Rev. Dr. Paul Moore
December 9, 2018
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When I was a boy one of my favorite things to do when downtown Quito, Ecuador, was to step inside one of the many colonial-era Catholic churches. These were huge stone edifices that usually had a very large wooden door in the front. The door was always open, and people filtered in and out all day long. Right inside the door was a big wooden screen, often 4 inches thick, around which you had to walk to get into the Nave of the Church. As soon as you turned that corner the sounds of the street would virtually disappear, and a holy silence pervaded everything.
I would walk reverently down a side aisle, looking at all the amazing statuary and pictures. Being a Protestant, I had been brought up to believe that such imagery was unnecessary at best, and idolatrous at worst, but the calm of the church building in the hubbub of the city gave the imagery a peaceful, holy sort of presence. It was like, even if the Nave itself were empty, the church was populated by memories, stories and personages from the past, that, by means of the imagery, were present again. I didn’t understand it like I do now, but I liked it, in spite of myself. I know other Protestant missionary children who felt like I did as well.
During the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s many things happened. The Catholic Church took a definite turn toward its Protestant brothers and sisters during that Council, rather than the rather combative and distant stance it had taken since the First Vatican Council in 1869-70. One of changes had to do with such statuary and paintings. It decided that in future churches there would be an image of Jesus at the front, and maybe Mary to one side, but no more of walls lined with obscure saints, to which the faithful seemed to pay more attention than what was front and center. I heard that there was an uproar in Latin America, especially Central America.
“What!?” was the reaction of the common people. “Quitar todos los santos!? Take all the saints away!? Jesús siempre andaba en bolón!” Jesus always went around in a crowd!
The Church has often been more wisely led by the theology of the untrained, faithful laity than the educated, invested and sometimes jaded clergy. When you look through the Gospels you see that they were right. Jesus is never alone.
• At his birth there are Mary and Joseph and shepherds.
• Shortly afterwards the Wise Men come.
• At his presentation Simeon and Anna prophesy about him.
• Then he is in the Temple teaching the chief priests at his Bar-Mitzva.
• There are witnesses at his baptism.
• John the Baptist, his elder cousin, appears talking about him.
• Then you see him among the people, teaching, healing, challenging the status quo and finally dying in public.
You might say that Jesus is alone only twice: At his temptation, but no, the devil was with him then, and then angels attended himñ and when he would go off to pray, sometimes all night–but then, he was with his Father. Jesus is never alone.
Jesus is never alone, and he calls us to journey in which we are never alone. We are called to journey with family and friends. In the material provided to us for Advent from the Presiding Bishop’s office it is suggested that this week we take a look at the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth shortly after the angel Gabriel tells Mary she is going to have Jesus. The passage is found in Luke 1:36-56.
When you stop and think about it, that moment after the angel has left her leaves Mary radically alone. She stands to lose her engagement, the honor of her family, and the friendship of her peers, but she just can’t be alone at this moment. Did what happen really happen? She has to check it out somehow, get some validation, make sure she isn’t just dreaming. She finds, however, that she is not really alone. She has out a kinswoman who is also miraculously pregnant, her Aunt Elizabeth.
When the two women meet, there is an amazing mystical joining of souls that erupts into song. Elizabeth breaks into what becomes the first line of the Hail Mary, and Mary herself sings the Magnificat, the great song of redemption that is sung and recited and claimed and believed across the Church from the very beginning of its life. If Mary wanted confirmation, she got it in spades.
But she sings more than a pretty poem. These verses find parallels in two other great songs of women in the Old Testament, people I’m sure Mary was familiar with. I think of the last and greatest of the Judges, before the coming of the first kings of Israel, Samuel.
Samuel’s birth is also predicted and miraculous. His mother, Hannah, was barren, and in those days that was a bad thing. She pled with God that she would have a child, and if she did, she would dedicate him to God. Old Eli, the priest, tells her she will receive her request. God grants her the boy that would grow up to transition the people of Israel from the time of the Judges to the Kings, and she bursts into a song about liberation and blessing.
I think of when the Children of Israel had crossed the Red Sea on dry land, and God had brought the waters back over the Egyptians. Now Israel was on the other side, between an Egypt that could no longer reach them behind, and the Promised Land before. Moses’ sister Miriam (OT variation on Mary) bursts into a song of deliverance and blessing.
In each of these instances songs of praise come at times of transition, of movement from one way of being to another, one when a slave people became a free people, and another when an ad hoc federation of tribes becomes a united kingdom. When Mary sang, she joined with great women from her past, journeying with them and her aunt into God’s future of liberation and blessing for Israel.
But it’s even bigger than that, for faithful people have been singing songs to inspire or express hope for redemption since the beginning of the human race, bursting forth precisely at those moments of movement. Mary’s song, Hannah’s song and Miriam’s song is our song, the song of humanity, longing for the transformation of creation into that great dream of God where the rule of love is life-giving and liberating.
Jesus never journeys alone, and neither do you or I. Last week’s lesson in the Adult Forum was the invitation to say “yes” to the journey of Advent. This week’s lesson is to stop long enough to recognize the company you have on the way. You can take suggestions from the Gospel lesson or Mary and seek out blood family, and that is really important. You can do like what we see in the Epistle lesson, and seek out the community of faith, that is your spiritual family. But whatever you do, the anchor of that community is always our relationship with God. These three, blood family and faith family, both grounded in the community of God, are our journeying companions. The lesson of Advent 2 is to know, to wake up to the fact that you’re not walking this path alone.
So, what does that mean? In this Advent there are many people still think they are alone. They may not look like they are alone. They may be surrounded by family or friends. They may have jobs that earn them a decent wage. If you were to sing the Magnificat for them what would it mean? What is loving, life-giving and liberating for them? What could you do to make it happen for them?
Or they may look very much alone. They are far from family and friends, due to death, distance or displacement. They may be alienated from their communities due to mental illness, unexpected catastrophic loss, or just a bad turn of things. They may be homeless, or sleep in a house with no one else under their roof. What is loving, life-giving and liberating for them? What can you do to make it happen for them?
Remember Mary’s song, that expresses her own exultation at God’s sending of the Messiah to save the world, and at the same time joins voice with not just two great women of the Old Testament, but gives voice to the desire of all humanity throughout all time, that the power of love might bring peace, liberation and life—the great longing of Advent. This is your song, and our song, as we journey together, and it is our marching orders as well.