Fourth Sunday in Advent
Readings for this Sunday: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Luke 1:47-55 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38
Mystical notions about Mary began to flower fairly early in the life of the Christian church. Mary arises in some strains of our Christian tradition as a unique figure, a mystery in her own right for her unique relationship as mother to the Christ.
Consider the dreamy ancient text the choir will sing a little later. It comes to us from the 15th century:
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 wonderful thing.
I think that second line is breathtaking. It captures something of the incarnational mystery, particularly of this season—the idea that within Mary, divine and human meet; in the small space of her womb, heaven and earth are contained. Infinity in such a little space.
This idea is worth sitting with for some time in these dark days. We could ponder it for a lifetime, perhaps and not exhaust the mystery: “For in this rose contained was heaven and earth in little space—a wonderful thing. A holy thing.
The problems come, perhaps when we move on from the mystery. Perhaps we must, although I am not so sure. I am no expert on these matters, but my sense is that some of the dogmas that have developed in some of our traditions—claims that pull the mother of Jesus from her solid footing on earth toward the heavenly realm—tended to develop as a result of a sort of logical imperative.
The reasoning goes like this: If Jesus was so remarkable, then that must have rubbed off. So Mary, whose womb bore the human and divine Son of God, began to take on extraordinary qualities alongside Jesus in the Christian tradition.
Mary become unique, no longer like you and me.
This tension was one of the issues that was highlighted in the Protestant reformation, and it led to something of a break between Protestants and Catholic and Orthodox churches. But I find it interesting that Protestant theology is beginning to discover Mary again in recent years, but for a different reason—not because she is so extraordinary, but precisely because she is so ordinary—because she is so like us.
Now, I think this is compelling. And I see it captured especially in the reading this morning from Luke. Here we have this young girl—a young teenager. She is pregnant. She is poor. Her fiancée is not the father of the child. And she is the one left out to dry.
We know this story all too well. We know its vulnerability. But we also know the strength that can arise from such exposed beginnings. We know how these hearts especially can sing of a turning world, because we know it in our own hearts.
You see, Mary emulates for all of us trapped within our limited and imperfect lives, the mysterious and glorious reality that we are, precisely in our commonness, fully integrated into the work of God. The amazing thing about Mary’s story is that nothing is impossible with God and no one is too small or too broken or too insignificant to be a part of God’s holy and mysterious work. In fact, this is the only location of God’s work.
In you and I heaven and earth meet. In the mystery of our own bodies and souls, in the frailty and the capacity to imagine more, in the woundedness, and in the power of our wounds to be used to transform the world, heaven and earth meet in such a very little space.
We are both commonplace, and a wonder at the very same time—you and me and Mary—vessels in which the living God is birthed for the life of the world. Do you believe that?
If you don’t believe it, rest easy. I’m not sure Mary believed it either. And yet she said anyway, “here I am.”
You can do that too, can’t you?
I want you to grab a Bible. If you didn’t bring one there should be one somewhere in front of you. And turn to the Luke reading, Luke 1 beginning with verse 26, page 53 in the New Testament section of the pew Bibles.
You may remember that we have talked before about how words in the Bible function almost as hyperlinks do today. They take us to other places, other stories, other memories that make connections for us, that reveal to us how to understand this story. Remember that books are a fairly modern invention and so is widespread literacy. There weren’t copies of these scriptures in every pew until sometime after Guttenberg got the printing press cranked up some fourteen hundred years later. So these writings were first shared as stories told in communal gatherings like this and then read from a scroll that was shared by the community. So they were written in ways that would encourage and strengthen memory, so that they would fit into the broader stories that people carried with them in their hearts where heaven and earth meet in little space.
So take a look through the Luke passage, chapter one, beginning with verse 26, and tell me what names you see there, and what other stories of faith they bring to mind.
This story of heaven and earth in such little space speaks to the promise that God is born yet again in you and me. The Lord is with you, favored one—God in flesh in ways that have the power to turn the world upside down, to overcome the power of death, to encounter the holy in others in ways that history is redeemed.
People are fed. Laws are changed. Resources are shared. Broken lives are renewed. In our “YES” to God, you and I encounter within us a power that is unstoppable. This is the promise of Advent. This is what is birthed in you and me and in more hearts than you can imagine. This is why we can sing with such hopeful, gritty confidence that the world is about to turn.
I’m not sure we could sum it up any better than the Romans reading this morning that ends in thanksgiving:
25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
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