A spacious place | 21 December 2014 | Advent 4


Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11; Luke 1:26-38

On this final Sunday of Advent, we eavesdrop on conversations between a king and a prophet, a peasant girl and an angel.  After settling into his own royal house, the mighty King David wishes to build a house for the Lord, a temple.  The prophet Nathan initially affirms this move, but then has a dream in which he hears a message that David is not the one to build such a house.  Instead, the Lord will build David a house, a dynasty, and establish his kingdom forever.

As significant a conversation as this is, it is overshadowed by Gabriel’s visit to Mary, inviting her to be the one to give birth to one who will inherit the throne of his ancestor David.  If you’ve hung around the church for any length of time, this is a story you’ve heard before, and it seems there are two different ways we can encounter it.

The best analogy I can think of here is inspired by the fact that our family has been immersed in the Harry Potter series for the latter half of 2014.  One of the enchanted objects in this series is a tent that Harry and the Weasely family stay in during the Quidditch World Cup.   The tent is quite small on the outside, but after watching Weasely after Weasely walk into the tent, Harry enters and is amazed to discover that the tent is much bigger on the inside, with a kitchen and bunk beds and plenty of space for the whole family.

I thought this was something entirely out of the imagination of JK Rowling, but last week while skimming something completely unrelated came across a reference to the 1960’s science fiction series Dr. Who, which I know nothing about, except this one thing this book mentioned.  Apparently the Doctor travels through time in a space ship called a TARDIS, which is…much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  So you baby boomers and millennials have more in common than you thought.  The pop culture of your youth is virtually identical.

One of the ways of approaching the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary is to stand on the outside, looking at the tent; walking around it, observing its qualities, noticing what it’s made of; maybe even appreciating the details of its craftsmanship.  In doing this we might notice that this story has characteristics similar to other angelic visitations in the scriptures: Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah:  The angel has a message from God, a task to be carried out, and assures the chosen and favored recipient to not be afraid.  Mary, it seems, is being asked to do what the great David never could – provide a space, now within the temple of her body, for the Divine Presence.

We may note that this visit takes place far away from the centers of power, Jerusalem and Rome, in the rural village of Nazareth, in Galilee.  Our modern sensibilities may not quite know what to do with a conversation between a heavenly being and a human, much less a pregnancy promised to a virgin.  Some will hold this as a fundamental belief of the faith, while others will be comfortable with a more symbolic reading.  We take note of what is said of this child to be born: Son of the Most High, one who will reign in the place of David, a kingdom with no end, you will name him Jesus.  We listen to the silence as Mary, perplexed, ponders what sort of greeting this might be, finally giving her consent to God-knows-what will happen next.  We see that what happens next is that the angel departs, as quickly as it came, and that Mary gets no other instructions or words of assurance.

————————– STS 11 No wind at the window, verse 1

We approach this story from the outside, which is what we must do first.  There are many things to appreciate and treasure about it.  But there’s a second way to experience this story, which applies to how we experience the whole life of faith.  And that is, to open the tent flap and walk inside.  Over the centuries Mary has become a symbol of faithfulness, an icon of perfect receptivity to the will of God.  How else does one go about birthing Christ except by being perfectly willing – not necessarily perfect – but perfectly willing to allow one’s life to become a vessel for the Divine.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary is an icon of receptivity, but the purpose of an icon is not to merely dazzle or impress, but to transform the one who sees it into the image of the icon.  If we dare look intently at Mary, if we dare ponder, as she ponders – then we step across the threshold into an area that suddenly, as if by magic, takes on a whole new spaciousness.  It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  Mary becomes the pattern that is extended and available to all of us.

And the pattern is, quite simply, to allow Christ to be birthed through our life.  To receive, as a gift full of grace, that small seed of the Spirit, which plants itself in us, grows, and takes on a life of its own.  Mary’s declared status of “favored one” is not intended to make her into a spiritual rock star, as much as communicate that those without status, those considered insignificant in the structure of things, those from Nazareth, are indeed gifted with favor and grace.

