Advent Blessings

REC_0033.MP4 from Christ Episcopal Church on Vimeo.


 

I said it three weeks ago, and I’ll say it again now, Advent in the Church can be a really challenging time.  While outside the world is full of colorful lights, glittering decorations, and songs of joy and wonder, inside the church it has felt stark, even gloomy at times.  There have been glimpses of our impending joy along the way, however.  With each passing Sunday, the light emanating from the Advent wreath has grown a bit brighter.  As the days grew shorter, I found this imagery particularly helpful [here] at the 8 o’clock service, which can seem like it starts before the sun comes up this time of year.  The lessons for the season are similarly stark.  Out there, stockings are hung by the chimney with care, in here we hear stories of the end times.  Wild eyed prophets warn us of the wrath to come.  Your brood of vipers!  Repent, for the day of the Lord’s judgment has drawn near!  All who fail to bear fruit will be torn out by the roots and thrown in the unquenchable fire!  And a Merry Christmas to you too.

It really isn’t until we get to the fourth Sunday of Advent that anything inside the church really begins to feel like Christmas.  After last Sunday, greenery snuck into the nave, albeit simply adorned.  There is nary a hint of a red bow to be found.  Just off Surface Hall sit dozens of poinsettias, their racks are staged, the magnolia is cut, all just begging to spread Christmas cheer.  In the windows, candles lie in wait, ready to radiate the light of the newborn King for all the world to see, but alas, that’s not until tomorrow.  Today, we remain in Advent.  Today, we are still waiting, but today, we get our first real taste of that old familiar story.

Our Gospel lesson has moved on from tales of the apocalypse.  John the Baptist has Benjamin Buttoned himself backward by about thirty years.  His bit part is played in utero.  Today our story features two women, traditionally said to be cousins.  Elizabeth, we know to be the mother of John.  She was thought to be barren in her old age, but was gifted with a late-in-life pregnancy.  Her son, as we well know, will grow up to be The Prophet who sets the stage for The One who is greater than him, The One sent to redeem the world.

Mary is the star of today’s narrative.  A young girl, maybe only thirteen years old, Mary has already been through quite the ordeal before she arrives in the hill country.  Gabriel has appeared to her and invited her to carry the Anointed One of God in her womb.  Joseph, her fiancé, has already decided to dismiss her quietly, and then had his mind changed by way of an angel and a dream.  It would have been a fairly decent journey for Mary to travel from Nazareth to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Yet, it is there that the lectionary has us first encounter Mary, the Mother of our Lord, already carrying the Messiah, hiding with a relative for safety during those difficult first few months of pregnancy.

As the story unfolds, Elizabeth is the first to speak, proclaiming Mary and her child to blessed.  As a more Protestant leaning priest, I’m not one to use the Roman rosary or say the Hail Mary very often.  It is, however, a part of colloquial Christianity, and so I’m sure many of you are familiar with Elizabeth’s ecstatic praise for her cousin, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  As I read those words this week, the idea of Mary’s blessedness caught my attention.  The Greek word used on both occasions in Luke 1:42 is eulegeo.  It is a compound word, combining eu, which means “to be well off” or “to prosper” and logos, which means “word” or “something said.”  Elizabeth’s pronouncement of Mary’s blessedness literally means that a good or prosperous word has been spoken upon her.  Blessedness wasn’t something Mary was simply born with, nor was it something she earned for herself.  Even in her youthful virginity, Mary wasn’t just randomly selected to be someone special, the ninth caller on God’s contest line.  No, Mary’s blessedness came from God, who, through Elizabeth, spoke a good word upon her.  Just as in creation God spoke all of what we know to be real into being, so too, in Jesus’ incarnation, God spoke grace into being by making a girl from backwater Nazareth into the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

I find this image of Mary’s blessedness to be very helpful because it reminds me that all of it is under God’s control.  It isn’t only some special person who seems to never make mistakes and always loves their neighbor who is blessed, but rather, blessedness is available for anyone upon whom God has spoken a good or prosperous word.  Blessedness is available for everyone.  Even this morning, as we wait for the coming of our Lord, Mother Becca will have the opportunity, challenge, and responsibility, to speak on behalf of God, in the tradition of Gabriel and Elizabeth, blessedness upon all of us.  It is our own good word from God, spoken and made real through another human being.  As Christmas fast approaches, I can’t help but wonder what it looks like to live into our blessedness?

