensional images,
“Yeah,” she says, “it’s hard, I know.”
And when we feel helpless before the evil powers of this world,
which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,
Mary shakes her head solemnly and says,
“I’ve seen those powers at work.
They are wicked
They are cruel.”
Mary gained wisdom through her hardship, that’s for sure.
I suspect it took her a while to realize the truth,
of her own song.
It just doesn’t work to have her all dressed in immaculate blue robes,
ever calm, ever benignly smiling.
She’s got to have some dirt, some strain.
Her acceptance of God’s call is more valuable if it is hard-won.
Her “How can this be?” is huge.
So if, as human creatures,
we need for God to be imaged and described in ways both feminine and masculine,
let’s find ways to do that.
Let’s wrestle with the theology and understand the Church’s diverse points of view and find our own.
But let’s let Mary be human.
And take her at her word.