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Thursday, December 13, 2012

God Needs Mary.

Luke 1:26-38.

            Last week we heard about one miraculous pregnancy.  This week we hear about another, even more miraculous.  Six months have passed.  The elderly Elizabeth has finally decided it is safe to come out of hiding.  Her pregnancy is no longer hideable. 
            Last week the angel Gabriel approached a priest working at the very center of Jewish life, the Temple.  He represented the continuity of the new things God is doing with the Jewish and Israelite tradition.  This is clearly a new chapter in a very old and ongoing story. 
            In the part of the story we hear about today, however, Gabriel starts pushing the envelope.  The Old Testament has several elderly, childless women who finally bear children by God’s inspiration.  But this next thing will be new. 
            God sends the angel to a town in Galilee.  We hear about the town, in a backwater region of Palestine where little of biblical significance had ever happened before.  The small town of Nazareth is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures at all.  It is far from the center of Jewish life 65 miles to the south, in Jerusalem.
            The next thing Luke tells us is that Gabriel is sent to a young woman, a “virgin.”  And this teenager is engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, who was a distant descendant of the great King David.  We don’t know her name yet, but we do know that, since Luke doesn’t say anything about them, she probably came from a pretty insignificant family.  Later we find out that she is somehow related to Elizabeth, so her family was probably also Levite.  But she has caught a minor break because a descendant of David is slated to be her husband.
            Then we finally find out that her name is Mary, a very common name in that time and place, and Luke reminds us again that she is a virgin.
            We know nothing else.  Later writers will embellish this story quite a bit.  And we can figure out some things from the context.  Women married very young in those days, basically as soon as a woman was physically able to have a child.  We’re talking somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14.  That’s how old Mary is. 
            With Elizabeth, we know that they were righteous, blameless, and pious, and had faithfully prayed for a child for decades.  But with Mary we are not told anything about her that would indicate that she had in anyway earned God’s attention.  So far the only thing even slightly notable about her is that she is engaged to a descendant of David.

            God’s choice of Mary has no explanation.  She is quite ordinary.  In being so ordinary, Mary represents us.  She was one of thousands of young Jewish women in Palestine at the time.  God does not choose her for anything she had done.  In fact, as we will see, it is more a matter of what she will do and does do, that sets her apart.
            Gabriel appears to Mary.  This was probably in her parents’ house because young women were kept safe from too much social interaction until they were safely married.  In paintings, Gabriel is obviously an angel; we can tell by the wings.  But angels don’t always look the part in real life.  He may have just looked like a man to Mary. 
            He says to her, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  The text says she is “perplexed” by this greeting, so something about it was weird to her.  Maybe it was the fact that an apparently strange man was talking to her at all.  In her house.  It doesn’t say she was afraid, particularly; just puzzled and somewhat confused.
            The angel tells her not to be afraid, anyway, and then goes on to inform her that she has found favor with God and she will conceive and bear a son whom she will name Jesus, which was another common name.  It means “The Lord has saved.” 
            Then he waxes poetic about how great this child will be, mainly in royal language, which could only relate to Joseph’s family.  She must have assumed that this was all relating to the first child she would have with Joseph after they got married.  But there was that disturbing “now, you will conceive.”  How could she conceive now?
            So she asks this of the angel: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  She might as well have said, “I’m not an idiot; I know where babies come from; and I do not yet qualify.  So what do you mean by ‘now’?”
            To which Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  The words the angel uses are words that describe the presence of God. 
            These words elsewhere in Scripture refer to the way God, in the form of a cloud, mist, or Spirit, comes down and infuses the Holy of Holies in the Temple with the divine Presence; the Presence permeates and pervades whatever it enters.  The Temple represented the creation, and God’s Presence there meant God was present throughout everything God has made.  The angel is basically telling her that she will become God’s Temple, she is the Holy of Holies, she is the locus of God’s creative power.

            For this is no ordinary child she is to bear.  “The child to be born will be called holy; he will be called Son of God,” says the angel.  A couple of minutes ago he was just the son of David, destined to be the King of Israel, it sounded like.  That was momentous enough.  But now he is to be nothing less than the Son of God.
            The son of David could be born in a miraculous way, like John will be born to two elderly parents.  Isaac and Samuel were born that way in the Hebrew Scriptures.  But that is still relatively normal.  The Son of God is something new.  The Son of God could not be conceived and born in a completely normal way; this would have to be something happening at a higher energy level than what had ever happened before.
            This Son of God is not appearing from heaven in the clouds, riding a fiery chariot.  God does not have the Son simply appear in glory.  The Son is not like other, regular gods.  God does not simply shapeshift into human form; God is not so alien to the creation that God has to intervene from another dimension in a way utterly beyond our comprehension.  The awesome Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the whole universe does not blow into our world through a spectacular spatio-temporal worm-hole or something.
            No.  In our story God needs Mary.  That’s the remarkable thing here.  God needs Mary.  The only way for God to come into the world is through a woman.  God comes into the world by cooperating with a frail person with freedom who could theoretically refuse to participate.  God needs Mary.  God comes into the world by becoming part of the world from the very beginning of life, where all life begins.  God becomes a couple of cells in the womb of a woman.  God starts where we all start.
            On the other hand, that does not mean that God can be conjured into the world by human initiative.  Mary does not dream up this story and invent the concept of herself bearing the Son of God.  Such a thing would not have been conceivable to her.  Human beings do not have the power to bring God into the world.  God does not arrive among us by human initiative, planning, action, or power.  Priests and theologians did not theorize that what needs to happen is for God to enter the world as part of it, and then make that happen.
            That’s what Luke wants to communicate by means of this virginal conception thing.  Two people can bring a new human being into the world.  That happens all the time.  That’s how we all got here.  But two people – or even a whole fertility clinic full of gynecological specialists – cannot bring God into the world.  That can only happen by God’s sovereign initiative.