For Mary, the reality of her blessedness causes her to break out in song.  She cries out in exaltation. Her very soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  The word, translated as soul, is psyche.  We’ve adopted it in English, the psyche being our soul, mind, or spirit, but its original meaning takes us all the way back to Genesis 1-3.  The primary definition of psyche is breath.  It is the Greek equivalent of Hebrew’s ruah, the very breath of life given to humanity in creation.  When Mary sings out the greatness of the Lord, it comes from that place deep within, her soul, her spirit, the core of her being.  It pours out from the breath that was given to her by God.  As disciples of Jesus, in the pattern of Mary, we share in that breath, and as we approach the annual remembrance of the coming of the Word made flesh, that same soul, breath, spirit, will rejoice in God our savior.

She goes on to sing of the great reversal that God has already done in the world.  Long before the resurrection.  Long before the crucifixion.  Long before Jesus’ first sermon, first miracle, or even his baptism.  Months before the Son of God will be born to the sounds of angels singing out good news of great joy, Mary sings, without doubt or irony, a song in the present tense.  To Mary’s mind, in the very act of choosing to redeem the world through the Word made flesh, God has already scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, God has already filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  In choosing Mary, God has already fulfilled the covenant with Abraham.

Of course, it doesn’t take too long to look around and realize that no matter what Mary might have sung, there are still many who are lowly and hungry, while the rich and powerful continue to hold tightly onto the purse strings of society.  We know Mary’s full story to be one of hardship and sadness.  Still, what we hear in Elizabeth’s proclamation of blessedness and in Mary’s song of praise is the word of hope that I think we all long for this Season of Advent.  It is the hope that we symbolize in the growing light of the Advent wreath.  The hope that I feel when I see candles perched in the windows and greenery swagging its way along the walls.  It’s the hope that we see in the creche, set and ready to receive the King of kings tomorrow evening.  In these waning moments of Advent, may we be blessed with the hope of what is to come, the gift of redemption for the whole world.  Amen.

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My Soul Proclaims…

Advent is a season of anticipation.  It begins by inviting us, in the midst of decorating, shopping, and busyness, to make room for the second coming of Christ in power and glory to judge the world.  It seems a bit odd to start the season leading up to Christmas in that way, but it is the reality in which we live: somewhere between the Incarnation and the Eschaton.  As the weeks progress, the tone begins to change.  Our preparation isn’t as much for the Second Advent of Christ, but for the First.  John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and then, finally, we come to Advent 4, and thing for which I wait each year.  Sure, Christmas is the telos of Advent, but for me, the Magnificat, especially sung by the congregation to Betty Carr Pulkingham’s setting, is the highlight of the Advent Season.  With the help of the choir, the round/canon nature of the antiphon echoes to the heavens:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

On Monday, I noted that Elizabeth’s proclamation of Mary’s blessedness had built into it an awareness that the foundation of blessing is found in God speaking a word of favor upon the one who is being blessed.  As I spent some time looking into the Magnificat, I became aware that just as our blessedness is from God, so too is our blessing of God a gift from the same.

JN958 Canticle of MaryMary cries out in exaltation that it is her soul that proclaims the greatness of the Lord.  That word, translated as soul, is psyche.  We’ve adopted it in English, to mean soul, mind, or spirit, but its original meaning takes us all the way back to Genesis 1-3.  The primary definition of psyche is breath.  It is the Greek equivalent of Hebrew’s ruah, the very breath of life given to each human in creation.  So it is that when Mary sings out the greatness of the Lord, it comes from that place deep within, her soul, her spirit, the core of her being.  It pours out from the breath that was given to her by God.

As disciples of Jesus, in the pattern of Mary, we share in that breath, and as we approach the annual remembrance of the coming of the Word made flesh, that same soul, breath, spirit, will rejoice in God our savior.

