Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector, on December 21, 2014.
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
2 Sam. 7:1-11, 6; Canticle 15; Rom. 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
“How can the infinite finite be?”[i]
“How can the infinite finite be? Why choose, Child, to be born of me?” Madeleine L’Engle is perhaps best known for her book A Wrinkle in Time, but she has many writings and among them some gorgeous religious and seasonal poems. Her poem “O Oriens” portrays the wonder of the very human Mary as she ponders what the angel Gabriel has told her. Beautifully set to music by the modern choral composer Daniel Gawthrop, the music as it begins is haunting, hesitant. [sung]
How can the infinite finite be? Mary. Mary the Virgin. Gave birth. Alternately revered to such an extent that, I’m told, baby girls in the Roman Catholic culture of Mexico a girl is highly likely to be given the first name “Maria,” (and then referred to from then on by her middle name), alternately revered or ignored, as Protestants tend to do, except at this time of year. The church can exalt her so far above ordinary womanhood methinks that what they are really about is making a comment on womanhood in general. After all, there can only be one Queen of Heaven.
And then we make belief in her virginity a proof test for faith. We can spend so much time debating the exact nature of Jesus’ conception that we leave no room for mystery.
In her poem “After Annunciation,” Madeleine L’Engle – both a devout Christian and a devotee of science – captures this:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
The life of faith must have room for mystery. Otherwise we can think we know it all. We would reduce everything to human scale, to human ways of knowing. A life of faith needs room for the unknown and for the unknowable. It is the unknown and the unknowable that draw us deeper into the mystery of the holy.
Mary didn’t get an answer to her questions. She said yes anyway. It took her a bit.
We all feel unworthy
We look at Mary’s conversation with Gabriel and we see that it follows the pattern of many of the biblical prophets. She is called by God. For no particular reason. Not because of anything she has done. And she, like the prophets before her, wonders “how can this be?” She wonders this because this was not her doing. This was not her initiative; but God’s. Of course she feels unworthy. Who feels worthy, by any human standard? “How can this be?” Some of the prophets before her have put up more resistance. “Oh please, Lord, send someone else!” Moses said “you really need someone more articulate than I if you want to convince the Pharaoh to let the people go.” Our first reading was from 2 Samuel. Samuel was a boy, and misheard the call from God the first two times. And there was Jonah, who famously hopped on the first boat headed in the opposite direction. No thanks! That lands you in the belly of the whale. It does so because what you are doing is denying the reality and truth of your own life and not trusting that God is in it.
When we see such patterns in Scripture we are invited to bear witness to the pattern in our own lives. This happens to us too. We are all called by God to live into the deep purpose of our lives. Too often we would deny our own life because we can’t quite see how it would all work. You feel drawn to make a change but you don’t know what it looks like. Your a new parent and whoa! where’s the instruction book for this? You find yourself unemployed. Scared. What’s next? What will it look like? Where will my next job be? I don’t know. Here I am, Lord. The human Mary struggled in this same way, in a culture where women were powerless, and to be pregnant and unmarried, and a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine… She said yes anyway.
It is tempting, and easy, to treat these familiar Christmas scenes – the annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, the birth of the child in the manger, as beautiful tableaux and leave it at that.
Faith is about our response
But that’s not why they’re here. Look for the the ordinary. The life of faith is always about our response. It does us very little good to come here on a Sunday, to say the words and to sing the hymns and to get down on our knees and all, if it is all outside us. If nothing is moving inside us. If nothing is being birthed inside us. Take away the very real physicality and even the ordinary of Mary and Jesus and it is all just abstract ideas and sentiment. It keeps Jesus at a safe distance, which, I often think, is precisely what all the sentimentality around this time of year is designed to do. Step into a fantasy for a couple of weeks as a kind of temporary reprieve from the pressures of daily living, and then come January, when the carols are over and the decorations are put away and the credit card bill lands with a thud on your doorstep it’s back to real life. No wonder skeptics look at us and shake their heads. This is no where near robust enough to stake our lives and faith on.
But these stories are not simply to be gazed at. They invite our participation, and is there that the depth of meaning lies. They offer a window into our own lives. L’Engle’s poem begins by talking about the fragile vessel Mary is for Emmanuel. “O Child conceived by heaven’s power give me thy strength: it is the hour.” The words reveal Mary’s inner questions and conflict, the tension between what she is experiencing bodily and her faith in what it means, which are conveyed not only in the words, but also in the music by Daniel Gawthrop. Mary speaks a few phrases, articulates a thought, and then the music plays alone for several measures, as she ponders. Back and forth between words and music, speaking and pondering. And then comes her next thought –
“O come, thou Wisdom from on high; like any babe at life you cry; for me, like any mother, birth was hard.”
We said the Magnificat instead of the psalm today, that glorious hymn of praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Mary comes to see that her child will raise up the poor and the hungry, and upend social hierarchies. But she doesn’t say that to Gabriel, but later, when she sees her cousin Elizabeth. She needs some time to get there. That’s the larger purpose. We see her now, earlier, in her intimate pondering.
L’Engle captures her surprise and wonder: “O come, O come, thou Lord of might, whose birth came hastily at night, born in a stable, in blood and pain. Is this the king who comes to reign?
Mary knows what every mother knows. There is no safe distance when it comes to giving birth. “Like any mother, birth was hard.” We are each of us born in blood and pain, and so was Jesus. And as every parent knows, there’s no safe distance when it comes to raising a child, watching her venture into the world, stumbling, making mistakes, getting hurt. Jesus was born of a regular, human woman barely out of childhood to be totally and intimately involved in the real, gritty, ordinary human reality. God did not come to keep a safe distance, but to break into human existence in all of its messiness,pain, questions, and ambiguities. Mary offered space within herself for God to dwell. We too, are asked to make space within ourselves for God to dwell. Christ wants to crack us open, to dwell in our deepest and most intimate spaces. All of us, regardless of our gender, are called to be a womb for God. Something holy is waiting to born in each one of us.
At the end of L’Engle’s poem, as Mary has pondered silently and expressed her struggles, her
questions and her fears, through and from all of that, Mary, mother of Jesus, most blessed among women, at last is able to witness and joyously proclaim, in awe and wonder —
O come, thou Dayspring from on high:
I saw the signs that marked the sky.
I heard the beat of angels’ wings
I saw the shepherds and the kings.
O come, Desire of nations, be
simply a human child to me.
Let me not weep that you are born.
The night is gone. Now gleams the morn.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel,
God’s Son, God’s Self, with us to dwell!
May it be with each of us, too, according to your word. Amen.
Madeleine L’Engle’s poem “O Oriens” in the choral piece by called “O Come Emmanuel,” music by Daniel E. Gawthrop, published by Dunstan House.