The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898.
A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2011. The lectionary readings are 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Romans 16: 25-27, and Luke 1: 26-38.
For many Christians, the Virgin Mary moves in for her close-up this season. She is invoked in music, personified in Christmas pageants, and even used as a tastefully generic holiday image on a postal stamp. And yet, for some more Protestant Christmas, once the decorations are put away, so is any thought of Mary. Roman Catholics tend to make more room for Mary, but too often religious practice falls into superstition, and theology doesn’t exactly find its way into everyday faith.
And as Anglicans, as the Episcopal Church that seeks a “middle way” in most things, when it comes to the Virgin Mary, we are often [surprise!] ambivalent. We mention her from time to time. We might even have a statue or image of her here or there. At All Souls, we even have named our little chapel for her, but what does she matter for our own faith? What does she matter for our relationship with Jesus Christ? And does God mind if we forget about Mary?
I think she matters quite a lot. She matters for our relationship with Jesus Christ, and God “minds” Mary literally, since Mary has been in the mind of God from the beginning. Today’s scriptures provide pointers as to how this all happens.
In our first lesson (2 Samuel 7:1-1,16) there’s a lot of restlessness. King David is in his new house and he wants the same for his God. David wants to build a temple for God. “Here I am living in a great house of cedar, but the Lord God, Creator of the Universe, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, has to camp out in a tent.” And indeed, this is the way God has been moving around. Symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments) has moved around with the people of God with great care
God doesn’t want a house—not yet, anyway. God’s not ready. God says, “No David, I’ve got something else in mind.” “I’ve not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” I will appoint a place, a place where they’ll never be disturbed or hurt. I will give you rest. I will make YOU a house, a dwelling to last forever.”
The word translated as tabernacle can mean several different things. It means “dwelling” and “residence.” Later, when Solomon does build a house for God, a temple, the tabernacle is a special part of that temple, in the sanctuary. The aumbry, the little cabinet in the wall of our Mary Chapel is our tabernacle—it’s the place where the Holy Sacrament is reserved when we are not celebrating Holy Communion. It’s one dwelling place for God, but it’s not the only one. Even when a physical temple is built, the sense that God pitches a tent with his people is never lost.
We can see from God’s conversation with King David that God has a special place in mind. People thought then and (sometimes) now that God meant a physical place—a building, or a city, or country. But God means a person. God has Mary in mind as a tabernacle, a dwelling place, a home from which other homes will also be born.
Patristic scholars and theologians who think a lot about the Virgin Mary would suggest that God has Mary in mind even in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve represent us at our very best and most pure. They are us when we are at our very best selves, but they are us especially when we’re at our best, and before we know it, we’ve been tricked and we stumble. Whether by pride, or lust, or greed, or anything else—we have a tendency to stumble and fall. We fall with Adam and Eve right out of the garden.
But Jesus (in the theology of St. Paul and others) is a new Adam, a chance to re-do things. Jesus is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve. As the old Eve says “No” to God. “I’ll go my own way, thank you very much.” The New Eve, Mary, says “Yes.” “Here I am. Let it be according to your word.”
Karl Barth was a Reformed Theologian of the first order. He had no place for superstition or much place for mysticism, either. There was not a “woo-woo” spirit that ever entered his soul. But Barth, of all people, puts it this way:
God conceived humanity as his covenant partner. He purposed to do this by assuming humanity [in Jesus Christ] and tabernacling [dwelling with, camping out with, getting alongside] with his people. [God] must then also have purposed to bring the human race to that moment in its history when it had been so cleared of sin and sanctified by grace that it would be ready to receive the gift of the incarnate divine life. That moment in the history of mankind is Mary. [Church Dogmatics, II/2]
That moment is Mary. That moment is extended and reflected upon in today’s Gospel. God chooses Mary as the new temple, the place to be born, to live and grow. This happens not so that Jesus can be good guy, touch people for a few years, and then die a criminal’s death on the cross. God moves through the cross and brings Jesus to new life, continuing the story of salvation through the power of the cross. The cross redeems Adam and Eve. The cross raises Jesus, and redeems Mary the New Eve, and in so doing the cross creates a way for us.
Though we may cringe at the old phrase of “accepting Jesus in our heart”—too often it smacks of evangelical coercion and religious bigotry—“accepting Jesus in our heart” is really what Christianity is all about. It’s about allowing God to be born in each one of us. Becoming a Christian involves allowing God to make a home in our heart, to dwell with us, to camp with us.
Not only is there a way is made for us to live eternally, but also here, in this life, we are made more. By allowing God to live in us, our hearts grow larger and more generous. As fear falls away, we grow in faith. We grow in forgiveness and acceptance and mercy. We grow in God.
The Good News of this day and this season is that God had Mary in mind. (From the beginning, through the Wisdom literature, with the prophets, in exile and in deliverance, in the Gospel, even on Calvary, and also on Easter Day.)
But the Good News is that God had and has us in mind, too. We are not accidents. We did not “just happen.” Since the beginning of time, God has imagined you, and desired you, and loved you. God wants to be born anew in you and me and all the world, that the angels may have even more to sing about.
St. Ambrose, the 8th century bishop of Milan, in a commentary on the Gospel of Luke, urges us to
Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God . . . [Our soul] proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior.One of my favorite images of Mary is known as the Virgin Hodegetria, the Greek word for “she who shows the way.” In this classic image of Mary, she’s shown holding the baby Jesus and very subtle pointing to him. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the life. In that image, Mary models what is means for us to have Christ born in our hearts—simply to point to him with our lives. We might do this boldly and loudly. Or we might do it more quietly and reserved.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is full of grace so that we might be too. The Virgin Mary is blessed so that we might be too. Our Mother Mary is made holy so that we might be holy too. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, God has Mary in mind. And God has us in mind too.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.