I love that we told that Mary is perplexed.  Maybe it gives us permission to list perplexed among the spiritual virtues.  We certainly live in perplexing times.  The icon of faithfulness is perplexed, and so she ponders.  She mulls it over.  She sits with the ambiguity, the lack of clarity, the confusion.  She does have one question: “How can this be?”  Good question.  How is this going to work out?  The answer she gets is an answer one can always count on getting when asking this question: “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you.”

She does not wait to have it all figured out. Instead she arrives at a place of being OK with not knowing.  OK with the limitations of her own perceptions and abilities and OK with being overshadowed.  OK with perplexity.  If this is something the Spirit wants to do through her, the Spirit can step it up and carry it out.

Karl Rahner was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, a leading voice during the Vatican II changes in the Roman Catholic Church.  He once said, “In the coming age, we must all become mystics – or be nothing at all.”  Rahner died 30 years ago, so we are, inescapably, in “the coming age” that he spoke of.  What he means by mystics is an openness to genuine God experience, to be transformed by Love, with a capital L.  That’s what this second kind of reading is all about.  It’s a mystical reading of Mary and all of scripture.  Inside the spacious tent Gabriel speaks to you, you are a favored one, and it is yours to be perplexed, and to ponder, and to say, if you so choose, “Here am I, a servant, let it be with me according to your word.”

————————- STS 11 No wind at the window, verse 2

“We must all become mystics, or be nothing at all,” but let’s be clear that all this is not just happening inside one’s head.  Mary isn’t simply having a deep spiritual experience here, consenting to some abstract notion of a force called Christ having a presence in her life.  When Mary agrees to receive this message, she is agreeing to bear, in and through her body, a human life.  She is agreeing to pregnancy, and mothering, and everything that goes with it.  She will experience the nausea of morning sickness, risks and certainly pain, and there will be loss of sleep, post-partum depression.  If I had any idea what it was like to actually be pregnant I might have more to say about it, but it is, I hear, a full body experience, multiple bodies.  This is a story of incarnation, carn means flesh, and the mystic is one who finds in the fleshiness of the world the very presence of God.

This is why, in our worship, we cannot merely speak of loving God but must always speak of loving our neighbor, because it is all a single act.  This is surely why this has felt like an especially heavy Advent season as we have been confronted with repeated headlines of bodies murdered, abused, massacred, and tortured.

Inevitably, we ponder our own bodies.  We are ever more aware that our national citizenship and the color of our skin is freighted with history.  For better or for worse we are far more than our individual life story.  The sins of our fathers and mothers are still with us, still awaiting redemption.  Inside the tent, sometimes there’s a little too much space for comfort, too many rooms for too many bodies, and it would be a whole lot easier to observe it from the outside and walk away when we feel like it.

Our bodies can be agents of healing.

Gabriel and Mary are having a discussion about bodies.  We celebrate and honor bodies and this season we especially marvel at the birth of Jesus, this inheritor of the throne of David who ended up rejecting all things that reeked of royal power.  This Jesus who lived in his body in such a way that his followers came to believe it was the very life of God come to them.  This one who redeemed the world, yet left it verifiably unredeemed.  Who left his followers not with a three point sermon, a five year plan, or a ten article doctrine of faith.  But left them with a meal.  A loaf of bread and cup of wine.  Something for the body.  That mystical and most practical of gifts we continue to live with.

To all who are hungry, God takes the form of bread and we receive it as a gift, full of grace.  Soon you will be invited to come forward and receive.  And as you receive, I encourage you to ponder this act as a way of sharing in Mary’s response to the angel.  By taking the bread into your body, we share as members of the body of the Christ, making ourselves available to being overshadowed by the Spirit. “Let it be to me according to your word.”  Christ is born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.  Amen.

———————– No wind in the window, verse 3 (solo) and 4 (congregation)