            We understand God as Trinity.  God is an interactive, mutually reciprocal dance among three distinct and equal but united elements or “persons”.  It is God’s very essence and nature to be a community, a multiplicity in oneness, a unity in threeness.  God is a complex of relationships that overflows in creation, redemption, and sanctification.  God creates by speaking, by language, which is inherently relational; and everything that God speaks into existence necessarily receives the signature of God’s Trinitarian/communal/relational character in some way.  Everything that God has made resonates with and echoes God’s voice.  Everything contains God’s voiceprint. 
            It is our sinful, limited, self-centered, fearful, and near-sighted mortal consciousness that prevents us from seeing the truth that it all belongs to God, that the whole universe is stamped with and shaped by God’s character, that the heavens are telling God’s glory, and God’s love and beauty are seen in everything God has made.  We don’t normally perceive that God is protecting, healing, redeeming, forgiving, preserving us and holding up and together the whole creation.  In a sense, God does not have to “come into” the world because God is already here.  God’s Word is imprinted on everything, and God’s Spirit infuses everything.
            It is we, who have been separated from reality, who neither perceive nor know the truth of God’s love and Presence… it is we who have somehow to come into God.  That’s the mystery here.  In the angel God invites Mary to participate in this dance; in the Holy Spirit God descends upon and emerges within Mary, and makes real and tangible and personal and individual in her what is really present and potential within all creation and all of us.
            God engulfs and surrounds Mary so that she is able to know God’s Spirit flowing within her and God’s protective and generative power overshadowing her and embracing her and empowering her, and the Word and Spirit that is within all things becomes uniquely present within her, full of grace and truth.  God does not “impregnate” Mary like some alien, assaulting force; God comes to inspire what God has placed deepest within her to emerge.  God blows into flame the spark within her.  God’s breath blows through her and condenses within her what was suspended and invisible. 
            And God does it this way so that no one would mistake what is going on here for ordinary; this is a unique, one-time-only pregnancy.  Yet in this one special act God opens our eyes to God’s Presence and blessing everywhere, in all of life, in each one of us.

            This is not just a mildly interesting historical story about the experience of a young woman two thousand years ago.  If we reduce the Bible, especially a story like this one, to a mere historical account, we lose the meaning.  We kill it.  We objectify it.  If it’s just about somebody else, who really cares, in the end?
            This story is about how the living God comes into the world.  How it happens in this story gives us the pattern, the signature, by which we may examine and reflect upon our own lives.  Because the real point is about how God comes into the world in and through and among us.  Each one of us, and all of us together.
            The angel informs Mary about Elizabeth’s pregnancy as a sign that God can do anything.  And Mary gives her famous response, which is the prototypical response of faith to God’s saving Presence at work in the world.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
            If only we could begin each day, and live every moment of every day, in the spirit of these words!  They express our highest ambition as human beings, which is to inhabit the purpose for which we are here on the earth in the first place.  We are here to love and serve the Lord, the Creator, the Spirit of holiness.  We are here to be perfect vessels through whom the love of God flows into the world.  As Mary bore Jesus in her body, we are here to bear witness to Jesus, the embodied love of God.
            And what courage it takes to say, “Let it be with me according to your word”!  How much it can cost us to keep that affirmation!  Mary knew her life just ceased being ordinary.  Rather she fearlessly embraces what God gives her.
            For “let it be with me according to your word” means keeping to the Word rather than to the values and standards of the world.  It means holding to the equality and justice expressed in the Torah.  It means God’s whole agenda of liberation becomes your agenda. 
            How is Christ conceived and nurtured and preparing to be born in you?  In our hearts?  In our thoughts and words?  In our actions?  How is the saving, redeeming, forgiving, healing, emancipating, and loving Presence of the living God being formed in you?  In all of us together?
            How are we cleaning out our systems so God can flow through us?  How are we preparing a space in our lives like when we set up a room in our homes for a new baby? 
            Most importantly, how are we seeing God’s redeeming Presence everywhere because we know that God is uniquely Present in this child Mary will bear?  How are we preparing ourselves to follow Jesus, living together as his body, nurtured by his Body and Blood, welcoming and embracing others in the dance of holy love to which he calls us?

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