A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016, also the eve of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 35:1-10, Canticle 15 (Magnificat), James 5:7-10, and Matthew 11:2-11.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
This Third Sunday of Advent goes by several different names: Gaudete, Rose Sunday, and even “Stir-Up Sunday” (because of the words in the opening prayer and their timing to remind people to stir up their Christmas pudding.) Coming about mid-way through the season, today works as a kind of pause, as if to say: “Even though Advent can be a time of thoughtfulness and quiet, of prayer and purple, Christmas joy is coming!”
The season of Advent used to be so penitential that altar flowers could only appear this Third Sunday. Combining that with an undercurrent of the story and song of the Virgin Mary, the day as “Rose Sunday” came also to be associated with a focus on the Virgin Mary and the special joy she must have known. Rose vestments, a pink candle lit in the Advent wreath, and the singing of Magnificat (the Song of Mary)— all fill the day with Mary’s joy and hope in God.
Isaiah begins the song in today’s first reading:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
That song continues to grow and build, until God’s song of joy and creation finds its fuller expression in the song of God’s beloved, Mary. Mary was probably in her mid to late teens, just a young Jewish girl from Galilee, but she was filled with stories and songs of other faithful people who had prayed to God, and she was able to sing her song with love and absolute faith.
Dr. Peter Gomes, for years the great preacher and teacher at Harvard, used to say that many Protestants have trouble with Mary because so many assume she’s a Roman Catholic. He told a story imagining a certain Protestant dean of a Cathedral who had little patience with talk of the Virgin Mary. Dr. Gomes imagined the dean dying and going to heaven. There, Jesus would come down from God’s right hand and say, “Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you have met my Father…. But I don’t believe you know my Mother.” (Sermons, Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p.11)
Over the years, I have slowly “gotten to know Jesus’ mother” a little better. In fact, I should probably admit that in some ways I think it’s the Virgin Mary’s fault that I am an Episcopal priest. If not entirely her doing, it does seem at least seem to have been encouraged by her steady influence.
In college, I often attended an Episcopal Church and loved the music I would hear. I’d sing and hear music about the “seven joys of Mary” and would notice images of Mary as the New Eve. It made sense to me when I learned that the Orthodox refer to Mary as the Mother of God, since she gave birth to Jesus, the Son of God. But then, the big shift happened in seminary.
It turned out that my introductory theology textbook was called Principles of Christian Theology by man named John Macquarrie. I studied the textbook, but it was my reading the footnotes that got me on a path that would take me out of the Presbyterian Church and into the Episcopal Church (just like John Macquarrie, himself had done).
Somewhere in that textbook, there was a footnote that referred the reader to a document published by a group called the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When I looked up this group in the seminary library, I found that not only were there papers and pamphlets, but that the group was truly ecumenical: made up of Lutherans and Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and Orthodox, Episcopalians and even a few Baptists. The group’s purpose was to try to recover what it believed was the rightful role of Mary in Christian theology. Carl Braaten, a Lutheran theologian points out that “The vehement attack of the Reformation against the exaggerated cult of Mary in late-medieval Christianity diminished [Mary’s] place in the story of salvation, personal piety, and public worship.”
And yet, Martin Luther maintained a very high view of Mary. Luther wrote, “Mary does not desire to be an idol; she does nothing, God does all. We ought to call upon her, that for her sake God may grant and do what we request. Thus also all other saints are to be invoked, so that the work may be every way God’s alone.” (“Magnificat”, Luther’s Works, vol. 21, pp. 326-29). That, from the chief Protestant Reformer.
The more I learned about Mary, the early church, and sacramental theology, the more I felt cheated at having grown up in such a Protestant background. While some Roman Catholics might have layers of cultural and folk tradition with which to sort through, I felt like I had nothing but ignorance and prejudice.
It is true that some of what has come to be believed about Mary springs from the hearts of faithful believers. Early Christians began wondering about Jesus. If, as the theologians insisted, Jesus was born of a woman, people began to wonder what that woman must have been like. The New Testament scriptures offer minimal information, but other scriptures and writings that circulated in the early Church also seem to point to Mary and her special place in God’s plan of salvation.
In other words, Mary (or someone like her) needed to be there for God’s plan to work out. And that plan includes us and our eternal life not only with God, but also with Mary and all the other saints.
Today we use the Magnificat in place of the Psalm. “Magnificat,” is of course the Latin beginning of the phrase, “my souls magnifies,.” The Angel Gabriel reveals to Mary that she is going to give birth to a very special baby, and while Mary’s first instinct might be to run far, far away; instead, she stands still. She remembers words that Hannah used to praise God (way back in 1 Samuel), and Mary quotes what she remembers of Hannah’s song, and then she adds her own twist. In the Magnificat, we see Mary as faithful to God’s calling, even when it seems scary, even when it brings danger, even when it might turn everything one’s world upside-down.
Beverly Gaventa is a Presbyterian theologian who teaches at Baylor, and she suggests at least three ways in which Mary can be a model for us and can help us grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)
First, there is (what Gaventa) calls “the vulnerability of Mary.” She allows God to direct her life. She is obedient in the truest sense of that term—her obedience in no way takes away her strength, her agency, her feistiness, her strong-mindedness (remember when she is at the wedding at Cana, and they’re running out of wine and she looks at Jesus as says, “Do something. Try to be helpful!”) Her obedience in no way diminishes her personality. And yet, she is wholly dedicated to God and God’s purposes.
Second, Mary is able to reflect on the events in her life. And that’s no small thing. There have been times in my life when I’ve been regular at journaling. When I look back at those journals, much of my musing is embarrassing and seems immature, but then there are parts where I’m really surprised that I was able to notice something in particular God seemed to be doing in my life. It reminds me that in order to notice, I need to slow down sometimes. I need to pray. I need to open my eyes and look. Or perhaps close my eyes and listen. Mary NOTICED what was going on around her, and slowly, but surely, seems to have realized what God was unfolding in her life and in the world.
And finally, Mary can teach us what it means to be a witness of Jesus. We have all probably seen in icons and art the classic posture showing the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap. Often, Mary is pointing very subtly to Jesus, as if gesture what she said: “Listen to him. Watch him. Do what he says. He is the way.”
A few years ago someone gave me a small, blue nightlight of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I like it especially because, in its small and somewhat silly way, it symbolizes some of the attitudes one finds around Mary.
On one hand she has been diminished, turned into the stuff of folk-magic and kitsch. Her image appears on toast and roadside underpasses just as surely as she seems to appear at holy places like Tepeyac, Lourdes, or Medjugorje.
And yet, that nightlight of Mary is also a good image for anyone who has known something of her presence, her steadiness, her reliability, and her willingness to be a soft light showing the way. She shows the way to Jesus. She showing the way to eternal life in God.
As we continue through Advent—and as we continue through this life—may we hear Mary’s song of joy—even in the midst of confusion, even when the way ahead is not clear, even when there’s death, and even when we can’t see the light. May God’s Spirit help us to know the Blessed Virgin Mary and especially to know her qualities, so that we too might be brought to heaven, raised high with saints and angels, and behold the risen Christ face to face. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.