2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Cloistered Immensity

Luke 1:26-38

A writer tells the story of an event that took place each December in her cousin's living room. Several young mothers would gather with toddlers and preschoolers in tow. Center stage would be a tall, lush, and very empty tree. Close by was a table cluttered with glue, glitter, pipe cleaners, Styrofoam bubbles and scraps of colorful paper. For an hour or so, there was only one rule in that room. "Be creative," And dozens of sticky fingers gave birth to ornaments of wonder. Sure, there were globs of glue where hair should be, pipe cleaners where legs should be, and glitter crowning the carpet as well as the angel's brow. But soon there were enough ornaments to begin the celebration. With music swirling and giggles overflowing, the adornment unfolded. With great love and joy, the tree was decorated. Now "...because everyone trimming the tree was under four feet tail, the lower branches of the tree were soon sagging, foil and tissue scrambled in chaotic array. The top half of the tree was left pristine in its nakedness. And so it remained through out the season, honoring the efforts of the small trimmers who had come to decorate the tree" (Wendy Wright, The Vigil, pp. 35-36).

Can you imagine this scene—in our classy, Martha Stewart world? Can you imagine a tree adorned with globs of glue—off balance, with a child's abandon its main attraction? Can you imagine this tree standing as is for a whole season? I love this image—this unadulterated child's tree—but I'm not sure I could stand it—an imperfect, human creation—all this unfettered freedom and glittery grace—assaulting the shoulds and oughts of our aesthetic expectations. And yet what better image could there be for this astounding season when God comes to pitch a tent in the midst of our human imperfection—when God comes to love us with the aroma and the need and the cries of a baby?

Christians have always had a hard time swallowing the earthy flavor of the incarnation. Some how we want to make this birth more holy, more mystical, more perfect than it really was. Though God wants to snuggle up right next to our human skin, we want to keep God at an ethereal distance—far enough away to admire, without having to be committed or attached.

Historians tell us that Christmas, as a festival day, was a very late addition to the Christian calendar. Early Christianity grew out of the end of the story, not the beginning. The church grew out of the startling soil of resurrection. It was the Risen Christ, not the Baby Jesus, who was the initial motivator of faith and hope. It was only after this fledgling Christian faith grew into a full blown religion that new traditions were added. We know that the earliest writings in the New Testament—the letters of Paul and the gospel of Mark—say nothing about the birth. And, the Bethlehem story in Luke may well be a later addition to that gospel—written in different Greek with a different style than the rest of the book. The elaborate tradition of the virgin birth really came to fruition in the Middle-Ages based primarily on today's story of the annunciation. We need to know that though the Old Testament quote—a "virgin shall conceive and bear a son" was an inaccurate translation of the original language. What in Greek reads as "virgin" was actually the more neutral "young maiden" in the original Hebrew. Paul makes no mention of a virgin birth—and in a confusing twist, both Matthew and Luke trace the lineage of Jesus through Joseph—and not Mary—even though the tradition says that Joseph had nothing to do with the conception. Friends, what we have in scripture is a very ambiguous understanding of Jesus’ roots.

Actually, all of this virgin birth controversy is, from my point of view superfluous to the annunciation story. I think it may well have been an attempt by a confused early church to keep a fleshy God at a distance. For me, what the annunciation is about is not virginity but gestation. Gabriel's message is not about a sexual encounter with the Holy Spirit. Rather Gabriel's message tells us what it means to carry the holy within us—what it means to give birth to what the Quakers call "that of God within you." Just as we want our trees to be perfect and symmetrical, elegantly balanced and tastefully decorated—so, too, we want our Mary perfect—pure, innocent, and removed from our own human urges. But that is not how it happened and that is not how God works. Mary was every bit as ordinary, every bit as imperfect, every bit as off balance as any of us are. And because God chose to gestate, to grow, to develop, to be born in her, so, too, God chooses to be born in you and in me.

There is a story about a little girl who was standing with her grandfather by an old-fashioned open well. They had just lowered a bucket to draw some water to drink, "Grandfather," asked the little girl, "where does God live?" The old man picked up the little girl and held her over the open well. "Look down into the water," he said, "and tell me what you see." "I see myself," said the little girl. "That's where God lives," said the old man. "God lives in you" (Mark Link). In the liturgy of Eastern Orthodox churches, this notion of an immanent God is expressed by the priest when he shares the holy fragrance of incense. He swings the censor not only toward the icons, the cross, the elements of the sacrament, but he also swings it toward each worshipper—honoring the image of God in each person present.

