Every year at Advent, when the Mary scriptures come around, I compose what are generally received as terrible sermons. I don’t intend to but I’m also not surprised by the reaction. You see, Mary’s experience is so unique she is unlike any other character in scripture. It’s also the case that the Protestant Church generally does her a disservice by ignoring her outright. To address the former and remedy the latter, I always try to write sermons that privilege Mary’s voice. I avoid making her an illustration of a larger point. I avoid making her experience analogous to our own. I avoid distilling her narrative down into ‘points.’
Instead I just try to let her story speak for itself, which proves difficult because that requires a lack of explanation listeners can find puzzling or just downright confusing. Of course, with Mary, there’s also the tricky issue of yours truly, an obviously manly man, assuming the voice of a woman but that’s an issue for another day.
For all their failure as sermons, Mary has given me some of the best writing I’ve done (at least I think so.)
Case in point- and definitely in the Final Four for Worst Sermon Ever- is this sermon, ‘The Visitation,’ from a few years ago. The text was the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. In it, I tried to narratively imagine Mary’s journey to Elizabeth’s house and the thoughts running through her head, having just been visited by the angel Gabriel. In doing so, I also attempted to weave into the text the many Old Testament narratives Mary’s story hearkens back to- something only bible nerds were able to notice because, again, I refused to stop and explain what I was doing.
So, terrible sermon but decent piece of writing for Advent.
Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.
She gasped and only then realized sheʼd been holding her breath, waiting to see if heʼd reappear as suddenly as heʼd intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her.
He mustʼve seen how terrified she was. ʻDonʼt be afraid,ʼ heʼd said to her.
In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angelʼs glow, it all seemed very ordinary.
It was an unlikely place for a ʻvisitation.ʼ There wasnʼt anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary.
Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone youʼd pick out like a single star in all the sky.
Yet, thatʼs just what heʼd told her.
Sheʼd been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly.
The thought made her shake again.
She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky.
ʻDo not be afraid,ʼ heʼd told her.
Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham.
Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed
to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be.
She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed.
Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angelʼs words, ʻDo not be afraid,ʼ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required.
She knew the story- it was the sort of story you canʼt forget even if youʼd like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his fatherʼs will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go.
She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious.
But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abrahamʼs wife, the boyʼs mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death.
The wondering made her shake again. ʻDonʼt be afraidʼ she whispered to herself.
As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home.
A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angelʼs words growing inside Elizabeth.
A still bigger part of her knew the angelʼs news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever.
Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size thereʼs no room to hide.
And she didnʼt want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.
And she didnʼt want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before theyʼd believe the truth.
With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.
She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long sheʼd fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come.
ʻFavored one,ʼ thatʼs what heʼd called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.
She hadnʼt known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.
Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadnʼt let the gray in her hair or the crowʼs feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child.
Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ʻfavored oneʼ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.
But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that even for Hannah a blessing from God wasnʼt so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons.
Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannahʼs boy was to be consecrated.
Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day.
Everything Hannah had wanted when sheʼd wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.
Hannah- sheʼd been called ʻfavored oneʼ too.
Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that Godʼs favor was also a kind of humiliation, that Godʼs call was also a call to suffer.
ʻLet it be with me according to your word,ʼ sheʼd told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he?
ʻLet it be with me according to your word,ʼ sheʼd said.
Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where sheʼd grown up, she realized it wasnʼt that simple.
Things would never be simple again.
Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. Sheʼd stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells.
She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows.
It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.
Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family youʼd expect to be chosen.
She wondered what that said God.
And what her boy would one day make of it.
At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks.
She got sick for the first time out there in the fields.
It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the
world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me.
Sheʼd asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadnʼt gotten much in the way of explanation.
“The power of the most high will overshadow youʼ is how heʼd answered. ʻOvershadowʼ was the word heʼd used. She was sure of it.
She still didnʼt know how that worked exactly. She hadnʼt felt anything. But she knew that word, ʻovershadow.ʼ
Itʼs what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark.
And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed.
Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale.
Sleep came hard those nights on the road. Sheʼd look up at the sky and rub her nauseous belly. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it: how she could carry within her the sign and the seal of the covenant, as though her womb was an ark; how the hands and feet sheʼd soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.
As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. All of it.
Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different.
Elizabethʼs child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.
But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different.
A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.
She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly.
To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth.
Mary knew: hers was different.
An unexpected, miraculous birth wasnʼt the same thing as a virgin birth.
With Mary, it was as if the angelʼs message- Godʼs words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.
Life from nothing- that was the difference. Not from Joseph or anyone else.
From nothing God created life.
The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.
The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars. The same way God created Adam and Eve.
As though what she carried within her was creation itself.
The start of a new beginning.
A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.
As she walked up Elizabethʼs driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”