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. The darkness of these blue winter days yearns for the light.
And on Advent 4, we have walked almost all the way to Bethlehem. Walked beside a pregnant, unwed peasant girl.
“…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. Such an illustrious and exceptional birth was a common motif for the likes of emperors-turned-gods in the ancient world. And I confess to you, it has always been a conundrum to this Christian.
But Anglicans are unafraid to ask such questions.
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 and many 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; I quote myself below.
“Hail Mary, never virgin, the Lord is with thee.”
“A little bit shocking? But I did get 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. She is vulnerable, bewildered and yet open to this pregnant impossibility. Conceiving within herself all that is divine, all that is holy.”
“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 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 dramatic and pregnant pause, I returned to my seat. I was pretty sure I had flunked my first sermon, but I got an A minus or maybe a B plus — 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.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my savior.