Many years later, as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey to cries from the souls of the crowd of “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” the Pharisees will rebuke Jesus and ask him to tell the crowd to stop proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.  In response, Jesus tells them that even if they were to be silenced, the stones would cry out instead.  It seems that there is no stopping creation, made by the breath and Word spoken, from proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.

Blessedness

This might be the first year I’ve made it through the week leading up to Advent 3 without hearing someone call it “Mary Sunday.”  This seems to happen because the candle we light on the Advent wreath for Advent 3 is pink or rose colored, which people associate with girls, and since Mary was a girl, it must be her candle.  Gender stereotypes aside, in congregations in which the color of Advent is purple, this makes little sense as both purple and pink have been the favorite colors of my daughters at times (as have black and teal, and mine was once purple, not bishop “purple” but lavender, but that’s for another post).  The candle of Advent 3 is pink or rose because Advent 3 is traditionally known at Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for “rejoice,” and the lesson last week, which I should have written about, but didn’t, were focused on joy.  (Are you still with me?  There have been quite a few asides in this paragraph, I’ll try to focus).  As our focus moves to the quick-to-be-overlooked Advent 4, we note that the lessons here point us to Mary’s story.

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While I hope to dive into the Magnificat later this week, today I’m drawn to Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s arrival in our Gospel lesson.  As a more Protestant leaning Episcopal priest, I’m not one to use the Roman rosary or say the Hail Mary very often.  It is, however, a part of colloquial Christianity, and so I’m sure many of you are familiar with Elizabeth’s ecstatic praise of her cousin Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  As I read those words his morning, the idea of blessedness caught my attention.  I wondered what its underlying meaning was.  I opened my still-new-to-me Bible software and went digging.

The Greek word used on both occasions in Luke 1:42 is eulegeo (Strongs #2127).  It is a compound word, combining eu, which means “to be well off” or “to prosper” and logos, which means “word” or “something said.”  Elizabeth’s pronouncement of Mary’s blessedness, then, literally means that a good or prosperous word has been spoken upon her.  Blessedness isn’t something that just happened to Mary, even in her youthful virginity, she wasn’t just magically someone special, but rather, God spoke upon her a good word.  Just as in creation God spoke reality into being, so too, in Jesus’ incarnation, God spoke grace into being by making a girl from backwater Nazareth into the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

Marian myth and legend aside, I find this image of her blessedness to be very helpful because it reminds me that all of it is under God’s control.  It isn’t only some special person who seems to never make mistakes and always loves their neighbor who is blessed, but rather, anyone upon whom God has spoken a good or prosperous word is blessed.  And, you know what?  Every Wednesday and every other Sunday, I have the opportunity, challenge, and responsibility, in the tradition of Gabriel and Elizabeth, to speak, on behalf of God, that blessedness upon my congregation.  Blessed art thou, Mary, and blessed art you, dear reader.

Mary’s Song – Magnificat

For all my ranting and raving about my dislike of the music during Advent, I’ve come to realize that I like a whole lot more of it than I originally thought.  Sure, O come, O come Emmanuel (H82, 56) is still by far my favorite, but I’ve added the likes of Comfort, comfort ye my people (H82, 67), On Jordan’s bank (H82, 76), Jack Noble White’s version of the First Song of Isaiah (Renew 122), and Betty Carr Pulkingham’s Magnificat (H82, S247.

You’ll note that of the five I’ve listed, three of them are based on Scripture, and while Psalm 42 and Isaiah 12 are significant texts, there is perhaps no more important scriptural song than that of Mary’s Song, the Magnificat.  We have two occasions to hear it sung (read is an option, but not a good one) this Sunday, either as a part of the Gospel lesson, or on its own, in the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer’s Canticle 15, the translation being given to us by the very stodgy sounding International Consultation on English Texts (Hatchett’s Commentary, 115), which also gave us the modern translations of our Creeds and the ecumenical Lord’s Prayer, which, as I once heard it said, is ecumenical only in that we’ve all agreed to never use it.

Mary’s Song holds a special place in my heart because of a gift given to my family by our dear friend Bill Murray.  Bill wrote this beautiful icon of Mary and Elizabeth in thanksgiving for the birth of FBC. (You can read reflections on the process of writing the icon at the link above).

