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God in Each Other and in Solidarity with All

4A Advent

18 Dec 2022


Mary has just conceived; perhaps she not far enough into her pregnancy to even experience any of the signs of pregnancy. But she knows. The assurance of this young woman amazes me; she rushes off to the home of her cousin Elizabeth. She steps over the threshold and enters the home. (The threshold: literally it was a barrier of sorts that held down the reeds, or thresh, that made up many a floor in olden times. We use thresholds to protect the interior of a home from water damage. Yet, if the water is high enough, it may breach a threshold. Mary may not have yet realized it, but she was crossing a threshold no one in the course of human history had ever crossed.

Sometimes we set a goal, which is a form of threshold, that we must reach before something can happen, be it for good or ill. Some are simple, some are very personal, some may be quite silly. Sometimes it is a financial threshold, as in needing 20% of the cost of a home before you can even be considered as a buyer. A donor may match funds for a charity if a certain level of giving has been reached.

Thresholds have other meanings, as Mary well knew. It can mean the end of one sort of life and the start of another. More than one society has a tradition of associating marriage with stepping over a threshold, as in carrying the bride into a new home. When my daughter’s sister was wed this summer, she and her husband stepped over a broom. It was both a sober reminder that African American slaves did not have a home of their own, did not have their own threshold, and an embracing of their heritage. At one time a sober reminder of the past and a welcoming of the future.

As she comes to Elizabeth’s home, John leaps in his mother’s womb. At this point Elizabeth is six months pregnant. Mary stays for three months, the time Elizabeth would be ready to give birth, and then departs for her home. I suppose we could fuss about the incredulity of the entire story: Mary would have likely stayed in her own village, with Joseph, and been tending to a home, not taking a holiday miles away and staying three months! Stories do not need to be factual to tell great truths. Mary was apparently a robustly healthy young woman, barely beyond girlhood, who was poor, brown skinned and Jewish. She was most likely illiterate, although given where she lived may well have understood and even spoken Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as well as her native Aramaic. As much as I love the beauty of artistic renditions of Mary, I must remember they are just that: art, meant to convey truths but, just like Holy Scripture, not necessarily facts. We would be remiss not to look at works of art and realize that stories are being told and truths being revealed, yet at the same time art is not made to be a snapshot facts or figures. We would be the poorer if that is all that art was or is. Yet we often conflate stories and works of art as the reality.

Today I would like us to remember Mary as she may have been in real life, for it is the real-life Mary and the world in which she lived that says the most about Jesus whose birth we are about to celebrate. We do wrong to ourselves and to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus if we try to sanitize or spiritualize the story.

Mary and Joseph were peasants; the were Semitic. There lives were spent in a city never mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. It had about 1600 people, about the size of Manning. They probably lived with extended family in a small compound and would have spent their days trying to make a living and feed and clothe everyone. They were poor, by the standards of the day and the standards of our time. People “of significance” would not likely have come their way, occupying Roman soldiers, however, might have been a common sight.

This, my friends, is where Jesus grew up. Think on it. Mary must have figured it out, for even before the birth of Jesus she utters the words that are the hope of the poor and, if ever there were a battle cry from God, the battle cry of the oppressed.

No wonder it is Good News!! When you are among the vast majority of people who live on the margins, Mary gives voice to our own yearnings. God has come to set us free, not by intellectual assent, but by the mighty hand of God through the saving words and deeds of Jesus. This is not a personal religion, but a corporate one, a faith based on how we live much more than on how we believe. The life that Mary and Joseph and Jesus lived are much closer to the reality of living faced by the vast majority of people living in the world today.

It does not mean, for those of us who live in relative material comfort, that Jesus did not live and die for us as well, nor that Mary’s message should not also be words of comfort for us. They should be words of great joy for all humans. I take great comfort in the thought that Mary and Joseph were of working stock, with a background that, to a small degree, is like that of my family. Yet as we live in relative peace and security, we must remember that Mary and Joseph, and even the human Jesus, were among the least of us. That is God’s good news. I also like to think about what makes Mary holy; it is not that she was a martyr (she was not) or that she excelled in great feats of ascetism and sacrifice. She did not spend her days in the temple. She lived a life of perfect faith and obedience while doing the everyday things she needed to do to survive. That is why I say we are all saints, for being faithful by definition is continuing to do the work God has called us to do while living in community with one another and in solidarity with those who are oppressed. The poor are the first in the kingdom of heaven and the outcasts are the first ones invited to the feast. Mary knew that!! Her song is the song of freedom; for those of us who have been blessed (and I use the word cautiously since material wellbeing is ours not because we are more deserving than others or because God thinks we are better than others) with material good fortune, it is a song of freedom when we open our hearts and minds to the message she sang and work for the alleviation of poverty and injustice. For those who have not been so blessed, it is a message that God is with them and that being poor and marginalized is not what God intended and working for the reign of God is to work for justice and equality.

I read a recent survey that said most people who attend church believe that their personal relationship with God is what matters most. It is essential, to be sure, to feel that God loves you and that you matter. You do; everyone matters in the eyes of God. But Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus all tell us there is a dimension to the kingdom of God that goes beyond me and you. It is that corporate dimension, that communal dimension, that Mary sang.

Each Advent we wait, but we also act through our liturgy and through our deeds, to bring in the reign of God, the reign of radical restorative justice and mercy of which Mary sang so eloquently.

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