Reading from the Gospels, Advent 4: Luke 1.26-38
Thanks so much for the blessings and good wishes and virtual treats I’ve received while being out of commission this week. They continue to be good medicine for body and soul. Cootie Girl is on the mend and slowly easing back into the swing of things. I have to say that while I would like to have been the determiner of my down time (and I really had been planning to have some anyway this week, honest), getting sick in the thick of Advent is not without its benefits.
Advent shares common ground with Lent in that, as a season of preparation, it invites us to a time of reflection and to let go of what insulates us from God. Caught up as many of us tend to be in the intensities of the pre-Christmas pace, doing that reflective work sometimes gets lost along the way. When feeling my worst this week I didn’t feel much like reflecting (I didn’t feel much like doing anything at all), and I don’t want to put too much of a philosophical or theological shine on feeling crummy, but it was instructive to be confronted with such an interruption of my plans, and to look through some doors that opened in a way I hadn’t orchestrated.
At my ickiest I didn’t even feel like reading, which for me is really saying something, but later in the week I did spend some time with a few of my art books. I figured that even if I was taking a break from producing I could at least feed my eyes and fill my creative well a bit. One of the books I pulled off the shelf was a delicious tome of a book titled Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), published to accompany a major exhibition of the same name that was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004. As with the exhibition, the book gathers a massive and stunning collection of artful artifacts from the Byzantine Empire, whose capital was Constantinople, and presents them by categories including sculpture, liturgical implements, icons, illuminated manuscripts, and liturgical textiles.
As I paged through the lavish illustrations, it occurred to me that each medium to which these medieval artists gave themselves was their way of making a home for God. The book, the bowl, the icon; the triptych opening to reveal holy faces worn by centuries of lips pressed in reverence; chalice and paten, reliquary and sanctuary: each form offered an invitation to the sacred, beckoning it to draw close and be perceived, touched, kissed, met. These artists knew that we cannot capture or contain God within any medium. Their creations reveal instead their desire to offer, amid the strangeness of being in this world, a habitation for the God who calls us here.
It’s this kind of desire that we encounter in this week’s reading from Luke 1.26-38. The story of the annunciation to Mary tells us of how, with her own body, Mary makes a home for God. The medium of her own flesh becomes a habitation for the holy. It’s not simply her willingness to become pregnant and give birth to Jesus, however, that makes Mary someone who provides a dwelling for God. When Gabriel greets her, he says to her, “The Lord is with you.” Already God has found a home with her.
In response to Mary’s perplexed query about how it can be that she will bear a child, Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” His words provide a dramatic resonance with last week’s reading from Isaiah, in which the prophet proclaims, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…” By her assent, her not merely willing but audacious yes, Mary sets in motion these very actions and others that Isaiah lists. Liberty, release, healing, an end to oppression: these are the wonders that Mary goes on to sing about in the Magnificat that we hear this week: the actions of a God who brings restoration and redemption to a world that has become deeply disordered.
Mary’s yes to Gabriel, her assent to God, her willingness to make a home for the divine within her own self: these all give the lie to a history that has too often depicted her as meek and mild. Her response to God, and the work that she takes up, are the actions of a prophet, in the ancient Hebrew sense of it: one who recognizes the presence of God in the world, who points it out to others, who does not give up hope that the people will come to know God. Meekness and mildness are not enough to sustain Mary in the prophetic work God has called her to do.
Her actions are not only prophetic, but priestly as well. I remember what a jolt I received one day in seminary as I sat among the stacks in the theology library, reading an article I had just found titled “Mary and the Eucharist: an oriental perspective.” The author, Orthodox theologian Sebastian Brock, limns the links between the Mother of God and the sacrament of Eucharist. He notes, for instance, that in the Liturgy of St. James (one of the Eucharistic liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox tradition), the priest prays to God to “send your Spirit so that he may overshadow and make this bread into the life-giving Body, the saving Body, the heavenly Body, the Body which brings salvation to our souls and bodies, the body of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ….”
Overshadow. The word that tells what the Spirit does within Mary, now used to describe what the Spirit does in the sacrament of the table, not only within the bread but also within us. Overshadow, inhabit, dwell: this is how the Spirit works, seeking to make a home among us. One that is not an exclusive residence or a walled shelter, either; we hear, after all, Paul’s words to the Romans this week, in which he writes of “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed” (from Romans 16.25-27). It is a spacious home that, like Mary, we are challenged to offer: a dwelling that reveals the presence of God rather than hiding it away.
So how is God seeking to make a home in you in this season? What audacious yes might God be inviting you to offer? How does making a home for the sacred help you find a place for yourself in this world? What sustains you in this prophetic, priestly work?
In this and every season, may we, like Mary, be a home for the God who desires to dwell with us. Blessings.
[For another reflection on the Annunciation, scroll down or click on Getting the Message.]