A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz, December 19, 2021 for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul Minnesota
Advent IV: Luke 1:39-55
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To a world pregnant with hope and torn by division, come Lord Jesus. Amen.
Christmas pageants with children often have their own kind of authority and truth. I’m pretty sure that my Meryl-Streep-like rendition of the angel Gabriel at age six lives on as definitive in the annals of St. James Lutheran in West St. Paul. Here at St. John’s, I remember when a herd of fifteen or so angels clomped down the aisle – haloes askew– to welcome Jesus– when the rector crawled around the floor with his young son, both of them in sheep’s clothing, and when an innkeeper (clearly coached by stage parents) told Mary and Joseph there was no room in the inn “But would you like to come in for a drink?”
The Christmas story is usually presented as a sweet, domesticated tale about a star-lit journey on a cooperative donkey and a pain-free birth in a “stable,” witnessed by nurturing farm animals on a “silent night.” It is a time when questions of faith and doubt recede and churches are uncharacteristically crowded, maybe reflecting how desperately people need the story, the music, the beauty, the hope.
As adults, we know that the Gospels conflict and are only partially representative of so how it “really was,” so how do we respectfully reconcile the beauty and grace of the ancient Christmas story with the truths that modern scholarship and common sense bring us? One person says, “Usually we leave (the seasonal mysteries) alone… but in so doing we risk foregoing the power for good that drawing nearer to the mysteries might provide us.”
On this last Sunday of Advent, I invite you to draw closer to the mystery of Mary of Nazareth and two of the many journeys she undertakes. — one to her cousin’s and one to Bethlehem. What do we find there to help us in yet another winter of pandemic, when we are so tired of dealing with it all?
The legalistic, masculine tone of Matthew, opening with seventeen verses about genealogy, has given way to a different tone and approach in Luke, noted for his attention to women. Mary even has a speaking part! God has silenced Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah because of his doubt and Joseph never says anything so today the women can talk!
The reading feels like a short story with a theme familiar to most women: when something is troubling you, go see a woman friend to talk it through. Mary sets out for an unnamed Judean town in “the hill country,” near Nazareth to see her cousin Elizabeth.
There was a lot to talk about! Both were pregnant; both were disgraced: Mary because she is not married, Elizabeth because of her unseemly pregnancy at such an advanced age. Elizabeth welcomes Mary with open arms and Mary ends up staying for three months (Luke 1:56).
What we find in Luke’s Gospel is a Mary who is less meek and mild than vocal, thoughtful and strong, a fully-realized human being instead of a plaster saint, one is who is both example and inspiration.
Luke makes a point of noting Mary’s thoughtfulness. While the church fathers have put great stock in the silent, ever-maternal Madonna, Mary has the courage to ask the angel a question (an angel!), and twice we learn that Mary “ponders” things in her heart, at the Nativity and again when Jesus is about 12, amazing everyone in the temple with his teaching. Her thoughtfulness supports Mary’s confidence; she doesn’t challenge God’s selection or argue that he she’s not worthy.
The depth of Mary’s pondering is revealed in what is called the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise. We don’t know who put this song together but it is Mary’s to sing. Many of the words harken back to the Jewish Scriptures, especially Psalm 146. Mary’s narration recalls what God has done for the Jewish people and pulls the story into the present. Here, Mary not only follows in the tradition of OT prophets but becomes the first prophet in the Christian Scriptures.
Maybe you imagine Mary singing this in a pure sweet voice but actually much of it demands to be shouted because it is a remembrance and then a threat to the powers that be of what God has done and will do, so much so that it was banned in several modern countries:
“He has scattered the proud in their conceit
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty.”
During the British rule of India, the government prohibited the Magnificat from being publicly recited in churches. The same thing happened in the 1980’s when Guatemala’s government decided that Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor were dangerous and revolutionary, in fact were stirring up the country’s impoverished masses, inspiring them to believe that change was possible. This all happened again in Mexico and Franco’s Spain, and in Argentina in 1983.
Before being executed by the Nazis in 1933, the German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “The song of Mary is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.” Silent Mary, meek and mile Mary, is absent from the Magnificat.
