Advent Four, year A. December 18, 2016.
“On the one hand [Mary] was just a girl, an immature and frightened girl who had the good sense to believe what an angel told her in what seemed like a dream. On the other hand, she was the mother of the Son of God, with faith enough to move mountains, to sing about the victories of her son as if he were already at the right hand of his father instead of a dollop of cells in her womb. … When we allow God to be born in us, there is no telling, no telling at all, what will come out.” — Barbara Brown Taylor
Does the name Cindy Stowell sound familiar? Her name has been in the news a lot this week. She is a contestant on Jeopardy, and as of this past Friday, she had won over $61,000. She will be back on the show this coming Monday. But here’s the thing: The shows were taped in August. Cindy Stowell, aged 41, died of stage 4 colon cancer on December 4th, about one week before her appearances on Jeopardy were to air. Only Alex Trebek and the producers of the show knew of her terminal prognosis when the show was taping.
According to Cindy, it was always her dream to appear on Jeopardy. As specified in her will, all of the Jeopardy winnings were donated to cancer research. I was particularly moved by this story. And when I try to conjure up the feelings I have about Cindy Stowell, a woman I never met, I keep coming up with hope.
When my partner died of AIDS in 1995, I made a couple of promises to him, and one of those promises was to be a research subject at NIH. For a number of years I was poked and prodded and injected with all sorts of experimental drugs and vaccines, as the NIH furthered its understanding of HIV and its potential cures. I eventually aged out of most of the trials. And when I try to conjure up the feelings I have about medical experiments to cure deadly diseases, I keep coming up with hope.
Over 2,000 years ago a young man wrestled with how to best protect the reputation, and probably the life, of a pregnant fiancée. As he makes what must have been a terribly anxious yet courageous and loving decision, an angel visits him in a dream, and the narrative shifts in history-changing ways. A moment of faith-filled, visionary decision-making. And when I try to conjure up the feelings I have about Joseph and the Angel, I keep coming up with hope.
As we witness the paralysis of our own political system, as we continue to watch while horrors of sectarian and political bloodshed unfold in Syria and as we hear that South Sudan is on the brink of Rwanda-esque ethnic cleansing, we undoubtedly look for some hope, some assurance that good can overpower evil and that faith can do all things.
We experience hope in a dying cancer patient who finds peace and makes meaning in her dying. In a vial of experimental medicine that one day might be the cure. In the life of Joseph, a faithful servant who has no small part in the nativity of the savior.
And this gospel passage, the prophecies that lead to it, and all that has come since, stand as the ultimate source of hope. The foretelling and living out the fulfillment of prophecy in the birth of Jesus. And the hope of which we speak today has its roots in a very plain reality. God has no uterus, no womb. That the consent of a woman to carry and give birth to the Messiah is essential to God reveals to us a fundamental truth – that the very nature of God’s plan for salvation is incarnational. And it is in the incarnational reality of a baby forming in Mary’s womb that we find true hope.
If we think about it, we have probably all experienced our “Joseph” moments. For some of us, it might be facing a dilemma similar to that of Joseph’s, trying to protect a loved one whose decisions or life circumstances seem overwhelming to us. It may be the grief of loss or the fear of the unknown. (Today’s social and political realities are certainly no help.) In the bigger picture of life, unexpected problems and anxieties are part of the human condition. Ironically, the unpredictable is what seems most predictable in life.
If you think about it, a season like Advent is not all that necessary, right? We know what happened – Jesus came as one of us to save us. It has been done, and we are justified and redeemed despite our sinfulness. We are not really waiting for the salvation event. One could argue that Advent is a reminder of the second coming, the end-time, but I wonder how many people really view it that way.
But the spirit of Advent is embodied in Joseph today. It reminds us that we are not always particularly skilled at solving our own problems. It reminds us that the fearful, seemingly hopeless events in life call out for moments of true hope. And it reminds us that the one true hope for Christians was alive and well in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
The Greek word for Mary in the early church was Θεοτόκος (Theotokos), “God-bearer.” Our church’s longstanding devotion to Mary is quite understandable in this context. This was the woman of faith who carried and bore the God-man into the world. This was the one who nursed him and followed his ministry. This is the insistent mother who prodded him into his first miracle. This was the mother given to us as she watched her son die on the cross. This was the woman whose womb was a place of hope. The womb, where reproductive miracles happen all the time. But also a womb anointed as a temple by the one who came there to dwell. A place of hope, a moment of hope, a child of hope, brought forth from the womb into the light of the world which he created.
May we be like Joseph. May we listen to God’s word to us. May we have no fear about taking Mary and the child she carries as our own. And may we be like Mary. May we, the church and all who are in it, be the Theotokos, the God-bearers of today’s world. We find hope in this incarnational moment. May we be the voice and witness of that hope today and always.
I conclude with a quote from my Lutheran pastor hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his work, The Cost of Discipleship.
And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of humankind is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate Lord makes his followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer