Luke 1:26-38New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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[c] 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.
Some of us have great familiarity with the Advent Story. I might suggest that this wild and amazing story is at risk of becoming too familiar to us. It starts to become predictable, almost ordinary, when we have heard it told and retold countless times. How might we restore some of the wonder and newness of this story when we have heard it told so often?
When I was in seminary, I started Small Church, an intimate gathering of voices, open to create space for challenging exploration and questions of our faith and culture. In founding this space, I had anticipated it would attract those hurt by the church, struggling with exclusion. Instead, Small Church initially attracted many brand new people, who were largely unfamiliar with churches, scripture, and Christian tradition. This was such a gift. With fresh perspectives came some of the most refreshing and astonishing questions. Instead of simply leading, I was able to learn from whole new angles which I had never considered. It was a rich exchange and conversation.
I have been fairly steeped in Biblical tradition since infancy. When friends unfamiliar with such traditions arrived at Small Church, they were struck with surprise by how many books were contained within the Bible, that we had four gospels, and a reading we focused on would often be new to them and bring up perplexing questions which I had never considered. This wonder, this openness, this fresh perspective was possible as a newcomer, and was something I had lost somewhere in my studies.
Newcomers asked questions I had never considered, and exposed my own Christian bias and assumptions. I learned what a treasure novel curiosity could bring.
If we can come to the Christmas season with freshness, what wonder, what curiosity, what fright the Advent and Christmas narrative can bring. The intensity of the experience for a young teen girl, whose tremendous faith led her to go against what her culture held dear, and to put herself at great risk. How exciting and unnerving. What child is this indeed?
So, what of Mary? Before the birth of Jesus, what of all those other hours, in between the visits with the Holy Spirit and with Elizabeth,? Some of us here know the struggles of pregnancy better than others, but can any of us imagine Mary's unique struggles? With what and whom she would have wrestled? What support did she have? Who could understand her situation?
Mary has been on my mind.
The story of Mary is beautiful, and offers us the occasion to hear from a woman's voice in scripture. But still I wonder what we may be missing of the voices of the women around her. In leaving out the struggles and supports Mary must have faced from her peers, we risk forgetting to consider her state as we walk through the Advent Season. Was she supported or in solitude? She seems fairly ecstatic to be connected with Elizabeth. Is this borne from a loneliness we can only imagine, a connectedness which could give us great hope, or something else entirely?
And where would we be without Mary? She seems integral to our faith and tradition to me. So, I wonder, how might we further open up our doors to young women today? By remembering the women of our tradition? What might Mary and Elizabeth tell us they needed and wanted, and where might they lead us, if we dared to follow?
I see many people, both men and women, in this community following in the footsteps of Mary: offering boundless love for neighbour, family, community, offering their whole selves in support. I see women and men living this prayer as well. In some ways, we have moved beyond gendered roles in our church community. Here and now today, we are well beyond considering if women should be allowed to be in leadership, and would indeed be quite lost without women and their integral leadership, both literally, in our community today, and in scripture.
The Advent candle of Love struck a particular chord in me this week, as I considered a a tender love shared between parent and child. A mother's love, a mother's role, in this infinitely puzzling story of our saviour's birth, demonstrates such a warm, beautiful, and bountiful love. Without Mary, there would be no Christian tradition. Without women's labour, there would be no church today. While it is one thing to take note of this, it is another to take pause, to appreciate the labours of love, of hope, of joy, and of sleepless nights.
In Luke's gospel in particular, Mary is blessed for her belief, upheld as a role model of faith:
Luke 1:45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[a] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary is seen as a mother, but it is her belief that is blessed [and treasured] in Luke's gospel. This is telling of her role in our faith tradition. Her gift of motherhood is great, but to make that possible her faith must be strong. The blessing of holding steadfast faith in a unique and potentially frightening situation speaks volumes to her character and strength. We can only imagine what a brave model Mary was for Jesus in his infancy and childhood. These few scripture passages give us some hint of the ways in which Jesus was blessed with a tremendous role model and believer right from birth, who undoubtedly helped shape him into the leader he was to become. We might learn that Jesus learned some of his fearlessness and faith from Mary, who had faith in him before he was even in her womb.
And that is the love which is alive in James Bay United today. There are people [in leadership] here who have faith in the world, in each other, and in each one they come across, even before those we meet believe in themselves. I see people being greeted and met with love, with faith, and with a deep caring, inspired by Mary and Jesus, and their tremendous love and sacrifice. I am so grateful to be a part of spreading this message of joy, love, and compassion, planting seeds of hope deeper in to the community of James Bay, and I thank you all for allowing me to work alongside you as we continue this great tradition of love.