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When the Son of Man is begotten in Us
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on December 23, 2012

Christ Church Andover
Advent IV, Year C
December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5a;     Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)


Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down, fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown. Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art; visit us with thy salvation, enter every trembling heart. AMEN.

We started in the middle of a story in the beginning of Advent, and now we turn to the start of it. John the Baptist has been our companion for the past few weeks, and now, as we get closer—very close, in fact, to the incarnation, we are reminded that the story began before John’s prophecy, before Jesus waded into the water to be baptized by him. We recall that yes, they had indeed met before.

Two ordinary women, kinswomen, we are told, visit each other. Elizabeth was, in the words of her husband Zechariah, “getting on in years”, Mary, a teenager. Both are pregnant. Both have been given messages from the angel Gabriel, telling them that they now have a part in this unfolding story of God’s coming on earth, in the readying of God’s people for a new phase in their life together.

Zechariah, as he worships God in the Temple, is approached by an angel, telling him that his wife will conceive and bear a prophet for the world—one who would bring joy and gladness, and who would turn the ungodly from their ways into righteousness. Zechariah, filled with completely appropriate doubt, questions how this will happen. Gabriel responds by telling him that he will be mute until the child is born, the child that he will call John. And so Zechariah emerges from the Temple, clearly mute, and returns to his wife Elizabeth, who promptly conceives. This story is woven in with that of Mary—the young, unwed girl, approached also by the angel Gabriel. She is poor. She is from a backwater town of Nazareth, which is soundly mocked even when Jesus is an adult. And this girl is told that she too will conceive and bear a son, to be named Jesus. Mary is also unclear about this is to happen—but instead of her becoming mute, she is assured simply by the fact that it happened to Elizabeth as well, that it is of God, and that with God, nothing is impossible.

And with those story lines, we come to our gospel this morning of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, two most ordinary women, with an impossible story to tell.

And that is the good news for this last Sunday in Advent.

I’ll admit that even I’ve put up my Christmas tree, added Jesus to my crèche scene, and let my Pandora station happily purr out Christmas carols. Christmas Eve is upon us and this last Sunday seems to be easily skipped over. I mean, we’re one day away.

But as I read this story again, and prayed with it, and let it soak in through the herald angels singing in the background, it seemed to me that we needed a story like this one this week. We needed to retell the story of ordinary people, placed in extraordinary circumstances, all brought about by a God who desires nothing more than to be part of our human life and human story.

Mary, pure and mild, is most likely in a heap of trouble after the angel Gabriel disappears from her side. One can almost imagine her confidence sagging and putting her head in her hands as she realized just what she agreed to. She is engaged, but not married. She is pregnant, with no one to corroborate her story or to vouch for her encounter. In other gospels, Joseph is praised for agreeing to dissolve the engagement quietly and without a fuss—here in Luke, we don’t hear about that. Instead, it seems that Mary hightails it out of town to see her relative Elizabeth and stay awhile, perhaps until the worst boils over.

And Elizabeth takes her in. And celebrates her. And loves her. And all that terror, worry, fear that Mary must have felt in that lonely journey to Elizabeth melts away. It melts away so much so that Mary can proclaim one of the most triumphant, subversive, joy-filled songs in scripture, what we know as the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord”, she says. Strong words for anyone in her position.

As much as we would like to imagine that Elizabeth and Mary were particularly special or pious or favored, we don’t have scripture telling us so. Stories of an immaculate conception or images of peculiar piety were added to the story years later in the middle ages to try to explain why these women of all women were asked to bear such responsibility. But here in scripture we have little to tell us why they were asked. But, what we do have is the stories of their responses. And perhaps that is the good news for us as we await the birth of Jesus: we are asked to make a mansion for him to dwell here with us not because we are worthy, but because we just might take the risk and say ‘yes’.

Now, I’m not betraying pastoral confidentiality when I say that not one person in this community has come to me and told me that they are bearing the Son of God through the Holy Spirit. Not one. But saying ‘yes’ to bearing God, bearing Christ into the world doesn’t always happen in the literal way it once did in Nazareth. Saying yes to the grace-filled incarnation will always be an echo of this story of two ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances. God, in God’s mystery, in God’s love and in God’s descent, came into this world to live with us and as us. God didn’t choose to rule from on high, far away from human concerns and cares, but instead to immerse Godself into our reality, to infuse it with God’s presence, to make every part of this existence—we believe—holy.

Meister Eckhart writes, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.” The Nativity only happened once, but the incarnation happens all the time. We are bearers of Christ into the world, proclaiming the God that Mary does in her Magnificat—the God who sides with the lowly and poor, who casts down the arrogant and proud. We, ordinary people, are called to sing that song, to come together with our sisters and brothers who are also ordinary people, welcome each other with love, as Elizabeth did for her relative Mary, and figure out just how we do God’s work here together.

In the wonderful children’s book ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’, the ragamuffin, terrible girl, Imogene Herdman, who ends up playing Mary, is described this way: “I think that no matter how she herself was, Imogene liked the idea of Mary in the picture—all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything at all except have Jesus on Christmas Eve. But as far as I’m concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman—sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby.”

Ordinary people in an extraordinary story. As we listen to the story of the birth of our savior tomorrow afternoon or evening, or on Tuesday morning, know that Mary is not the one ‘yes’ for all time. Hers was an essential ‘yes’, but then again, so are ours. Love’s descent cares not for our readiness, as we can see from Elizabeth and Mary—but for our willingness to be part of a story larger than our own, larger than what we had expected for ourselves. Where in this hurting, bruised world can our yes break the powers that be of their hold and dominion; where can our yes help bring the arrogant down from their lofty peaks, and how can our yes hold a promise of life—and life abundant—for all who have ears to hear.


Last Published: February 6, 2013 11:02 AM