Sunday, December 17, 2023 – Third Sunday of Advent
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
There’s someone missing today. I said last week that Advent was dominated by two figures…John the Baptizer, and Mary the God-bearer. But this week John again has the spotlight, and Mary…well…because Advent 4 falls on the same day as Christmas Eve this year, and we will be doing a very simple Morning Prayer service at 10:30 next Sunday…I’m afraid Mary isn’t going to show up until later that afternoon at the first Christmas Eve service at 4pm…where she will be immediately overshadowed by shepherds clamoring to see her baby boy, and “a multitude of the heavenly host singing, Glory to God in the highest heaven”… So, Mary is not getting her full due this year. Blame it on the calendar…or blame it on the people who put the Revised Common Lectionary together back in the 1980s (mostly men)…or write it off as another example of the patriarchy man-spreading itself over the whole narrative once again. Whatever the reason for her absence this year, Mary is only missing in the most superficial sense. She is here. Her voice, her presence, her spirit echoes throughout all of Advent.
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
That was in our first reading today, and you no doubt heard the echo of those words…This is the text Jesus reads from in his first public act of ministry in his hometown of Nazareth. It’s his “mission statement” if you will. And yes, he undoubtedly heard this text read and preached by other male rabbis, but I think where he first heard it, and where it came to mean so much to him…was from his mother.
Isaiah sings, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God,” but you can hear Mary’s voice echoing that can’t you?”
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;”
Liberty of captives, good news to the oppressed…casting down the mighty, lifting up the lowly, comforting those who mourn…filling the hungry with good things…showing mercy to all who fear God in every generation…
Mary’s Magnificat is a poetic, contrapuntal remix of this song of Isaiah…and it echoes with the voice of women throughout the ages: Miriam (with whom Mary shares a name) [Exodus 15] and Deborah [Judges 5], and Hannah [1 Samuel 2:1-10]. With the unnamed women in the Song of Songs, and numerous Psalms [cf. Ps 34:1-8, and 126:4]. And all those voices stirred up and shaped Jesus’ life and ministry.
According to tradition, Mary was “sanctified entirely” and kept sound and blameless in soul and body…which we catch echoes of in Paul’s letter. And because she consents to this perplexing request/command of the angel, and grants the Holy Spirit possession of—literally ownership—of her body, she becomes like Isiah’s garden that “brings forth shoots, and causes what is sown in it to spring up.”
We can catch even more echoes from Paul…Mary and John, each in their own way rejoice, pray, give thanks, test, hold fast to that which is good, and abstain (as best they can) from all forms of evil. And we also catch other echoes from John’s gospel that remind us that committing to a life of preparing the way of God’s justice and love is not without challenges, and even dangers. Both Mary and John dealt with everything from mild irritated incomprehension, to violent backlash.
They are obviously quite different people, and quite distinct characters, but both of their lives reverberate with spiritual power and divine light.
They both point to what is beyond themselves…and they each have a vital and important role to play…And they are both essential aspects of our own spiritual journeys…John is more outward…out in the wilderness…building a community…preparing the way; Mary is more inward…pondering things in her heart…gestating the divine within, nurturing and carrying it to term, birthing it into the world.
Both are essential…the outward and the inward…the yang and the yin…Both point to the one who is to come…But they don’t simply point…they both actively take part. Each using their particular gifts to ensure that they—and those around them—are ready for the coming of the fullness of time…of the nearness of God…of the Advent of Christ.
John and Mary are twin icons—like Yin and Yang—existing alongside of and eternally swirling around each other. And like all icons, when we gaze deeply into them we see God…and ourselves…reflected back.
Like John we all have gifts and abilities that are to be used for outwardly preparing the way…for building up the reign of God, repairing the world, and reconciling all of creation to God and one another.
And like Mary we all have the capacity and the responsibility to prepare the way inwardly…to nurture the growing seeds of faith and hope and love that have been planted in each of us…to clear space and make room in our own lives…in our souls and in our bodies…for Christ to be born…as Meister Ekhart…way back in the 13th century…said, “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 the Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?” The fullness of time, he concluded is “when the Son of Man is begotten in us.” [Meister Eckhart 1260-1328].
And so, echoing Mary, let us pray that in the coming days and weeks, our souls will re-sound with praise for the greatness of God…that our spirits will remember to rejoice in God our Savior, so that together, working with God and our neighbors we will lift up the lowly, feed the hungry, and continue to be agents of God’s mercy in this generation and for all generations to come. Amen.