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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.