December 17, 2017
Third Sunday of Advent
John 1: 6-8; 19-28
I grew up in a very, very large Baptist family. My grandmother was one of 16 brothers and sisters, and every member of our big family was Baptist. Or at least that is what we thought, until the day my mother woke up in her cousin’s house and was terrified by something glowing from across the room. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old when this happened. My entire family was crashing at a relative’s house for a funeral, and one morning I walked in on my mothers whispering with my aunts and uncles. Their faces were white as ghosts. They were SO mortified, that I assumed they had discovered a secret stack of Playboy magazines or a stash of marijuana. But the mysterious glowing object that had startled my mother in the night turned out to be a glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary! Yes, gasp! Our second-cousins had secretly converted to CATHOLICISM! And that demonic glow of the Virgin Mary, that was Exhibit A.
Because as good Baptists, we had no use for Mary. We were taught that she was just a common person, like of any of us, and that saying anything remotely positive about Mary, would somehow detract from our worship of God. Thus, in our paranoia about God getting enough attention, we treated Mary as if she was just an accident. As if there was nothing we could learn about God by turning to Mary.
And so, it wasn’t until I was in grad school in Philadelphia that I began to nurture a love for Mary. I remember the first time a friend took me to St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, an Anglo-Catholic parish in Philly that gives the Vatican a run for its money. Right next to the communion rail there’s an enormous shrine to the Virgin surrounded by flowers and candles and incense. And after you receive communion, you have to pass by the shrine on your way back to your seat. Having never experienced anything like that before, I carefully studied the other parishioners as each one stopped and genuflected before the Holy Mother. Every Protestant bone in my body squirmed. There was no way I would do that, I told myself. I tried to figure out if I could take communion and then somehow walk backwards to avoid passing by her. But when it came time for me to walk by her, I did stop and as if something else had seized control of my body, I suddenly found myself down on one knee. Chills spilled down my spine and I felt a warm glow wash over me. I felt changed. It was one of those true conversion moments, and for the first time, I got it. I got that in bowing to Mary, we are bowing to what God has done in her and what God is doing in all of us. We bow to the God who takes up residence in real, living human flesh. That common, ordinary flesh is caught up in the mystery of God.
Because that is what draws me to Mary. That she is common. That she is an ordinary human just like you and me. And that being fully aware of her commonness, Mary believed it was possible that God would choose her most common body to bear the most uncommon of gifts for the whole world. And not because of anything she did, not because of who she was, but because God that is what God does. God lifts up the lowly, the common, the ordinary. God finds favor with us, not because we are worthy, but because we belong to God. Though Mary was ordinary, God breathed the most extraordinary spirit into us all through her common flesh.
Now I know that folks give other reasons for being drawn to Mary. Most especially, there’s the whole notion that Mary was perfect. That she was born perfect and remained sinless her whole life, because, of course, who would believe that God would actually come into the world through the actual common body of an ordinary woman? So, Mary had to have been different from other women for God to choose her, or so it goes.
But the thing that gets me is that the Gospel of Luke goes out of its way to show how common Mary was, and how God chose what is common to make us whole. However, in order to hear the emphasis on her commonness, we need to rewind to the first chapter of Luke where we hear about another extraordinary birth. The birth of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Because unlike the parents of Jesus, John’s parents were anything but ordinary. John’s father, Zecheriah, was a priest in the temple, and his mother Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses and the very first high priest of the Jewish people. Elizabeth and Zecheriah were total VIPs. Even the way their story is told gives them cred because it mirrors the miraculous conception of Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac: a holy, elderly couple, barren for their entire lives gives birth in their golden years. So, if you were going to have a miraculous birth, you wanted it to look like what happened to Elizabeth and Zecheriah. What happened to Mary and Joseph was like the opposite of the Elizabeth and Zecheriah story. Mary was young and unmarried. She didn’t have a high priest for a husband, but was only engaged to a manual laborer. Mary just didn’t have the same cred that Elizabeth and Zecheriah did.
So, if God was looking for a well-heeled family beyond reproach through which to bear the Son of God, well She didn’t do a very good job. I mean, all you have to do is look at some of the writings outside of Scripture to hear how folks were talking about Mary. The Jewish Talmud, a collection of writings by rabbis from the 1st and 2nd century, says, “This is what men say, ‘[Mary] who was the descendant of princes and governors, played the harlot with carpenters.”And it also includes rumors that Jesus’ real father was a Roman centurion named Pandera. Which tells me two things: One) that God is stronger than a bunch of sad men who impugn the reputations of women in order to hold onto their meager power and privilege; and Two) that God was fully aware of the shadiness and the commonness through which the Messiah was born into the world. And that the fact that Mary was ordinary was the whole point.
That God chose Mary, not because of who she was engaged to, not because of her job or her husband’s job, and not because of the wonderful reputation that she could lend the Son of God. No, God chose because she was an ordinary woman. And then Mary trusted that this was possible. Mary trusted that she was favored, even with her lack of credentials, even with all the shade that was certain to come her way. And it was through that seed of faith, that God loves us just the way that we are. It was through that glimmer of hope, that the Christ was born into this world. To show us that there is nothing we have to rise above, that we do not have to be special to be loved. But that God loves us simply because we belong to God.
And this is the best news that I know. Because if you are like me, then you have spent countless days of your life, like I have, trying to make sure you have the right credentials. Trying to prove to the world that you are more than you are. Trying to get the right degrees. Trying to be the most extraordinary mom or dad and buy the perfect gifts for your kids this year. Trying to get that guy on Tinder to notice you. Trying to boost your recognition at work or your likes on Facebook. And if you’re like me, all this trying, all this trying to seem special robs you of the opportunity to be the one thing you were created to be and that’s you: ordinary, common, run-of-the-mill, just another bozo on the bus YOU!
And it’s in your YOU-ness, it’s in our ordinary, commonness that God has come to dwell. Because just as God was born in Mary, God is also dying to be born in each of us just the way that we are. And this birthing and rebirthing process in our common flesh is something we get to experience every day. Every time we gather here in this place and extend the Peace of Christ to each other, God is born again in us. Every time we eat this bread and drink from this cup, God is reborn in us. Every time we reach out and give food to the hungry or a loving word to the lonely, God is reborn in us. And even when we’re a Grinch and try our hardest not to do those things, God still pushes through and is reborn in us, because that is what God does. God isn’t waiting for us to become special or to rise above our ordinary, common selves to move through this world. God is at work right here, right now in every moment in our lives, bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.