The mystery of incarnation begins with Mary and it continues with us. This marriage of human and divine, this commingling of spirit and of matter—it is the embodiment of spiritual maturity—first in Mary and then in us. At God's gracious initiative we become wombs for the Living Word; Holy Spirit commingles with our minds and our bodies, our gifts and our talents, our energies and our imaginations. All of this creates the Gift of our lives—the love and work which we first carry inside and then push out into the world. Yes, our vocation as Christians, modeled for us by Mary is to be God-bearers. But as awesome and inspiring as this vocation, this call, is—it is also intimidating—and it is often inconvenient. Yes, by God's grace we are partners in the work of creation. But, it is God's initiative and it is God's timing that counts.

When Sim and I decided to get married, I was not at all sure that I wanted children. After all I had a career to worry about—things to learn and places to go. Now, there was never any doubt in Sim's mind about children, but he was wise enough not to push me. He knew better than I did, that my "career" talk was only an excuse. He knew, better than I did, that the real issue was fear—I was scared! I was sure that this parenting stuff was something that I just could not do. And so Sim and I decided not to decide about children—that is until God decided for us. Despite our illusion of control, despite our disciplined precautions, I got pregnant. And like Mary, I was stunned. I was perplexed. I pondered, "How can this be?" Like Mary, all my fears and inadequacies flashed before me—it was not the right time, I wasn't the right person, I wasn't ready, I wasn’t good enough, I was not wise enough, I was not patient enough to bear life. No way could I do this! You see, I was focusing on me—on my fears—and I was leaving God out of the picture. But, then, slowly, comforted by angel wings somewhere in my soul, at some point, in those first uneasy weeks my fear was swallowed up in anticipation. I sensed some how that this was meant to be, that I was not alone. I could do this—we could do this. Yes, God, let it be, according to your word. Let your word, become flesh in my life.

Mary's story is my story. And Mary's story is your story. Because annunciation and incarnation is how God works. Think about it. Just when you are sure that you have your job all figured out, a reorganization hands you new challenges demanding skills you don't think you have. How can this be? Just when your family seems calm and balanced and complete, you unexpectedly enter the storm of adolescence. Or devastating illness knocks down your door. How can this be? Just when you feel you have left childhood behind and entered the freedom of adulthood, you realize that making it on your own demands skills and knowledge you do not have. Just when you feel you've done your bit to make the world a better place, your aging parents decline and the responsibility is in your lap. Oh, God, how can this be? Just when you've accepted the fact that you are an ordinary, untalented, average person, someone speaks—recognizing that secret, creative, untapped well of your soul—and the God in you is let loose. How can this be? I don't know about you, but in my life I never seem to have "arrived." I never seem to have finally reached wholeness or completeness or maturity. There always seems to be one more frontier—one more wilderness of emotional growth, or professional challenge, or personal integrity—one more place that God conceives embryonic life in my soul.

Mary is the model of Christian vocation, the model of one who gestates and then bears a fresh spark of God from inside her soul out into the world. And like her, whether we are pure and innocent, or wizened and scarred—God conceives new life in each one of us again and again.

The poet John Donne describes Mary's condition in elegant language.

He writes:

“Thou hast light in dark, and shut in little room

Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.”

One writer responds: "Immensity cloistered in a womb. Such are we. Such is the mystery we celebrate this season, immeasurable divine life measured to fit us. It is not simply Mary. She is all of us.... Like Mary, we are the finite earthen vessels into which infinite divine life is poured..." (Wright, p. 54 and 103). We are God-bearers.

Where within you is God? What is the immensity cloistered in your soul? What holy image is gestating within you—nurtured by the uniqueness of who you are? What is it that you are bearing that must come forth, so that creation can be complete? These are the questions that Mary asks. These are the questions that Mary lives. And these are the Advent questions that God presents to each one of us. Do we have the courage to answer? Do we have the wisdom to say, "God, let it be with me, according to your word?"

May it be so, for you and for me. Amen.

Susan R. Andrews