What about the “virgin” Mary? The Catholic branch of the Anglican Church gives primacy to the teachings of the church fathers throughout the years, the Anglo-Protestant gives primacy to the Bible. And they have understood Mary differently.
Outside of the conception of Jesus, there is nothing n in the pages of Scripture about Mary ‘s virginity, yet around 400 CE the church fathers emphasized a dualism between the physical and the spiritual, and Mary was reconfigured as the icon of female purity, the Madonna, forever untouched by sexual activity, in spite of the fact that, as recorded in Scripture, she had several children.
Benedictine sister Joan Chititser writes brilliantly about devotion to Mary, noting that once the Church declared Mary Theotokus, the Mother of God, devotion to her spread rapidly, almost to the breaking point as churches were named after her feast days multiplied. She says that in her experience in Catholic schools, Marian theology was never taught in an organized way, but “it came with the May altars we built in grade school, with the crowning of May queens in high school, with the rosaries we carried in our purses and fingered in the dark before sleep at night. It was the DNA of religion in our bones.” Many of you here in the pews may feel a deep devotion to Mary.
Yet any scholars feel that in the configuration of Mary by the Roman Catholic church, some of her humanity was lost, leaving women with a restricted and impossible model of their own humanity. Consider this poem by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler:
“sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus…
and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God….
and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.
because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
And yet the Anglican Church can encompass all dimensions of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of God.
Mary was thoughtful and brave, Mary was a fully-human woman, Mary is the Madonna, and in another element of the truth of the Christmas story is that Mary — and Joseph — were strong.
The Bible and sources such as Roman historian Josephus tell us what Palestine was actually like when Jesus was born 2000 years ago. Take a look at the map you received and see why. You can look at it when you don’t know how you will possibly get from here to there….
The two Jewish provinces – Galilee in the north and Judea in the south were separated by another country – Samaria. The Samaritans despised the Jews and vice versa. Jews going from Galilee through Samaria to the temple in Jerusalem for festivals or worship were routinely attacked. The Jews responded in kind.
In the south, the province of Judea contained the towns of Bethlehem (the city where King David was born and where Joseph and Mary had to go to register for the census), and bordering it, the mighty Jerusalem with the great temple that was the center of Jewish worship.
The Christmas story tells us that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth in Galilee south to Bethlehem, the city of their ancestor David. But how did they get there?
There were two possible routes: through Samaria with its tremendous dangers or going farther east to avoid Samaria altogether, entering through Jericho, although this route was longer and more mountainous—not that Samaria was flat either.
Doubtlessly, it would have been too dangerous to travel alone, due to the threat of outlaws along the major trade routes, so they probably traveled in a caravan. Weather was rainy and cold in the winter.
So this was not a gentle Christmas card journey with pregnant Mary posed gracefully on a donkey (there is no mention of a donkey, by the way). It was a tedious, dangerous journey on foot of 80 miles – like walking from here to Mankato – but through Afghanistan.
James Strange, a Biblical archeologist, notes that “writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke are so laconic about the Nativity event because they assumed the reader would know what the conditions were like.”
On this last Sunday of Advent when we don’t know how we’re going to get from here to there — from now to Christmas with packed schedules or schedules that are sadly empty — and the pandemic shows no signs of abating, when the truth of medical science is undermined by arrogant ignorance, and when political leaders refused to tell the truth to the Congress of the United States about armed insurrection, truth assumes renewed importance. When Jesus spoke the truth about the poor and the need for justice, the Roman authorities grew more and more threatened and ultimately had him killed. The prophetic writer George Orwell said this; “The more a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
So today we wait with as much hope as we can muster. We wait grounded in the real world and its struggles; we wait loving stories while honoring facts; we wait strengthened by our religious and family histories; we wait offering kindness in the manner of Jesus and receiving it with grace.
And we will know the truth and the truth will set us free.
Quinn Caldwell, “Daily Devotional (UCC), December 18, 2021.
Joan Chititser, The Liturgical Year, 2009.
Barbara Mraz, “Stirred,” sermon at St. John the Evangelist, December 15,2009.
Barbara Mraz, “The Anatomy of Hope,” sermon at St. John the Evangelist, December 18, 2016.
Kaitlin Hardy Shelter, And the Title of My Book Will Be, 2019.