Once upon an Advent, I became an Anglican. Year’s end of 1984, to be exact.
Raised Roman Catholic and having spent my early adulthood agnostic, my ex-husband William and I followed breadcrumbs back to church. Not back so much really as forward. Instead of returning to the pews of our youth, we accepted an invitation to attend Immanuel on-the-Hill. (Yes, the other Emmanuel, directly across the street from Virginia Seminary.) Zach, my firstborn son was just three and Colleen was not quite six months
These little children led us to knock on the door of a church – a door we had not darkened for ages. The liturgy was strangely familiar – like a favorite old song but to a different tune. And — singing this new song was a vested woman at the altar! And we got to drink the wine, as well as, eat the bread. What a revelation this was!
Literally, leaving church on my very first Episcopal Sunday, the rector had a proposition for me. Would you like to join the worship planning committee? Not just volunteer to read or be an usher, but to be a lay partner along with the priest planning the services of the coming season?
Having grown up in a tradition, where women were only allowed behind the altar if they had a vacuum cleaner, I was gob smacked! Floored!
Of course, I would love to! Yes!
And I do confess, this committee work helped fulfill a lifelong fantasy of mine – to be cast as Mary in the Christmas concert. The fantasy of every little Roman Catholic girl (and every little Protestant girl, too, I imagine!)
And alas, it came to pass for me this Advent of 1984. Recently pregnant and obviously not a virgin, at long last I had snagged the part of the BVM. Not quite as embarrassing as liturgical dance, in lieu of a sermon, I starred in a three-part liturgical drama: Mary! Pregnant with God!
Three parts. Three trimesters.
Advent 1. Surprised. Uncertain. Shaky. Nauseous. Scared.
Advent 2. Blooming. Stretching. Aching. Hoping.
Advent 3. Heavy. Swollen. Sleepless. Bursting.
I burst into the Magnificat.
It was Advent in the Eighties, and I wore Blessed Mother blue.
This is the blue season. The hangings are blue. The candles on the Advent wreath, except one, are blue.
And maybe your mood is blue or the mood of those you love and care about is blue, too. And no matter where you get your news, you know too that this little blue marble on which we spin daily spins out of control: politically, environmentally, personally. Trying to have a holly jolly Christmas in this climate is a downright struggle. In the darkness of these blue winter days, our world aches for light.
And on Advent 4, on the eve of the Christian solstice, we have walked almost all the way to Bethlehem. Walked beside a pregnant, unwed peasant girl – who artists for some reason have almost always draped in blue.
“…she was found to be with child… Her husband Joseph…planned to dismiss her quietly… But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… She will bear a son and you are to call him Jesus…after the prophet Isaiah who said, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means ‘God with us.’”
Now this 1st century story is a hard sell in the 21st. And I confess to you, likewise it has always been a conundrum to this Christian. Such an illustrious and exceptional birth was a common motif for the likes of emperors-turned-gods in the ancient world.
There are twenty-four books in the New Testament and only two, Matthew and Luke, pay any attention to Jesus’ origins. Even John who preaches the Word made flesh, the same Word spoken at the dawn of creation, is totally uninterested in the how this came to be.
But we Anglicans welcome wrestling with angels, unafraid to ask big questions of our faith.
Twenty-eight years ago, I crossed the street from my home parish Immanuel on-the-Hill to pursue a quest that has landed me in the pulpit this Sunday at Emmanuel on High, and many Sundays before. And the very first sermon I ever preached in homiletics class was on Advent 4, Matthew 1:18-25, the virgin birth.
And it went something like this.
Hail Mary, never virgin, the Lord is with thee.
Shocked? Got your attention, right?
And what I mean by Hail Mary, never virgin, in the poetic sense, is that when it comes to God, Mary is anything but a virgin. Vulnerable, perplexed, she is remarkably open to the proposition of impossibly becoming pregnant with God. Conceiving within herself all that is divine, all that is holy. Pondering what all this could possibly mean in her heart (as the Lukan version tells us.)
Don’t get hung up on the biology, my fellow seekers. Focus on the theology. The meaning behind the mystery. Focus on the good news that the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us. Just as true in 1991, as it was in Year One.
How do we conceive of this Word of Love within us? How do we hear it, speak it, shout it from the rooftops, live it?
Like Joseph, what dream of God do we dream?
Like Mary, what does our pregnant soul proclaim?
After a pregnant pause, I returned to my seat. I was pretty sure I had flunked my first sermon, but I got an A – or maybe a B+ — I can’t quite remember. And the seminary did not kick me out.
And for twenty-five years, “Emmanuel, God with us” is the gospel I still imperfectly preach. And I am so grateful these past five years to have been able to preach it here at Emmanuel on High. Again, on Advent 4, on Matthew 1:18-25, on the virgin birth.
I will not ask for another twenty-five, or boldly I just might. Look what God wrought with Sarah in her nineties and Elizabeth, as she was getting up in years. Ha! Every day is a gift. Every day no matter how bad or how awful or how wonderful is a holy day. Emmanuel, God with us, sticks by us in the ups and downs of our everyday – and in every way – ordinary lives.
So, Advent 4, let us all don Blessed Mother Blue, and sing along this version of Mary’s song, a song I know you have heard before.
Our souls magnify the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God our redeemer, for God has looked with love on the lowliness of this earth. Generously, lavishly, the Lord blesses peoples of every generation. And in each and every human heart, God plants the seeds of all this is good. So that what was conceived in Mary, the Spirit of God this Christmas may also conceive in us: faith, hope and love.
And the greatest of these is love, right?
Happy almost Merry Christmas!