Saturday, December 19, 2009

Advent 4C

A not-so-young woman bailed me up the other day and wanted to know what sort of church we ran here.  'Are you traditional or modern?' she wanted to know.  I assured her that we did our best to be both of those things, and remarked that, after all, even our very oldest parishioners were living in the 21st century.  Some of our youngest have never been alive in any other one.  'Yes', she said, not very satisfied, 'but do you have women priests?'  'Oh', I had to confess, 'I'm afraid not.  Just me.  Maybe next time?'  'Because', she explained to me, as if to somebody not very bright, 'there's nothing about that in the Bible, you know.  That's why I had to leave the Church.  I wouldn't feel right about a woman telling me what God thought about things'.

I thought at the time, though I didn't dare say it, that perhaps she had never come across the heroine of today's Gospel story, Mary of Nazareth.  Here, it seems to me, we have the irreverent heart of God's cosmic joke that we call the Incarnation - not one lady prophet but two.  Mary, the pregnant teenager with a wild tale of angels and a radical reinterpretation of God's agenda, not just thumbing her nose at all the social niceties but setting off on a gruelling and dangerous cross-country trip to tell the world about it - and Elizabeth, much too old to decently have babies.  Two scandalous women celebrating the fertility of their bodies, rejoicing in the messy everyday realities of missed periods and morning sickness, daring to exercise the priestly prerogative of pronouncing peace and blessings on one another and the world in general while the actual, licensed and official priest, Zechariah, sits dumbfounded and speechless in the kitchen. 

Actually, for about a thousand years beginning sometime in the fifth century, the tradition of the Church included a festival celebrated on the first of January that you don't hear much about nowadays.  Not Christmas, a more recent addition to the Church calendar, not Epiphany, the early Church's festival of light that celebrated the Incarnation of Christ, but the subversive, chaotic Festival of Fools.  If you've never even heard of the Festival of Fools, that's because it was eventually stamped out in Europe by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.  The Feast of Fools persisted for over a thousand years, sometimes officially tolerated, sometimes in secret, illicitly, always to the dismay of the bishops and cardinals and hide-bound sticklers for position and status who one day of the year came in for a good razzing.  On the Feast of Fools everything was turned upside down in a 24 hour revolution - children presided as bishops, masters served their slaves.  In the only surviving liturgical manuscript of the Feast of Fools, dating from 12th century France, the pretend bishop served until the evening office of vespers when, during the recitation of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, at the words: 'the mighty have been cast down from their thrones', the symbols of office were taken back by their rightful licensed owners.

So, what's this got to do with Mary?  Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Beginning with the prophet Micah, today we start to hear the note of surprise and delight.  The entrance for God into our world is amongst the small ones, the least and the lowliest of the world, the ones who don't count.  God loves to surprise, to hide in places we don't think of looking, to turn our stuffy preconceptions upside down, the holiest of holies turns out not to be in the inner sanctum of the Temple but in Bethlehem, a shabby little farm village 'too small to be counted among the clans of Judah'.  Bethlehem is like Mary, too insignificant to be noticed, a woman in a society where only men had legal or religious standing, barely out of childhood in a society where teenagers weren't sassy or opinionated or armed to the teeth with mobile phones and iPods but just invisible and unimportant mouths to feed.

The first thing to remember as the story begins is that first and foremost it's about God, about God's way of being present in human history - and only after that does it also become a story about Mary or Elizabeth or the bewildered Zechariah or about any of us.  God keeps interfering in history through his promises and his prophets.  That's where the modern wishy-washy brand of Christianity that believes in a non-interventionist God is way wide of the mark.  God is messy, God can't resist breaking into the world that human selfishness and competitiveness have spoiled, God breaks in again and again through the women and men who speak God's words and bring God's promises to fulfilment.  God is always intent on resetting creation back to its original purpose, bringing it to the fullness it was designed for.  And God is interested first and foremost in the insignificant, the poor, the merciful, the hungry, those who demand justice and peace. Why?  Because that's the pivot-point of human history, that's where human yearning for flourishing and wholeness is concentrated.  Right there in the credibility gap between human need and political reality, that's the ecological niche where God gets a foothold. 

