Under Our Skin
Trinitarian Congregational Church Fourth Sunday of Advent
Anthony S. Kill December 24, 2017
Texts: Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
The biblical figure presented for our attention on this last Sunday of Advent is Mary.
I invite you to reflect with me for a few minutes on how the mystery of Christmas is revealed in her life, her choices, her activity.
Of course, as a former Roman Catholic, I have had a long-term relationship with Mary.
As you may know, in traditional Catholicism, Mary was elevated almost to the level of a Goddess.
It was believed that, as the mother of God, Mary herself had to be conceived without sin (that was called the Immaculate Conception), and even in her death, it was thought, her sacred body did not decay, but was assumed physically into heaven. (That was called the Assumption) But even when I was a Roman Catholic, I was never comfortable with the concept that Mary is the great exception to the human race, the perfect, spotless shrine in which God took up residence.
For me, the mystery and the power of the incarnation are expressed more profoundly when we acknowledge that Mary was just like the rest of us, rather than presuming that she had to be totally unique.
When we assert that Mary had to be, by the grace of God, better or purer or more sanctified than our common flesh and our common humanity, then we seem to suggest that the Christ was so fragile, or so particular about the company he kept, that he could only take on a flesh that was better than human.
Whether you believe in the virgin birth literally or metaphorically, the point is clear:
God wanted to come so near, become so much one with us, that he wanted to climb into a human body. God wanted to get under our skin. And not just any skin, but under the skin and into the womb of a lowly peasant girl.
The glory and scandal of the incarnation, is precisely that God assumed real human flesh in Christ.
Jesus became what we are — fully and completely.
Mary is the symbol of the human flesh that the Word of God became.
She is the embodiment of all that is most glorious and most shocking about Christmas.
The Glory of the incarnation, the Glory proclaimed in the heavens as good news to all the people of the world, is that God has fully embraced human flesh, human bodiliness, wed the divine self to human destiny, in order to restore to humanity the image of God first given at the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis.
And the shock, the scandal of the incarnation is no different: in choosing to embrace human flesh fully, to enclothe the Word in human body, blood, hair, skeleton, –muscles, tendons, intestines, brain, passion, need, sensation — God has also chosen to be enclothed in human will, human choice, human spirit.
In a word, Christmas would never have happened without Mary.
In W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being,” the angel Gabriel speaks these words to Mary:
Today the unknown seeks the known;
What I am willed to ask, your own
Will has to answer; Child, it lies
Within your power of choosing to
Conceive the Child Who chooses you.
God has dared to depend on one woman’s willingness to put herself on the line;
God entrusted the divine commitment to save the world to the fidelity of one human being’s commitment to serve God;
God submitted the holy power to destroy the forces of sin and death to the vulnerable choice of one person to overcome her fear of the unknown future beyond her control.
In an era when the percentage of women and infants who died in childbirth must have been enormous; in a society where pregnancy outside marriage was grounds for public execution; among a minority people who’d spent much of their collective history as vassals of greater political powers; in an age, like so many, when women weren’t allowed to study or learn or to pray in public; God chose to ask permission of an unknown, small-town woman-child to take flesh through her humble body, and her sexuality.
The mystery, the glory and the scandal, is this: Mary could have said “no”, but she said “yes”. Because she valued the will of God, and yearned for the day the Messiah would come, and believed the message that God sought her cooperation and assent, Mary said “yes”. And the flow of her human love and faith and trust became a passageway for the mighty river of divine love.
The glory of God chose to appear within and among and as-one-of the least of the least, and to manifest the magnificent power of eternal love in the mirror of this woman’s very human love.
And is that not how God still chooses to come?
Where none would look for glory, or expect to find either divine or human power, or any kind of redemption?
Where the wisdom of the wise and the politics of the powerful have long ago concluded that redemption is impossible for that urban population, or that kind of a family, or that part of the world.
In what most vulnerable corner of our contemporary planet might the Messiah choose to be embodied?
Where the homeless shiver, and the stomachs of the hungry churn for want?
Where simple and powerless folk are bent and used as vassals to the mighty?
Where teenaged child-mothers and other victims of ignorance and poverty are blamed for their own condition?
If God has truly married human flesh, and wedded the coming of the kingdom to human destiny, then the glory of God will surely be manifest first of all among the poor and the weak and the disenfranchised, the people that the world considers the lost ones, the ones beyond all hope, the ones for whom nothing seems possible.
We, with Mary, are called not only to wait for the coming of God, but to wait on the coming, to bind it’s fulfillment to our own flesh, to become the servants and handmaids who bring it to birth; whether it be heralded by angels from the realms of glory or announced in a private conversation out on the Main Street, or manifest in anonymous Christmas gifts to children in a family shelter; Whether it be whispered to a stranger trapped by an opioid addiction, or proclaimed by a phone call to a lonely and troubled friend, or embodied in a gesture of forgiveness at a family gathering this week.
When Matthew and Luke tell their stories of the birth of Jesus, they offer us models of how faithful people should respond to Jesus’ coming.
We are called to wake, to watch, to wait, to listen to our visions and our dreams, and to respond with a faith and a courage like Mary’s when she was invited to nurture the seed within her; or like Joseph, called to choose compassion and trust when every evidence of law and logic was against him, or like angels and shepherds and magi, seeking and proclaiming and embracing the outpouring of glory in the most unlikely places, where God chose to pour it — not where they might have chosen.
They are the models of what we are called to be — we who profess to believe in the incarnate God.
Can we give the consent of our spirits, and offer our bodies to enflesh the Word wherever it wants to be born in our world today?
Real Christians know, as those first Christians knew, that Christmas doesn’t just happen.
The birth of the Messiah may be at God’s initiative, but it requests, and requires, the willing participation and response of human vessels to truly be made alive in human flesh.
If Christmas is going to continue to happen every year, and its celebration be real every year then Mary’s response to the angel must be our own: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done with me according to your Word”.
We must have the faith, and the trust, and the love, to let Christ in to let God get under our skin.
Then we will be vessels of the glory of God, instruments of the birth of God’s embodied Word in the stables of this Bethlehem. Amen