Homily from service on 19 December, 2021 – Fourth Sunday in Advent
Homily preached 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 Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In our most recent monthly bible study focusing on the women in bible, we learned that this scene between Elizabeth and Mary is one of a handful in the whole bible that passes the Bechdel Test. If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it was created by cartoonist Allison Bechdel, and is way to measure the representation of women in narrative works. It’s a ridiculously low bar that she sets, but it’s shocking how many films, tv shows, books, fail this basic test of female representation. All that is required to pass the Bechdel Test are three simple things. The work must have: 1. two, named female characters; 2. who talk to each other; 3. about something other than a man. Ridiculously low bar, right? Yet, according to one blogger the gospel of Luke is one of only 4 books in the whole bible that passes and it’s because of today’s Gospel, and this short scene between Elizabeth and Mary.
We may not always think of this beautiful, intimate scene between two named women, who talk to each other about something other than a man as radical or transgressive, but in many ways it is. Not least of which is, because it highlights…and lifts up the voices of women and offers a rare glimpse into the lived experience of half of the world—which is something that we almost never see in scripture.
But, it’s not just that they talk, but what they say…that goes against—and challenges—almost everything that our culture proclaims to be of ultimate value.
The culture we inhabit (and have made and sustain)—Judeo-Christian, western, affluent, white—emphasizes: the elsewhere over the here; the future (or past) over the present; the product over the labor; the universal and important over the local and humble; and success over…pretty much everything. [This list is drawn from Raimon Panikkar’s essay, The Contemplative Mood: A Challenge to Modernity, in Invisible harmony: Essays on Contemplation and Responsibility. 1995 Augsburg Fortress).
In this brief scene, Mary and Elizabeth, challenge every one of these values and point us to a different way of being in the world…a more contemplative, faithful, life-giving, life-generating way.
Here vs. elsewhere…no matter who we are or what we may have…we’ve all experienced “the grass being greener” phenomenon…The peace we long for…The comfort that we crave…The certainty…The sense of purpose…is too often elsewhere…somewhere, out there… That perfect…whatever, that promised heaven, that pure land—is out there (we think) and we spend our lives searching for it…
But what faith teaches—and what Mary and Elizabeth proclaim—is that we don’t need an “elsewhere” because everything is already here…”in flawed abundance” [see also the sermon from 5 December 2021]…We don’t need to search for anything because everything is already here…and everything is already sacred. “Blessed are you [Here.], and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Here. Everything that is necessary is here. In this place. And it is blessed.
This place is blessed, and so is this moment. Our elsewhere isn’t always physical. Sometimes, out there is in time… the future… the past. A golden age that was once was or will come. Everything in our technological world, says one scholar, “is geared for later, pointed toward the possibilities of a future which will forever remain uncertain.” [Panikkar]
The future is uncertain…but “Blessed ARE you….Now,” says Elizabeth. Not blessed you will be…someday…when all this is done…No. Blessed are you now, before anything has happened (or really…Now, BECAUSE everything has already happened). We don’t need to wait for for the rough ways to be made smooth, for the refining fire…for the baby in the manger…because God has already acted. Now. Our faith insists that “each moment is decisive”…[that] “every day is a life and each day is enough in itself,” [Panikkar] “The fulfillment of what was spoken,” has already taken place, and these two women, pregnant with that fulfillment are living icons of this truth.
“Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Our society values products over labor. We labor in order to produce, and we labor, according to one scholar, because we fear our, “naked existence has no value; therefore [we strive to justify our] life by its usefulness,” [Panikkar]. But our faith says that, usefulness isn’t really a factor. “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree,” [Thomas Merton, quoted in Panikkar], “A rose has no why,” [Jacopone da Todi, quoted in Panikkar] it simply is…that “the glory of God, is a living human, and life consists in beholding God,”*(Irenaeus). A tree is a tree. A rose is a rose. A human being is a human being. Like the lilies of the field they are because they are; they have value because they are created by and beloved of God. Period. What would change in the world, if we not only believed this, but acted like it was true?
“And why has the mother of our Lord come to me?” Our culture privileges the big and important over the local and humble. Bigger is better…the most followers, the most votes, the biggest box-office…everything counts in large amounts…everything has to be scalable…we measure growth by quantity, not quality. “Success,” says one writer, in our technological society is…measurable in terms of financial power, and “the number of people (victims) we have left behind,” [Panikkar].
Our faith reminds us that the top and the center are not the same thing…that what is truly important is not at the top…but at the center. This Judean town in the hill country is far from the top…Mary and Elizabeth are not at the top…but this place, and these women are at the center…The center of everything…forget those opulent palaces of power…forget Herod and the emperor Augustus…this…THIS… is the room where it happens.
Is all of that really here, in this short scene between two named women, who take to each other, about something other than a man? It is for those with eyes to see, and ears to hear.
Advent provides an opportunity to slow down and become newly aware of these truths…that the only time we have is now…the only place we really have is here…and the only thing we really need to do is bless those around us.
Or as another writer puts it:
“The point of life is not to be right, or safe, or famous, comfortable, or rich, or powerful. None of those is a sign of success or God’s favor or significance, particularly when our power and wealth and safety require someone else to be poor and weak and scared. The point of life is to be together. To bless one another—all the one another’s—and to struggle against everything that leads us away from love. The point of life is to bless one another as we walk the Way of Love together.” (p. 27 Way of Love, Bless).
*The whole quote is: For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God. For if the manifestation of God which is made by means of the creation, affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God. Against Heresies, 4.20.7