December 23, 2018
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
In Advent, the future and the past crash into one another as we approach the coming of Christ into the world. In the first week, Jesus warned us of great trials and tribulations, saying, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” [Luke 21:10-11] before the eventual coming of God’s eternal righteousness and peace.
On the second Sunday of Advent, we read about the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, whom our Orthodox brothers and sisters call St John the Forerunner and we know as John the Baptist. John, we were told, went down to the Jordan river to proclaim a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, quoting the prophecy of Isaiah , “Prepare the way of the Holy One … Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” [Luke 3:4-6] Here is an icon depicting John. I’m not sure why the iconographer shows him with wings, but we can be sure who it is because it says so in Greek, up there in the corner. And if you don’t happen to read Greek, perhaps you can make out the words on the scroll he is carrying which begins “This is he of whom it is written ‘Behold I send my messenger who will prepare your way before you’.” [http://www.xenakisiconarts.com/gallery/2015/images/SaintJohntheForerunner2015.jpg]
And last Sunday, in case you’ve allowed the fun of the Christmas pageant wipe it all from your memory, John had more to say, calling the people who came to hear him a bunch of snakes, and admonishing them “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” [Luke 3:7-9] and answering their questions about the messiah with enigmatic statements like “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” [Luke 3:16-17].
Wait! What??? It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, and all we’ve heard about so far is the end of the world? Why haven’t we been reading about Mary and Joseph and that angel that keeps saying “Do not be afraid”? What happened to tidings of comfort and joy? What’s all this doom and gloom in the bible readings? How are we to get into the Christmas spirit when we aren’t hearing about the baby Jesus?
The short answer is that we have been telling the story backwards. Instead of the nice, linear, logical, first this happened and then that happened story that we get when we read Luke from the beginning to the end, we started reading his telling of the Good News somewhere in the middle, in chapter 21, when Jesus is approaching the end of his earthly ministry. Indeed, in the very next chapter, Judas is already betraying him at the Last Supper.
Advent, then, reminds us about what happened to the grown-up Jesus and takes us backwards through the story in order help us remember why we celebrate his birth. All the doom-and-gloom, all the predictions of disasters, all the calls to repent of our sins – all of that is to point out why we need Jesus to come and save us now, just like the people living in occupied Judea needed a savior – a messiah – to save them then. In Advent, we notice that all the terrible things in the newspaper are not unlike the terrible things — great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven – that people were experiencing in Jesus’s time. Like them, we cry out to God to come and save us, save the world. Like the people 2000 years ago who were looking for a messiah, we, too, yearn for a savior, for a sign that God really is with us as we live right here, right now, on this trembling, anxious, dangerous earth. Advent is as much about the coming of Christ at the end of time as it is about the coming of Christ as a little baby in Bethlehem. In Advent, we rehearse the reasons why God become human and dwelt among us. In Advent, we remember why we need Jesus just as much today as we did 2000 years ago. We prepare for Christmas by increasing our longing for the coming of Christ
So here we are on the fourth Sunday of Advent, and we have finally heard that an angel has told Mary that she is pregnant. Not surprisingly, when you think about what her parents will say, she has run away from her home in Nazareth to visit her older relative Elizabeth, whom the angel has said is also miraculously pregnant. In fact, the baby that Elizabeth is expecting is that same John the Baptist whose picture we were just looking at. Remember I said we’ve been telling the story backwards this season? First we heard about the grown-up John, and now we find out about his mother’s pregnancy. [Patty Wickman, Overshadowed, http://www.loraschlesinger.com/wickman_overshadowed.html ]
Anyway, Mary is young and scared, so she runs off to visit Elizabeth. While we don’t exactly know how old Mary was, we’re pretty sure she was teenager, because people got married really young back then. Elizabeth, Mary must be thinking, will help her understand what is happening. Since I was once a pregnant, unmarried teenager, I think I understand Mary’s need to talk to some adult who isn’t her parents.
Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah live about 90 miles away in a village now known as Ein Kerem (the spring of the vineyard). It’s in the mountains about 5 miles from the walls of Jerusalem. Here’s a map to help you imagine what the journey might have been like. [map from “Explore the Life of Mary” by Rebecca Brant, November 16, 2012 https://blog.logos.com/2012/11/explore-the-life-of-mary-this-advent-season/ ]
Even at an optimistic pace of 20 miles a day, that would have taken 4 or 5 days since Mary would have had to walk the whole way. That’s a really long journey for anyone on foot, and the Bible doesn’t tell us how Mary managed it in a time when a poor, frantic, teenaged girl traveling alone would have been subject to all kinds of scrutiny and harassment. Actually, that part hasn’t really changed it 2000 years – life is still hard for poor, pregnant young women.
In any case, Mary somehow gets to Elizabeth’s house safely, and when she calls out to announce that she’s there, Elizabeth notices that her baby starts kicking and moving around. Greeting Mary with blessings and wonder, she knows that Mary is going to have a baby in a few months, too, and that Mary’s baby will be someone really special.
