Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B
When Mary heard the angel Gabriel address her as “favored one” and tell her, “The Lord is with you,” “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” “Perplexed” would be an understatement by the time the angel had left her. She was to bear a child, who would be called a son of God, and would receive the throne of David. “How can this be?” Mary asked.
Good question. It sounds impossible, and that business about Mary not “knowing” a man is just the beginning of the obstacles. As I preached about last year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary had to be wondering about how she'd survive until the baby's birth, once the village heard of her pregnancy. As in many cultures today, “honor killings” weren't infrequent in Mary's culture. If a woman had been sexually violated by a man -- even if it was against her will -- she could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the woman and her illegitimate child could no longer bring shame to the family. Joseph knew he wasn't the father of Mary's baby. If a man and a woman betrothed to each other had sex with each other and the village knew it, they were considered to be married; it was the “consummation” of the union that married the couple, not a religious ceremony. If Joseph intended to stay with Mary, he would have no reason not to acknowledge the child as his, so it's most historically plausible that our stories about Joseph not being Jesus' father stem from historical fact. And that fact had some nasty implications: if Mary's pregnancy became known and her father or brother didn't kill her, the scripture commanded the death penalty both for her and, if his identity were known, the man who had stolen Joseph's betrothed and gotten her pregnant.
So the odds are against Mary's surviving until the child's birth. And then, should others come to the conclusion Gabriel has about the child's identity, odds are against the child surviving. Herod the Great, who ruled as “king” with Rome's support, wouldn't have been very keen on another trying to claim David's throne and title. And the designation “son of god” was claimed by Roman emperors; anyone else acclaimed as a “son of god” by the populace was very likely to end up on a cross instead of a throne. And the paradox of this is that Jesus of Nazareth gets both, forever linking the two. God's kingdom, the fulfillment of Mary's song that God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising the lowly (Luke 1:52-53) will come not with the might of armies, but with Jesus' consistent and nonviolent ministry of reconciliation.
The story of God's angel proclaiming the Lord's favor on a young single mother gives us all a great deal to ponder this Advent. We live in a world in which one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty -- three hundred during an average Sunday sermon in an Episcopal Church, and sixteen hundred during each celebration of the Eucharist (thanks to Mike Russell for that powerful way of putting it), and yet God's promise is that through Jesus' work among us, the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, with Mary, “How can this be?”
But we're called to do more than ponder. We're called to bring the Good News of liberation to the prisoners, of food for the hungry, of the dignity of those considered lowly by the powers of this world. We're called to do that not just in words or song, but like Mary, giving flesh to God's hope, God's peace, God's justice, and God's love for the world.
How can this be? Through the faithfulness of the God who promises David that his house will be established forever, and whose promise is fulfilled, we believe, in Jesus. Through the power that gave Mary the courage to face her family, her betrothed, her village, and clothed her with dignity and grace throughout the village's pointing and whispering. Through the compassion that led Jesus to heal and empower the outcasts he encountered. And through the peace that comes of catching even a glimpse of just how deeply, passionately, and unconditionally God loves each of God's children.
Thanks be to God!