December 23, 2018

Advent 4 - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

2018 Dec23

I have about 80 Christmas CDs, and as I admitted in my article in The Witness, I have already started listening to them…on the way back from my sister’s in Oakland after Thanksgiving. One that I listen to a lot is Amy Grant’s Home for Christmas, released in 1992. One of the original songs on the album is called “Breath of Heaven” or “Mary’s Song”. It’s the most popular song on the album, having achieved the number one position on the Christian Radio–Adult Contemporary Chart in 1992 and the number 2 position on the Christian Digital Song Sales Chart in 2011.


The song is sort of the antithesis of the Magnificat, the text of which was the bulk of the Gospel reading. The setting of the song is a quiet and private moment of Mary’s with God, questioning whether she was the right choice.


I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place

 

Those are some of the lyrics.

 

Other than what we read in Luke’s Gospel, we know nothing of Mary, the Mother of Jesus…from the Bible, that is. There is a deuterocanonical book called “The Gospel of James” or “The Infancy Gospel of James” from the 2C. It tells the history of the conception of Mary by Anna and her husband Joachim, Mary’s presentation at the Temple to become a consecrated virgin, Mary’s conception of Jesus, Joseph’s distress over his pregnant wife, the Birth of Jesus, and the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt. It’s a quick and interesting read; much of it clearly taken from existing biblical sources, sometimes word-for-word, at least in the modern English translation from the original New Testament Greek.


Biblical scholars have difficult discerning what information about Mary is factual and what lore or symbolic. Luke’s Gospel relays information that could have been known only to Mary, which is an indication that they may have known one another. Nonetheless, scholars tend to emphasize the theological implications rather than on the historical details of these stories. This means that we still don’t learn much about Mary from the Gospel of James that would inform us about her emotional and psychological state during her pregnancy, after the birth and then becoming a refugee.


What little we do know, from both the Gospel of Luke and from the Gospel of James, is that Mary considered herself “lowly” and God has raised her status through choosing her to bring God’s Son into the world. There is no doubt in my mind, though, that Mary would have been frightened and confused. Angel appearances were not regular occurrences, even back then, and neither was a pregnant virgin.


I have long been a critic of what has become of the month of December in America. I don’t have a problem with the Christmas music, the endless parties, the overconsumption, the decorations. I kind of like that part of it. I warn against the pressure to be merry, to be happy, to be “in the Christmas spirit”. No one should be forced to have particular feelings or be in a particular mood, whether that pressure is from family and friends, endless TV commercials, or society in general. We have an annual Blue Christmas Service precisely because there are those who find this time of year difficult, and the pressure to be happy makes December even more unbearable.


So, when I hear “Breath of Heaven”, I am reminded that the Birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago was devoid of upbeat music, unlimited high calorie food & drink, tinsel, and maxed-out credit cards. For Mary, Joseph and Jesus, it was a couple of years of life-threatening stress.


The Song of Mary, or the Magnificat, that she sings in today’s Gospel reading is the positive spin on her story. As much as I believe that she was frightened, I also have no doubt that a devout Jewish girl was overwhelmed in a positive way to be chosen by God for this task. The sentence before today’s reading is Mary’s assent to be the Godbearer:


Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.


Mary had the option to say “No thanks,” but chose to say “Yes”. By making this choice, Irenaeus refers to Mary as the ‘New Eve’ because Mary was obedient, but the original Eve was disobedient. Eve’s disobedience brought death; Mary's obedience brought salvation. This is an honor, yes, but also a burden. The word’s to Amy Grant’s song always strike me:


Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place

 

The song is a classic example of Imposter Syndrome – the psychological situation in which a person doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Their competence is typically notable through external evidence, yet they remain convinced that they are a fraud, and don’t deserve their achievements. It’s difficult and probably errant to apply psychological conditions onto people of history, particularly of that long ago. But it would not be hard to imagine that Mary had some degree of Imposter Syndrome, which is captured in this song.

 

The Magnificat is some degree of shameless self-promotion, though, and when someone states their role so boldly, there is bound to be some paranoia about just how strong the claim is. In the Magnificat, though, Mary includes a strong social justice message. The ‘proud’, ‘powerful’, and ‘rich’ have been vanquished by God. They are those whose reliance on their own blinkered self-sufficiency prevents them from engaging in the future that God has planned – through Mary – who is Jesus. For that future to be realized through Mary is a weighty vocation.


But Mary’s choice to say “Yes” to God wasn’t entirely shameless self-promotion. It was an acknowledgement that with God, all things are possible. In her assent in the presence of the Angel, Mary was much more humble.


‘Here am I, the servant of the
Lord; let it be with me according
to your word.’

 

She establishes herself as a servant, and places God’s will above her own. This is God’s plan; not hers. Mary is not only a model of servanthood, but a model of humility in the face of an enormous undertaking. In Amy Grant’s song, the refrain sung by a disheartened female voice includes the plea:

 

Be with me now
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of heaven

 

When we hear Mary’s joyous song that she sang to her cousin Elizabeth, whose expectant presence made John the Baptist leap in the womb of his mother, we can be inspired. We can be inspired that our Savior is near. But we can also be inspired that when we face the challenges set before us, we can call upon God’s will to be done, for God to be with me now, for God to hold me together. Because

 

the very human side of this

Divine story is a vulnerable
young girl, an old man and an
infant who, by no fault of their
own, become exiled refugees, and
have no one on their side
but God.

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