(Here’s a sermon I gave at New Song Episcopal Church on December 24, 2017)
Having Christmas Eve fall on a Sunday means that many of us are going to go to church in both the morning and the evening today. I’m happy to let you know that we get extra credit for this ecclesiastical two-fer—I got an email from heaven this morning confirming this.
But I’m actually delighted to be preaching this morning, because today is the Sunday when we honor Mary. And as many of you know, I’m a huge fan of hers. I’m probably the only person at New Song Church, in fact, who doesn’t have any problem saying that line in the Nicene Creed about Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary. On Sunday mornings I try to say it with extra conviction, knowing that the rest of you aren’t fully on board with it.
If you’ve read my book Holy Rover, you know about the long and winding road I took to being a fan of Mary. I grew up among Lutherans who thought the Virgin Mary was just another example of the Catholics getting their theology wrong. As Lutherans we could pay attention to her at Christmas, but otherwise she was supposed to be kept in a box. And then in my 20s I accepted the feminist critique of her, which says that the Virgin Mary has been used as a tool of the patriarchy for so long she’s worthless as a role model.
But through the years I’ve come to a different understanding of Mary. I see her now as a shape-shifter, and even as a bit of a trickster (in her own quiet and unassuming way, of course). That’s because she keeps reinventing herself and changing—or maybe it’s that we reinvent and change her. Either way, interesting things happen.
In the Gospel reading this morning we heard the story of the annunciation, when the angel comes to Mary and tells her that she will bear the Son of God. She replies with this: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” This sets a pretty high bar, doesn’t it, for anyone given a seemingly impossible task by the Lord? Sure, she says. I’m poor and young and I’m oppressed by the Romans, and I live in backwater village and there’s a good chance my fiancée is going to think I betrayed him, but bring it on. I’ll give birth to the Son of God.
So to me one of the most amazing things about Mary is how brave she is. And she’ll need it for what comes next, not just in the near future, when she’ll give birth in a stable and then have to flee to Egypt, but later too, when she’s raising a child who must have been (ahem) a challenge, a young man who grew up to be a charismatic troublemaker who died on a cross. I wonder if she’d have assented so readily, if she’d known all that would come after.
But of course, that’s what mothers do—say yes, not knowing how it will all turn out.
Right now, though, let’s concentrate on the moment when the angel appears. Artists through the centuries have loved depicting this scene—only the crucifixion is portrayed more frequently. It’s not hard to see why, because it’s a moment full of drama, with the angel and Mary standing there, caught in mid-action. Many Renaissance artists depicted Mary with a book in her hand. There’s even a Russian icon that shows her with knitting needles and a ball of yarn. The point is that Mary is just going about her ordinary routine when the divine comes calling.
I’ve seen this scene, and many more depicting Mary, hundreds of times in my travels around the world. Sometimes she’s in churches, but often not. On our recent trip to Rome, for example, there was a shrine to her at the bus stop near where we were staying. In it she looked like an Italian movie star of the 1960s—a little sultry and voluptuous. Nearly every time we passed by that shrine, there were flickering votive candles in front of her picture, lit by people who stopped on a busy Rome street to say a prayer.
In Mexico City we visited the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the site where the peasant Juan Diego received several visions of her in the year 1531. It’s now the most visited pilgrimage site in the Americas, a huge complex that holds many thousands of people. But the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico—we saw it in roadside shrines, and hanging from the rearview mirror in taxi cabs, and tattooed on people’s arms.
One of the most moving Mary shrines I’ve ever seen was in a small village in Normandy, France. On a back street I came across a small niche in a stone wall that held a statue of her. Her hands were outspread in blessing, and beneath her feet was a single date: June 6, 1944. The D-Day invasion still lived in the memories of the villagers, and they continued to honor her for helping protect them.
So what does this mean for us, here in Iowa? I know that we’re not likely, alas, to put up a banner on the front of our church bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Most New Songers are still going to cross their fingers when they say that line in the Nicene Creed about the Virgin Mary.
But let’s go back to the moment of the annunciation again. Because I think that image is not just about something that happened two thousand years ago, but also about something that happens today, and every day, when the divine comes calling.
The annunciation makes me think of a book that I just read: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, who also wrote Eat, Pray, Love. In it she gives advice on how to live a creative life. You don’t have to be a painter or a writer or a filmmaker to live creatively, she says. The path is open to all of us. It means to live a life open to the possibilities of being more than we ordinarily are, to live attuned with the forces of mystery. It’s about living a life driven more by curiosity than by fear.
The term she uses for this is Big Magic. But really, I think she’s talking about the Holy Spirit, which, like Mary, is fond of shape-shifting and likes to turn up in unexpected places, including in a book about creativity.
Gilbert thinks that ideas have a life of their own and that they seek out those who can bring them into the world. Living a creative life means being open to those ideas. You need to invite them in when they appear, because if you don’t, they’re going to leave and find someone else who will welcome them.
Think about this in relation to Mary. If she hadn’t said yes, what would have happened? According to Elizabeth Gilbert, as well as theologians through the centuries, God would then have asked someone else. Maybe that nice young woman named Rebecca in the neighboring village, and then we’d have statues to the Virgin Rebecca in our churches. Because the spirit is always moving, and if one door is closed, it finds an opening somewhere else, even if it’s a window that’s cracked open just a little bit in the attic.
One of the things I like best about Gilbert’s book is that she doesn’t discount fear. We’re all fearful at times—we fear the unknown, and the known, and the possibilities that may happen and the dangers that are very real. Being fearful is part of being human, because we have the capacity to imagine and to ponder. Mary was probably fearful, too, once she put down that book, or her knitting, and started thinking of what that “yes” she’d said might mean for her future.
But here’s the thing to remember: fear doesn’t have to take control. Gilbert has a letter in her book that she writes to the fear that lives within her. I’m going to read it in its entirety because it’s just so wonderful. Here’s how it goes:
“Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and, may I say, you are superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. … you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
Then she heads off with creativity and fear in the car, advancing once more into the terrifying but marvelous terrain of the unknown future.
The Gospel doesn’t say so, but I like to think something similar went through Mary’s mind when she said “Yes” to the angel.
And this sort of attitude toward life, in the end, is about trust. We can choose to trust that the Holy Spirit is there, always wanting to come into our lives, and that while fear can come along, it has to sit in the back seat.
So let me end with one more quote from Elizabeth Gilbert, only where she writes about inspiration, I’m going to substitute the words Holy Spirit, because remember that Big Magic is really the divine at work:
“I choose to trust that [the Holy Spirit] is always nearby, the whole time I’m working, trying its damnedest to impart assistance. It’s just that [the spirit] comes from another world, you see, and it speaks a language entirely unlike my own, so sometimes we have trouble understanding each other. But [it’s] still sitting there right beside me, and it is trying . . . to send me messages in every form it can—through dreams …, through clues, through coincidences, through déjà vu, … through the chills that run up my arms, through the hair that stands up on the back of my neck, through the pleasure of something new and surprising, through stubborn ideas that keep me awake all night long . . . [The Holy Spirit] is always trying to work with me. So I sit there and I work, too. That’s the deal. I trust it; it trusts me.”
So the next time an angel shows up in your life, say yes. Like Mary. And then welcome what happens next.