Advent 3

“Wonder Women,” Susan Ryder

Luke 1 (selected verses)          
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” Soon after his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 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 set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.

REFLECTION – We read this story with different eyes this year; hear it through different ears. 2017 began with millions of women (and some men) from all over the nation marching in pink hats on January 21, the day after the presidential inauguration. It was the largest single-day protest in the history of the United States, and it turned into a global event. 2017 is drawing to a close with a number of strong and courageous women who spoke up about having endured sexual abuse and harassment being named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In between those milestones we saw record numbers of women run for and win political office, including our own Elizabeth Fox-Anvick being elected to the District 87 School Board, and the first openly transgender woman elected in Virginia, Danica Roem, who defeated a male incumbent in the Virginia House of Delegates, a self-described homophobe who notoriously tried to introduce a bill requiring use of bathrooms based on birth gender.

2017 also included Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “nevertheless she persisted” moment during which a man attempted to silence her, and Rep. Maxine Waters’ “reclaiming my time” moment, episodes which were embraced and became rallying cries alongside the “#metoo” movement. The feature film “Wonder Woman,” starring AND directed by a woman (Gal Gadot / Patti Jenkins), smashed box office records, and a female Marine successfully completed the notoriously difficult Infantry Officer Course for the first time. Additionally, eight brave women came forward to speak up about sexual abuse against them when they were minors – and though they were publically vilified by some, their courageous act helped keep a man accused of sexual harassment and pedophilia from being elected to the US Senate. That’s just some of what happened in 2017, as women were emboldened to speak up, march, resist, run for office, and simply put, to just not take it anymore.

So when I read this familiar story from Luke through the lens of 2017, it speaks to me in new ways. One of those levels, certainly, has to do with the issue of consent; so let’s deal with that first. Episcopalian minister Kira Schlesinger writes, “The story of Jesus’ conception might start to sound different in light of [recent events]. After all, we know that Mary was a young girl, a teenager, and by our standards, especially this year, this makes us uncomfortable. Then, we add in a huge power differential — Gabriel, an angel who was sent by God. Given her age and the presence of an angel, is Mary actually able to consent to what is going to happen to her? She definitely has a couple of questions. And Gabriel, on behalf of God, does not precisely ask for Mary’s permission. But she eventually says, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ While I am wary of reading our present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, we should be cognizant of how this story sounds in our present cultural moment. In the least charitable interpretation, God preys on a young girl and forces her into carrying a pregnancy to term despite the shame and embarrassment that it brings upon her and her family. Yes, the child turns out to be the Son of God. But it’s also important to understand that what appears problematic to us today would not have been at the time of the story’s telling and writing [in that patriarchal society]. As modern people, we should be careful about assuming that we are more enlightened and developed, and that our 21st Century standards necessarily translate back in time.

In response to Mary’s meeting with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary finally gives the enthusiastic consent that we have been looking for. She embraces the position in which God has placed her and praises the Lord, the God who saves. By approaching the conception and birth of Jesus with a critical eye in light of our current situations, we must not throw out the baby Jesus with the patriarchal bath water. The parts of the story that make our modern sensibilities uncomfortable should be examined, yes, but dismissing or condemning this story, we lose a testament of hope in God’s plan, of submission to God’s will even through uncertainty, of the power of the incarnation and birth that demands we sit up and pay attention.”

So with that said – what lessons can we take from the story? One is about the prominent roles these two women played in the Jesus story – what Christians would argue is the most important story. Men are the focus of most biblical stories. With few exceptions, women are generally overlooked and underappreciated – and even when Jesus throws them a crumb or two, they remain mostly unnamed and are perceived as bothersome. But these two women are not only named, they are the very foundation of this story – Elizabeth, the mother of who would become John the Baptizer, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. We are told Elizabeth was barren and “getting on in years” – which in 1st Century Palestine likely meant she was in her late 30’s, 40’s, or maybe her early 50’s. Mary was probably as young as 12 or 13, maybe as old as 14, as that was the typical age girls were married. They were not from wealthy families – Elizabeth was married to a priest, and we know she was from the line of Aaron. Mary was a poor young girl from the peasant class, the property of her father, which meant she expected to marry whoever he chose for her; in this case, she was betrothed to Joseph. Both women lived in a Roman occupied territory, under the oppressive authority of the ‘divine saviour’ Augustus. Thus they knew what the Palestinians knew back then, and still know today: segregation, a minority position. Not to mention that they were women, which made them even lower in status.

