Homily. Yr C Advent 4. Dec 20 2015. St. Albans Church
Readings: Micah 5.2-5a; Luke 1.47-55; Heb 10.5-10; Luke 1.39-45.
It Matters Where You Put Your Body.
The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, and told her that she would conceive and bear a son, and name him Jesus and that he would be called Son of God. And Mary was perplexed, and afraid, and she asked how this could be, but eventually she agreed. “Let it be with me according to your word.” Then, she went back home.
And I imagine that when she did get back to her home in Nazareth, everything felt a bit surreal to Mary. She probably had a whole list of questions running through her mind, questions she hadn’t thought of at the time, or perhaps hadn’t dared ask Gabriel. Questions like, “When is all this going to happen? Questions like, “is this for real? Am I going out of my mind?”
I’m not saying she didn’t believe Gabriel, just that it all must have seemed surreal, like something out of a dream. I imagine that after spending a few days in a bit of a haze, Mary started to get back into her usual routine, the household chores and the like. Then after a few more days, or maybe a few more weeks, Mary missed her period. And then she took off, left her home and ran away.
And with that, we enter the season of the incarnation.
Incarnation. The belief that the God who created the universe became fully human, was born and took on human flesh and dwelt among us.
It’s a crazy idea. It’s a puzzling idea. It has at times been considered a scandalous idea. One of the early church leaders, a man named Marcion, back in the second century, refused to accept the incarnation. He couldn’t imagine that God would get that involved in our messed up world, enduring the indignity of a messy birth and dirty diapers.
When I was in seminary, I once asked one of my professors, an older man, about the incarnation. He looked at me for a moment, and then said,
“Son, it matters where you put your body.”
It certainly mattered to Mary.
You mothers, do you remember what it was like when you missed your period and then did one of those pregnancy tests? The idea of being pregnant went from theoretical possibility to life-changing reality in real fast.
Can you imagine Mary’s reaction when she realized that her body now contained the body of another? Gabriel was right! Mary would have had a great feeling of joy! But it would have also been a shock. And despite all that Gabriel had said, it would have been impossible to resist the feelings of shame that came upon an unwed teenaged mother in a society where such a thing was unthinkable. And also the fear: what would her parents think? What do I say to Joseph? How am I going to live? A life of poverty, a life on the margins of society seemed to await Mary. I remember when I was in Grade 8 there was a girl in my class, probably about Mary’s age, who didn’t show up at school one day. Never showed up again. Eventually the story got around that she was pregnant. She’d left town, and I never saw her again. That’s the situation Mary was in. So what was she going to do? Well, pretty much the same thing, at least initially.
Mary runs. She leaves town. She’s got a lot to figure out. Maybe the best place to start would be to check out the other bit of news that Gabriel had given her, to go and visit Elizabeth her relative, the old woman who couldn’t have children that Gabriel had said was now pregnant. Maybe she’d understand or have some advice. So 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.
It’s a great image, the image of these two pregnant women, neither of whom expected to be pregnant, getting together to figure out what was going on in their own bodies, to try to figure out what God was doing, what it meant for a human God to be inside Mary’s body. The older woman, visibly pregnant in her sixth month. The young woman, suffering from her first bouts of morning sickness. God with us, Immanuel, the embryonic, embodied God in their midst and the chief topic of conversation.
And surprisingly, it is John the Baptist, the John we met as an adult last week, but here the child in Elizabeth’s womb, who starts the conversation. As soon as Elizabeth hears the sound of Mary’s greeting, the child in her womb leaps for joy. For John is the prophet sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord, to point to Jesus, the embodied God, and here he does so for the first time as a child yet unborn. John leaps, and Mary and Elizabeth talk.
It’s a conversation, an exploration, a figuring out that all of us should engage in during this coming season of the incarnation. What difference does it make that God decided to take on a body and put it in this world? What does it mean, why does it matter?
For Elizabeth, and especially for Mary, God’s embodiment is deeply personal. It is first and foremost a sign of God’s favour. “Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you.” “Blessed are you among women.”
It’s also a moment of reversal, a sign of the transformative power of God with us. Elizabeth, the one who was barren is now expecting a child. Mary, the pregnant unwed teenager who will be shamed and condemned by society has been honoured by God, and is praised and affirmed by Elizabeth.
This is deeply personal for Mary, but it is more than that too. In her great song, the Magnificat, Mary begins with her own experience:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord and my Spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,
For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is his name.”
This is a song of joy. But Mary recognizes that she is not just telling her own story, but also a story that has universal, historical, and even cosmic significance. It is the story of a God who comes to be present, fully, physically present with his people, in fulfilment of the promises made long ago by the prophets, promises of mercy and of compassion. It is a compassion that God will express for his people through touch and through tears, in the embodied language that we understand at a gut level. This is a God who enters history to act in history, to act in justice, to feed the hungry and to care for those in need. The favour that God has shown to Mary, the lifting out of shame, the fulfilment of promise that God has shown to her, is understood by Mary as sign of God’s favour for each one of us, for all of us together. And so Mary keeps on singing:
“And his mercy is on them that fear him, throughout all generations,
He hath shown strength with his arm, he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy, hath holpen his servant Israel,
As he promised to our forefathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.”
That’s what the incarnation means to Mary.
What does it mean to you? That’s the question that’s really at the heart of the Christmas season that’s just about upon us. What does it matter that the God of all creation entered human history as a human being, to be born in a manger in Bethlehem, to fully, physically, experience our shared humanity, to be God with us in every sense of that four letter word. Does it matter?
And if, in the words of my seminary prof, you decide that it does matter where God put God’s body, then I suppose the follow up question for all of us would be, in light of where God put his body, where are you going to put yours? Because that matters too. Because in our time and place, unlike Mary we won’t get to hold God’s body in our arms, neither at the manger, nor at the foot of the cross. Now we are the ones who are called to be the body of Christ in the world. Where we put our bodies matters too. So where are you going to put yours?
As I was pondering this question of the incarnation, of why it matters where we put our bodies, I came across an article by Ian Brown in yesterday’s Globe and Mail newspaper, based on conversations he had with Jean Vanier. In it he reminds us that our lives are fundamentally relational, and he writes the following:
“A meeting with another – with the frail, the old, the disabled, the lonely, with one’s poorest self – is not about thinking. It is not rational or prescriptive. It is something you do with your body, something you feel your way into. It doesn’t have a right way, a script. It happens or it doesn’t. The mind follows.”
Where God put God’s body, where you put yours, matters. Because that's how we meet each other.