Today's Gospel reading gives us two episodes - the story of the Annunciation, the turning point of human history at which an angel, holding his breath, places the divine plan for the completion of creation itself in the hands of a Jewish peasant girl, who like Molly Bloom on the very last line of the last page of James Joyce's wild and wonderful story, 'Ulysses', says in no uncertain terms 'Yes.  And then he asked me would I? and yes, and his heart was going like mad, and yes, I said, yes, I will - yes!' - and the story of the Visitation, in which Mary, full of the Spirit and with child, tumbles over herself in her haste to tell the good news to her aged and equally insignificant cousin, the inexplicably pregnant Elizabeth.  We don't know why that's where Mary needed to go, what their relationship was, whether Mary could even have known that Elizabeth was also miraculously pregnant, but it tells us something about this girl - in a society where unexplained pregnancy out of marriage meant at best being condemned to a life on the fringes of society, at worst the legal penalty of stoning, Mary sets off on a journey across country, the first missionary Christian journey of all time as within her body a cluster of cells begins to build a bridge between God and creation.  She enters Elizabeth's house and utters the first word she speaks in the Bible to any human being: 'Shalom'. [1] A word that - even today - means peace and wholeness, flourishing and welcome and delight.  It's the same greeting that the risen Jesus will speak to his disciples after the resurrection, when he enters the room where they are locked in fear.  Both Mary and Jesus echo the words of the prophet Micah who in today's reading promises that the child shall be shalom.  It is the word that the Jewish people believe God speaks to create the universe, the 'yes' of God to human life, God's 'yes, I said, yes, I will, yes'.

Elizabeth breaks into prophecy, reacting with a joy to a greeting that affects her physically and is felt by the child who jumps inside her.  Right here we are in touch with the deepest mystery of human existence, the sacramentality of pregnancy and the spirituality of intuition that leaps from flesh to flesh.  As men we maybe get this, but only just, by reminding ourselves of the deep physical relationships that create and recreate us.  Mary and Elizabeth speak for women whose direct experience of the physicality of spiritual experience is so often suppressed, and for the young and the old marginalised by powerlessness and vulnerability.

This beginning is frighteningly fragile, like so many of the important beginnings in our own lives.  So much can happen to distort and disfigure them, to shade them with doubt.  Here the beginning of God in our own life is as fragile but as powerful as a child growing inside a woman's body, requiring our attention and our love, demanding all of our resources and all of our courage but promising that nothing will ever be the same again.  This is how God creeps into human history, through the insignificant experiences of unimportant people, the ones whose experiences put them on the edge of respectability, perhaps the ones who hesitate to come through the door of our church for fear they won't be accepted.  Elizabeth's question to Mary is also a question for us: 'who are we that that the mother of our Lord should come to us?  Who are we that the Word of God should come to us in the presence or the voice of a pregnant teenager, or a mentally ill or a homeless person?'

The encounter of Mary and Elizabeth poses us some awkward questions.  Who are we listening to?  Are we listening at all?  On whose voice do we hear God's promise of peace?  Whose voices do we screen out?  Do our own voices carry echoes of the Spirit, of joy and prophecy?  Who is listening to us?  Is there room inside us for the unborn promises of God to take over some of the physical space of our own lives?  Do we even believe it's still possible for us to carry the child of God within us, or have we lapsed into a pragmatic atheism?  Every year, the story of the Incarnation tells us that God is here and that the kingdom of God has been here all along in the lives of men and women who call out from us God's promises of welcome and hospitality: the old, the young, the poor and the useless, the one who grieves the child she can't have and the one who grieves the child she has lost.  The one who comes into your life and hopes that you will have the priestly word of blessing and peace.

Are we ready?


[1] In the Greek New Testament Mary's greeting is contained in the word, asp√°somai, a traditional formula of greeting that means 'Peace be with you'.  In John 20.21, Jesus says to his disciples, eirḗnē, which means 'peace'.