And yet these two women, whose lives were much more challenging and difficult than ours, had the courage to stand up and say yes to helping bring about change in the world – they were willing to be the ones to birth that change. These two women, one older, one younger, both disempowered, were chosen to birth a revolution. They are inspiring; they are first century wonder women. And they are also “every woman” or “every person.” For we are all called by God, in challenging times, to give birth to the kingdom of God. Elizabeth’s and Mary’s uniqueness is not found in the perfection of historically implied purity or subservience, but in their willingness to say “yes” to the unexpected and seemingly impossible. They aligns htheirer will with God’s – and miracles occur. For with God we learn nothing is impossible. In fact, we learn that what we deem impossible may just be part of God’s deeper reality breaking forth in our lives.

Finally, in the movements of prenatal John and Elizabeth’s affirmation, Mary is inspired to song. She proclaims her humility and God’s greatness and then launches into a world-changing message. God’s presence – known in the she child she will bear – turns everything upside down. Unjust social structures are overturned – the hungry are fed, the wealthy sacrifice, tax policies benefit the poor, leaders seek peace, and schools are safe; roles are reversed as God’s peaceable realm comes to earth. This is the way life is meant to be when God’s realm is “on earth as it is in heaven.” The miracle in this story, then, is not to be found in a pregnant virgin, or in an older, previously barren woman great with child – the miracle in this story is found in saying “yes” to God. For when we say “yes” to God, the world is transformed. Mary’s willingness to say “yes” and then act upon her affirmation inspires us to be agents of God’s possibilities, as we are called to carry these possibilities to term and nurture them in our own rough and tumble world. Mary’s “yes” opens the door for daunting and unimaginable adventures for herself and our world. And Mary’s yes is echoed by every woman and man today who are resisting imperial rule, standing up to injustice, and speaking out against harassment and abuse.

This morning I am comforted by Mary’s song as she sings of a world which will one day be turned upside down, and the realization that her hope is meant for all of us. Even as I continue to sort through my own anger and fear about the events occurring in our world, I am reminded, from the song of a strong woman, that this is not what the Sacred intends for us. Alyce McKenzie writes, “Mary is first a prophet. We think of Mary, not as outspoken and bold for justice, but as quiet and passive. Yet here in the Canticle of Mary we get a different picture of her. Here Mary sings a song of praise to God who shakes up the status quo, who lifts up the humble like her, and chooses her, rather than a queen or princess, to be the bearer of God’s chosen one. She foreshadows her son’s prophetic ministry that will do the same thing.”

The very reversals sung about in the Magnificat are demonstrated in this powerful image: it is a baby who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts the lowly, not a warrior, not a king. The deliverer who both scatters the proud and fills the hungry is in fact this baby whose birth calls into question and replaces all previous agreements and expectations. And his presence is dependent upon his birthing from a poor, vulnerable young woman living under patriarchal and Roman oppression in a violent land. Nancy Rockwell writes, “Mary, wanted by God, according to the angel, for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, decides to bear a holy child for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. This is Mary: well-spoken, wise, gritty. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive. She beckons women (and men) everywhere to speak out for God’s justice, which is waiting to be born into this world.” As Meister Eckart said – We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born.

Michael Coffey
We hear that down is up and up is down
rich empty and poor, poverty steeped with riches
and nothing will ever be the same

Our pride is exposed as shame
and shame inverted becomes pride
and nothing will ever be the same

The kings beg in the street for coins
and the street junkies take eucalyptus steam showers all day
and nothing will ever be the same

You come into this gunning, shot-up world
Mary sings of your power and peace
and your only weapon a willing womb

You magnify us with your round looking glass
and see our microscopic lives as large
and our greatness you smoke out with focused light

In turn our souls magnify you, you unexpected world flipper,
as we look up through the lens of goodness and mercy
and just your eye fills up the monocle of the sky