“Advent – Mary”
A sermon by
The Rev. Keely Franke
December 18, 2011
Let us pray,
“As you said yes to everything, Mary, to God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit of Holiness, to brutal persecution and impossible grief, to invisible angels and visible prophets, to your own unshakable power and strength, teach us to say yes to our life, yes to the call to be of service in this broken world. Amen.”
I have a confession to make. Advent is not the easiest season for me. The days are getting darker and I don’t deal well with the darkness. I like light and energy, clarity and movement. Instead we enter into a season with little light and a lot of waiting. If we are quiet enough and still enough during Advent what we encounter in ourselves and in others is not necessarily the prettiest sight either. And so we are faced with waiting. Waiting in patience on ourselves, waiting on others. Patience is not my virtue. Advent is not my season. At least not until we make it to this Sunday, the last Sunday in Advent, the Sunday we recognize Mary.
A week ago I left my house late at night and headed down to St Paul’s on the Hill. El Santo Nino Jesus, our Episcopal Hispanic congregation, meets there and on this particular evening over a couple hundred people were gathered waiting to celebrate their most festive feast day of the year – the festival of La Virgin de Guadalupe.
The appearance of Guadalupe took place in a small town outside of Mexico City at the height of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. It was then that the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous, Aztec man, and the skies broke open and beautiful music poured forth. Guadalupe became a bridge for that war torn culture between the Aztec recognition of her as a Goddess and the newly introduced religion, Catholicism. To this day Mary is a reminder that in their greatest moment of darkness, God’s light shone forth.
And so we gathered in a candle lit church, late at night around a statue of Guadalupe to celebrate her arrival. The whole church smelled of roses and incense. Smells so sweet you might think it spring. Kids danced in costumes with rattles on poles. And the handful of us white, Anglos stared on in amazement. After the Eucharist was over the bishop and I prepared to process out just as our colleagues directed us to sit down. Little did we know that the real service was about to begin.
A drummer began to drum and filled the wooden rafters with vibrations as Aztec dancers came flowing down the aisles. They were barely dressed, covered in tattoos, and wore brightly colored feather headdresses reaching three feet out into the air. The lead dancer of the group had a rattle in one hand and was blowing a conk shell with the other. They danced and shook like this for a while until suddenly the man in the front dropped before the statue of Guadalupe. And with his rattle he proceeded to bless the very ground beneath her. Then he stood up, head down, and together they backed up out of the church, never turning their back on Mary.
Father William Hart McNichols, in Fire Above, Water Below, describes the appearance of Mary like this: “Into the nightmare of a people still haunted by their ancestral past, just outside Mexico City, on a hill in a little spot known simply as Tepeyac, came a mere slip of a girl draped in a starlit turquoise mantle, haloes by a mandorla, of tongues of fire and perched on that moon of dark memory.”
In St. Paul during the darkest time of the year, at midnight the darkest moment of the night, a people gathered to celebrate the appearance of this mere slip of a girl and her promise of God’s light.
Probably because I was raised Roman Catholic, possibly because I’m a woman. Mary is very important to me. The first Episcopal Church I belonged to was St. Mary’s and if you were to come to my house you would find icons and statues of her all around. Perhaps it is because Mary enters at the darkest moment of our year and reminds us that it is precisely there that we encounter the God of life.
In our gospel today Mary’s much older cousin, Elizabeth, has conceived a child, John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah the priest, with this news. When Zechariah did not believe the angel he was made mute, he could not speak. Now it was Mary’s turn. The angel appeared to Mary with the same news. Only this time it was not for an old, married, barren woman. This time the news was for Mary – a poor, young, unwed virgin. The response in this case was more than disbelief. The response was not “Oh Boy.” The response this time was rather “Oh no.”
We have friends with their first child who is just learning to speak. Recently I learned the difference between “ah-oh” and “oh no.” An “ah-oh” is said when something incidental happens by mistake. The child trips and falls over only to quickly stand up again. Or a sudden movement happens creating a spill from the sippy cup. “Oh no” on the other hand is said when something deliberate and irreversible happens in which the child seemingly played a hand. For example, pulling at a table cloth which is followed by a few plates crashing to the ground.
The angel Gabrial coming to Mary is not an “ah-oh” kind of moment. This warrants an “Oh no.” It is the kind of moment in an adult life that leads to not being able to sleep at night. The kind of moment where at two o’clock in the morning you find yourself wrapped in a blanket, sitting in your favorite chair, clutching your knees and wondering where in the world you will go from here.
And yet the angel Gabriel continues: “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.”
One of my favorite people and priests, Howard Anderson, once said “We’ll never know if Mary was really a virgin or not but the story is so beautiful it has to be true.” The beautiful part of this story now is that instead of staying in that “oh no” place, Mary responds to the angel, to God and says, “Yes.” “Yes,” she says, “Here I am.”
We hear this story so often that it becomes mundane, easy to pass over, and we miss the scandal of its entirety. That God chose to make God’s self present in the most unlikely of situations. In a poor, young peasant girl, who was betrothed to marry Joseph and therefore supposed to be a virgin. A scandal that threatened to mark her life forever. And yet she said, yes.
And so it is in Advent, one of the most difficult times of the year, that Mary shows up to me like she did to Juan Diego on that moon of dark memory and wants to know. Will I say yes? Not yes to buying presents or sending Christmas cards, neither of which I have done this year. But yes to Jesus the Christ coming into this world, into my life. Despite the chaos, the internal battles, the imperfections, the things I wish were otherwise.
Next week is Christmas, a time when people force themselves to go into overdrive. We have one week, might I remind you, for last minute Christmas shopping, decorating, letter writing, gift wrapping, you name it. And the question this year is not – Will it be a perfect Christmas for my family, will uncle so-and-so get drunk and act up again, or how will I make it through single and alone without anyone to share it with? In the midst of the joys and difficulties, the successes and disasters of Christmas, the question this year is this – Will we be still enough and quiet enough to say yes to the light of Christ coming into this world once again?
Or as St. John of the Cross so beautifully says it:
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is close.”
Then, under the roof of your being, you will witness the sublime
the Anointed One will take birth inside you,
as the Virgin grasps your hands for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yes, there, under the dome of your being
Creation comes into existence, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb of your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is a beloved Servant
never far, so yes, if you want
the Virgin will come walking down the street toward you
pregnant with light and singing.