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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Something About Mary

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Advent III - Year A - December 15, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Welcome to the third Sunday in Advent. One more Sunday and then, two days after that, in the midst of the darkness of Winter: Ta da! Jesus will be born.

Let me begin with a little teaching about the church which is always good to do in this time of interim for you. 

This is known as Rose Sunday or Gaudete Sunday or Stir-up Sunday. 

This Sunday is known as Rose Sunday for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is an illusion to Mary as God’s rose. One of my favorite Christmas hymns is the traditional English Christmas carol, from 1420: 
“There is no rose of such virtue as is the rose that bare Jesu. Alleluia. For in this rose contained was Heaven and Earth in little space. Res miranda.  (a thing to be marveled).”
In some churches, the vestments for Advent are the color Sarum blue* to distinguish the season from the purple of Lent. On this Sunday, whether blue or purple, many churches switch to rose-colored vestments in honor of Mary. We light the pink or rose-colored candle for the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, who “contained Heaven and Earth in little space”.

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Of course, the real reason we light a pink candle was a long-held secret, whispered only among monks and nuns in the depth of the silence of monasteries and convents. It was revealed about 20 years ago by Bishop Cate Waynick, bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis and one of the first women to be consecrated a bishop diocesan in The Episcopal Church.

Shortly after her consecration, she wrote in one of her first diocesan newsletters, “For centuries, people have wondered why the Advent III candle is pink. Well, now it can be told. The Advent candle is pink because Mary really, really, really wanted a girl.”

Which is a perfect story to tell on Gaudete Sunday. The Latin Introit for today begins “Gaudete in Domino”. Or, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice”.

This is also known Stir up Sunday because the Collect of the day begins: “Stir up your might and come among us.” 

Some people think it has to do with the old English/Anglican practice of fermenting the fruit in alcohol to be used for the fruitcake. This would be the Sunday one would ‘stir up’ the crock of fermented fruit. 

I like that story because I like to think the kitchen work of women has had some influence on the collect prayer. It probably didn’t but I love the image. Just as I love to think that Mary might have wanted a girl.

There IS something about Mary, though, isn’t there? Something that makes us stop and think about the mystery of the Incarnation. 

Because, well, let’s face it: Everything about the Christian faith begins and ends with the Incarnation. If you don’t believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, then none of the rest of the fundamentals of the Christian faith makes any sense – or, actually, any difference. 

It’s because of the Incarnation that all the miracle stories of Jesus are important. Because of the Incarnation, the Resurrection is important. So, it all begins here, with Mary.

Artist: Igor Kufayev
What is it about Mary? Throughout the centuries, people have wondered about the miracle and mystery of Jesus being fully divine and fully human. How could that be? Why did Jesus have to be born of a woman, just the way every other human being comes into this world? 

And, why did God choose this particular young Nazarene girl named Mary? What was so special about her to have been chosen to be God’s special rose, the one to “contain Heaven and Earth in little space”? Was she the only one to be asked, or was she the only one to have said, “Yes”?

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus names John as his “messenger” – the one who was sent before him to prepare the way. But, reading Mary’s song – known as The Magnificat – it would appear that there was a messenger of God who prepared the way for Jesus long before his cousin, John began calling people to repent and baptizing them with water.

Listen a bit to the song Mary sang after the Angel Gabriel delivered to her God’s message. I prefer to think she sang this song directly to God, as one would a prayer: 
“You have shown the strength of your arm, you have scattered the proud in their conceit. You have cast down the mighty from their thrones and you have lifted up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things, and the rich you have sent away empty.”
And, I’m thinking she sang this prayer around the house which Jesus heard as he was growing up. You can hear the words of his mother’s song in the words of the sermon he preached on the Mount, commonly known as The Beatitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Realm of Heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Turns out, Mary had quite an influence on her son. Turns out, she was his first messenger. We should not be surprised. 

Artist: Sandro Botticelli
There has always been something about Mary. Something strong. Something brave. Something inspiring. 

Something that you knew just from looking at her that allowed you to marvel that in her, “There is no rose of such virtue as is the rose that bare Jesu. . . .”

It is the poet and spiritual author Jan Richardson who captures the moment in which Gabriel delivered God’s message to the one who would embody “Heaven and Earth in little space.” 

I want to share Jan’s poem with you now. 

It’s called Gabriel’s Annunciation.
For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.

For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,

I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her ‘Let it be’
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction
for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.
And so, as Wendell Barry says of Advent, the time grows darker and darker and darker until we arrive to this brief moment of light in the midst of the darkness before the birth of the One who is the Light of the World. 

In this moment, it is good to remember the messengers of God in our lives of faith. The ones, like Mary, who have that certain indescribable something – a strength in the midst of holy vulnerability – enough to make the heart of an angel pound and even place a few beads of sweat on an angel’s brow, he who had condescended to leave Paradise to speak with a mere mortal. And a woman at that.

Let us light the pink Advent candle in memory of Her, Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the messenger of God to the messengers of God. 

See? God is stirring up the cosmos, sending messengers to us in the bodies of those whom the world would cast off but God will raise up.

Look around. Who are the unlikely ones? Who are those cast-offs for us today? Who are the ones our culture does not value? What message might they be carrying for us – for YOU – in our day and in our time? To whom and for what might God want us – want YOU – to say ‘yes’?

Artist: George Hitchcock
Indeed, it’s not too late to consider how we – you and I – might be messengers of God. 

How might we be a different light, a different color, in the midst of the same and the familiar? How might we bring unexpected greetings of hope to a world torn by despair? How might we speak inspiring words to a culture so filled with privilege it has lost its hunger for justice?

These are some of the spiritual challenges for us this third Sunday in Advent – to find ‘Heaven and Earth contained in little space’. For we are – each one of us – God-bearers and messengers of God.

Because there’s something about Mary. And, because of the child she bore – and in whose name we are baptized – there’s something about us.


* SARUM BLUE: This is a recovery of an ancient English tradition stemming from Salisbury Cathedral, and so it is referred to as sarum blue. (Sarum being the ancient Latin name for Salisbury.)


1 comment:

Pat Newcomb said...

Powerful imagery AND use of "Gabriel's Point of View" -- thank you!