This moment when Mary meets Elizabeth has been celebrated in painting and sculpture thousands of times over the centuries, usually with the generic title The Visitation. In modern day Ein Kerem, this statue stands in the courtyard of the Church of the Visitation, which is said to be built on the very place where it all happened. I’m showing you two different views, so you can see how differently the artist has depicted each face. The plaques on the wall behind the sculpture have the text of the Magnificat in 50 different languages. [artist unknown Statue of the Visitation, at Church of the Visitation built in 1955 in Ein Kerem, a little south of Jerusalem.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I talk about the Magnificat, that wonderful poem that we just heard, I want to show you some other images of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. This 12th century fresco, created by an anonymous artist in the St. George Church in Kurbinovo, Macedonia in 1191, is a typical example of the earliest images of the visitation. Here, the two women lean towards one another, wrapping their arms around each other, their cheeks touching as both look upwards as if to heaven. Except they are already IN heaven, which we can tell by looking at their feet, floating a few inches above the imaginary ground. The artist has made no attempt to make it look as if we are really there, because this is not history, but eternity. The red draperies flying out the window tell us that the Holy Spirit is here, too, in the heavenly Jerusalem, where this is eternally happening. And we know who is who less by their faces than by the colors of their clothing, since Mary is traditionally shown wearing a blue gown to indicate the divinity of Jesus, who is growing inside her, and a red cloak, to indicate that her humanity is wrapped around him. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visitation_(Christianity)#/media/File:The_Embrace_of_Elizabeth_and_the_Virgin_Mary.jpg]
A few hundred years later, an artist named Piero di Cosimo painted this version of the Visitation, adding Saint Nicholas (yes, THAT Saint Nicholas!) and Saint Anthony to the scene, as if they were having a vision of this important moment. Mary is still wearing her traditional colors, but here they are reversed, with the red of her humanity wrapped in the blue of divinity, Mary and Elizabeth look deeply into one anothers eyes, each seeming to silently say, This is a bigger story than just the two of us going to have babies! And, indeed, parts of that bigger story are right there in the background of the painting. On the right, on the wall of the church, there is a painting of Gabriel telling Mary what is going to happen. On the left, Mary and Joseph seem to be kneeling over the baby Jesus, with some farm animals and shepherds looking on. And a little nearer to Saint Anthony, Herod’s soldiers slaughter the innocents of Bethlehem, reminding us that oppressors always make things hard for ordinary people. The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, c. 1489/1490, oil on panel, overall: 184.2 x 188.6 cm (72 1/2 x 74 1/4 in.), https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.505.html ]
Today, artists still make images of the moment when Mary and Elizabeth celebrated together. In this image of the Visitation by Texas artist James Janknegt, once again we can other parts of the story, all at once. There is a tiny version of the grown-up John jumping around inside Elizabeth, ready to kneel in front of the tiny, grown-up Jesus inside Mary. Jesus is wearing a crown so we know who he is. And those two men in the background? Well, the one holding the sign saying “His name is John” must be Zachariah, because the Bible tells us he couldn’t speak until did what the angel told him to do. And I’m guessing that the other one is Joseph, because he looks like he’s holding his carpenter tools, even though the Bible doesn’t say that he went with Mary to visit the relatives. [James Janknegt, The Visitation, 2008 oil on canvas, 18” x 36”, http://www.bcartfarm.com/pp215.html ]
As wonderful as all these paintings and sculptures are, they all seem to stop at the moment that Elizabeth speaks to Mary. This one, made by my friend Peggy Parker, goes on to the next verses. Titled Mary as Prophet, He has filled the hungry with good things, it reminds us that Mary is not just a vessel to carry the holy child. Mary is also a prophet, one who speaks in her own voice about the promises of God. [Margaret Adams Parker, Mary as Prophet, He has filled the hungry with good things (Luke 1:53) Bronze h – 48″, 2015, Commissioned by Virginia Theological Seminary
Listen again to the Magnificat, the proclamation of the upside-down world that thirty years later Jesus will speak of in the Beatitudes where the poor inherit the earth, and the parables where the first are last. In this contemporary, inclusive language reading of Luke 1:46-55, Mary says,
My soul proclaims your greatness, O God!
My heart rejoices in you, my Savior,
because you have showered your servant with blessing!
From now to the end of time,
all generations will know the great things you have done for me.
Mighty One! Your name is holy!
In every age,
your compassion flows to those who reverence you!
But all who seek to exalt themselves in arrogance
will be leveled by your power.
You have deposed the mighty from their seats of power,
and have raised the lowly to high places.
Those who suffer hunger,
you have filled with good things.
Those who are privileged,
you have turned away empty-handed.
You have come to the aid of your people,
in fulfillment of the promise you made to our ancestors—
when you spoke blessing to Sarah and Hagar
and all their descendants, to the utmost generation!
Or, as The Message puts it, God’s mercy flows in wave after wave on those who stand in awe. God scatters the bluffing braggarts, knocks tyrants off their high horses, and pulls victims out of the mud while the starving poor sit down to a banquet, leaving the callous rich out in the cold.
As we peer into their faces, this Elizabeth and this Mary tell us not of victory, but of hardship; not of celebration, but of endurance. Even so, Mary can say “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God! My heart rejoices in you, my Savior, because you have showered your servant with blessing!” Not “you will” but you already have fulfilled the promises made to our ancestors in faith.
Advent is meant to increase our longing for the coming of Christ, not just as a baby at Christmas, but also in the fullness of time, when the world as we know it will come to an end. That’s why we aren’t singing Christmas carols today—to increase our longing. As we endure these last days of Advent, can we, along with Mary, proclaim the greatness of God even as we wait? Can we believe that a world in which the hungry are filled, and the rich turned away empty, is already at hand? Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief as I wait with Mary and Elizabeth for the coming of Christ. Amen.