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Mary’s Song is something of an expletive, sung in response to the pure joy she felt in the presence of her kinswoman, Elizabeth.  She had heard Elizabeth’s blessing, heard the story of the not-yet-born John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, and felt the loving embrace of the only other person who could understand what she was going through: carrying an unexpected child following a word from God, and Mary, overcome with emotion, shouted, sang, announced, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”

She just couldn’t help it.  A song of joy and prophecy and probably not a little bit of fear just came forth from her soul.  In the same way my children dance when a song they like comes on, no matter where they are, Mary’s Song reminds us that following God’s will for our lives will lead to moments of unexpected joy, sometimes even in the midst of fear and hardship.

I don’t notice those moments of joy often enough, but as the countdown to Christmas dwindles, my prayer is that I’ll take the time to, like Mary, feel the joy that comes from knowing God’s love.

Advent 4’s Peculiar Collect

As has been noted on this blog many times, I’m a big fan of many of the Collects in the Book of Common Prayer.  Each week of the year, along with several special occasions have a prayer that in collecting up the prayers of the faithful also, in many ways, sums of the theme of the day.  This week we will hear the Collect for Advent 4.

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I encourage you to listen to the Collect Call, a podcast from my friends Brendan and Holli as they admirably tackle some to the quirkiness of this particular prayer.

What was interesting to me was the word “visitation,” which immediately made me think of the story for Advent 4, Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, but in doing some digging, I found that it was actually pointing much later in Luke’s Gospel.  Thanks to the late Marion Hatchett (Commentary, 167) for pointing me to Luke 19:44, as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.

“They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (NRSV)

That word, visitation, isn’t just the word for “showing up somewhere,” but instead it is episkope, from which our denomination gets its name, Episcopal.  According to the UBS Greek Dictionary, it can mean “visitation (of God’s presence among men); office, place of service; office of bishop.”  Strong’s, as always, digs deeper “1) investigation, inspection, visitation 1a) that act by which God looks into and searches out the ways, deeds character, of men, in order to adjudge them their lot accordingly, whether joyous or sad 1b) oversight 1b1) overseership, office, charge, the office of an elder 1b2) the overseer or presiding officers of a Christian church”

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It is clear that in this prayer we aren’t inviting God over for tea.  Instead, we’re welcoming him as judge to come and show us the places, deep in the recesses of our hearts, that need to be cleared away to make room for Jesus to enter in with power and might. It is an invitation for God to re-enter our hearts each day, which offers us the challenge to daily choose to live for the kingdom of God rather than for our own selfish desires.

Perhaps in all the challenges of this Collect and the proximity to Christmas, this week is a chance to preach the Collect. Of course, that means not preaching the Magnificat, which is pretty spectacular all by itself.

Mary as our Archetype

Virgin Mary: World's Best Mom.

While the opening lines of Elizabeth’s proclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” might be more familiar to those who pray the Rosary or are generally Romish-leaning in their practices of faith, the good low church evangelical that I am has me finding deep meaning in the final words of Elizabeth:

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

For many, myself somewhat reluctantly included, Mary serves as an archetype of faith because, despite all evidence to the contrary, Mary had faith enough in God to say, “yes,” when the Angel Gabriel came to announce what was fixin’ to unfold in her life.

Truth be told, my reaction to the amazing promise from God would have probably been a lot more like Zechariah’s than Mary’s. Though Mary protests for a moment, it doesn’t take much convincing before she feels in her bones that the promise of God will be fulfilled, and that though she will live a life of hardship because of it, her yes will open the very doors of heaven.

What do you supposed the world would look like if every disciple of Jesus had the same sort of faith as Mary?  What would it look like if we decided to trust that God is a good? What would it be like if we decided to trust that God is the giver of every good gift, the Creator of everything that is? How would the world be different if we took seriously that God is love, to trust fully that that love compelled God to send his Son to save rather than condemn the world?

Mary serves as the archetype of faith because she trusted fully, not knowing the end results. She reminds us that the world is changed through the faith of one person, and that the Kingdom will come alongside the faith of all of us. As we approach this final Sunday in Advent, may Mary remind us all of what faith in God looks like, faith that trusts in spite of it all.