Last week we launched the Advent season, our time of waiting, hoping, and preparing for the birth of a child and the birth of a new world. I asked you to join me in pondering, in taking on a spiritual practice that might allow you to be fully present to this Advent time. I’m “pondering” by spending time outside every day (or almost everyday), usually running or walking. The thing that stood out for me in this first week’s pondering is the beauty and variety of the sky against the monotony of the wintry trees and frozen ground. Blues of many hues and intensities. Streaks of purple and orange. Clouds that billow and clouds that wisp. Moonbeams and starlight. As I pondered this ever-changing palette of sky, I felt grounded and consoled. Has anyone else been pondering? How have you been pondering, and what has it meant for you? Is there someone willing to share?
We catch Mary in some moments of pondering in our story this week. “And the angel came to Mary and said ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” It’s interesting… the perplexed and pondering Mary is clearly rattled. But not by the angel himself …either the suddenness of his arrival, or his physical appearance. In the Bible, angels are messengers, and it was the message Gabriel carried that unnerved Mary, that caused her to pause, wonder, and worry. “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” The angel hasn’t even gotten to the real bombshell: the part about becoming pregnant with the divine child. The simple declaration that Mary is favored by God, that God has noticed her enough to be “with her” renders her speechless.
The claim that God’s favor might rest on a person like Mary—a poor young peasant woman—was radical, in her time, and it continues to be today. Debbie Blue, pastor of House of Mercy Church in St. Paul, writes:
“I’m never sure how a story as wild and pagan sounding, a story that resonates with myths way older than Christianity, a story with traces of fertility goddesses, Egyptian sun gods etc., makes it into our Christmas celebrations so calmly that we hardly blink…. The earliest followers of Yahweh [the God of the Hebrew scriptures] (as both Biblical and archeological evidence suggests) worshipped both male and female aspects of their divinity. The Queen of Heaven was especially popular—the ‘Consort of Yahweh, the ‘Beloved Mother,’ the ‘Companion at Birth.’ But [this female God] really bothered the folks that were trying to solidify monotheism. Early editors of the scripture much maligned her and fairly successfully rid the official Hebrew religion of her presence… It’s astonishing that in the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ right off, first thing, God becomes incarnate through the womb of the mother. The purists would be going crazy! Though they tried and tried to keep the ‘Queen of Heaven’ out of the purified Temple, in this story Mary’s womb becomes the Temple out of which Yahweh will emerge clothed in flesh. This is a very shocking turn for the Scripture to take. Shocking and beautiful.”
God’s favor rested on Mary. Through Mary’s womb, God emerged clothed in flesh. Debbie Blue concludes her commentary with a compelling question: “Are facts just too sterile to embody the Word?” Perhaps in Mary’s story, we hear the Word of God through myth, rather than fact or history. Maybe the divine favor Mary enjoys, and the divine life she carries, is not meant to be exclusive or singular, but in fact, illustrative of the role of all humanity. This is not a new idea.
Meister Eckhart, a medieval German theologian and mystic wrote this: “It is more worthy of God that He be born spiritually of every pure and virgin soul, than that He be born of Mary. Hereby we should understand that humanity is, so to speak, the Son of God born from all eternity.” (To be fair, it should probably be noted that Eckhart was brought before the inquisition on charges of heresy… I would guess for sermons like this.) (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/eckhart/sermons.vi.html) In orthodox and eastern churches, Mary is called theotokos, or God-bearer. Might the myth of divine incarnation through Mary show us that we are all meant to be part of birthing God into the world? I imagine this birthing be a healing process, for us and our world—one in which God reconciles us to ourselves and to one another, to the rest of the created universe. As God-bearers, we are made whole; we honor our humanity in all its dimensions.
This past Thursday I dusted off the old clergy collar to attend the Minnesota State High School League board meeting. I joined other clergy and activists in supporting the adoption of a policy that would ensure full inclusion of transgender athletes in high school sports. After months of study and a couple hours of testimony on Thursday, the board voted almost unanimously to let transgender athletes play on the sports teams that best align with their gender identity. We listened to lot of fear, misinformation and plain old hatred from those who spoke against the policy. We also heard from a couple of the transgender athletes themselves. With clarity, courage and power, they claimed their true identities and demanded that their humanity be fully recognized and honored. One mom of a transgender son pointed out that the policy will not apply to many students at all, since transgender students are a tiny minority. And yet, the reality is that the witness of transgender people living openly and authentically affects everyone. Their visibility calls into question the gender binaries that define our society: women here, men here. Girls wear this color, boys that one. This rigidity makes us all less than we should be. In order to be fully ourselves, and fully human, both men and women, along with those who identify with neither gender, need the freedom to create identities that incorporate both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits. Thursday’s vote was an act of moral courage on the part of the State High School League board members. Honoring the full humanity of transgender athletes is a way of honoring the full humanity of us all.
Conversely, the Eric Garner grand jury verdict, and the pervasive problem of police brutality toward men of color, diminishes the humanity of us all. What happened in the Garner case is not an anomaly in an otherwise fair system of justice. It is one more illustration of the fact that an unjust justice system is the reality we have created. It is the air we breathe and it is the chokehold that takes away our breath. The lack of police accountability for their use of force is one link in a cradle to prison pipeline constructed especially for men of color. We—all of us—need to be re-created, our humanity re-birthed. A day or so ago, Travis Norvell, a pastor colleague who serves at Judson Baptist here in Minneapolis, wrote the following Facebook comment: “I don’t know what is going to happen next, I don’t think even the protestors know, but we can’t just remain in this world, the status quo, any longer. Therefore, I’m not calling them protestors, I’m calling them generators because I think they are helping generate something none of us have ever lived.”
God “favored” Mary because she was a person without power in a conventional sense of the word.
Mary’s story reveals that God is born into our world through the humble, the people on the margins, the poor, the persecuted and the at-risk. And God is born in each of us in the places of our hearts that are most in need, most in pain, most full of longing for a new world. When the angel’s message came to Mary, she was flustered and perplexed. She protested and she pondered a good long while, but finally she said, “Yes.” The Christ-child, born of Mary’s “yes,” and ours, reconciles humanity to our divine, God-bearing purpose. In Christ, God’s generative power heals us and recreates us so that we may grow into our full humanity. Mary said, “Yes” to God’s impossible possibility. What will you say?