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Prophets: Old and Young

The 8 a.m. homily at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on December 20, 2015.

The 4th Sunday of Advent: Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

         Okay, as today's preacher, I feel I owe you an explanation. When multiple lectionary options appear, the preacher has the latitude to select the lessons to be read. Today, our options were Psalm 80: 1-7 OR Canticle 15 (or 3) which is the Song of Mary, better known to the Christian world as the Magnificat. Expecting that Mary's Song would be part of our Gospel text, I picked Psalm 80. What I hadn't realized is that today's lectionary omitted verses 46-55 of Chapter One in Luke's Gospel, leaving us with the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. So I added those verses back in for your hearing.

         The readings on this Fourth Sunday of Advent move us from the time of preparation and anticipation to a place where the cradle and cross are inextricably connected. Between a lovely tribute to the little town of Bethlehem and the Blessed Virgin Mary's magnificent song of praise, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us in no uncertain terms that Christ’s advent is for “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” It is this kind of tension in which the church always lives as when in the Holy Eucharist – with high delight – “we proclaim the Lord’s death.”

         The eighth-century prophet Micah was one whose prophecies were intended to call the Kingdom back to its common core values of righteousness and justice, especially for the poor. This prophet, having pronounced God's judgment upon Judah, speaks of a future shepherd-king who, like David, will come from the small town of Bethlehem. (Ephrathah refers to the area around Bethlehem.) This king will restore Israel and bring peace. And while this passage is not a prediction of the birth of Jesus, New Testament writers often interpret it as such.

         The imagery language "when she who is in labor has brought forth" might be related to Mary, however the language in the original Hebrew is ambiguous, and the "she" could refer to the nation or something else. Micah the prophet is concerned with political history and its future, and how God will deliver God's people; Micah is not necessarily prophesying about a Messiah.

         The significant message of Micah is that in the midst of turmoil for a nation that has lost its bearings, God's plan will continue to be revealed and will involve leadership that ushers in a reign of peace. This is a message of hope needed in any time, especially in our own.

         "Restore us, O God of hosts; show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved." The psalmist today picks up this sense of longing for restoration and leads us forward into the reading from Hebrews.

   

The author of Hebrews uses the image of religious sacrifice to convey the significance of Christ’s coming. Through obedient acceptance of God’s will, Christ allows his own body to become the greatest sacrifice of all, one through which we are made a holy people.

         We can feel the emotional movement from Micah to Hebrews, a faint hope now answered in the birth of Jesus, a resounding message of peace for all of humanity; for those who have gone before, those living now, and for those yet to come.

         Finally, we are presented with Elizabeth, John’s mother, and Mary, betrothed to Joseph and the mother of Jesus, two women filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith. In Elizabeth’s inspired greeting and Mary’s ultimate song of praise we hear of a saving God who remembers, scatters, lifts up, and fulfills all things.

         Called the Visitation, this encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is full of joy, recognition, gratitude, and blessing. It is also full of theological gravity: as the women encounter one another, so do Jesus and John the Baptist. The theological meaning is accompanied by the sheer physicality of this encounter: Imagine the hasty travel, demonstrative greeting, joyful exclamation, the unborn John leaping with joy, and the song of Mary. As the celebration of Christ’s birth approaches, the four active and responsive bodies in this text remind us that this is, after all, the Incarnation itself unfolding. The body that God becomes in Jesus is the same body that will be offered up for the sake of the world.

These two women, Elizabeth and Mary, are on the margins of social acceptance in their world. One was barren for all of her adult life which in their world was a source of shame and the other was pregnant out of wedlock, also a source of shame in their world. In each other, they found affirmation and community. In each other, they recognized the power of God working in each of their lives as God prepared to enter the world and turn it upside down. The reversals have already begun. These two shamed women became two of the most revered women in all of history.

         "Mary as Prophet," a new sculpture depicting the Visitation between Mary and Elizabeth, was commissioned by Virginia Theological Seminary. The work by Margaret ("Peggy") Adams Parker was recently blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as part of the services consecrating the new Immanuel Chapel in October 2015. I hope you've seen it. If you haven't, "Mary as Prophet" is positioned outside the walls of the 1881 Memorial Chapel Garden and within sight of the new Immanuel chapel.

         Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, wrote in his Commentary dated October 8, 2015, "It is an amazing sculpture. According to the narrative in Luke, two pregnant women meet up and as they connect so the manifesto of the reign of God comes from Mary's mouth. This is the moment captured in this remarkable sculpture. It is a constant and permanent reminder of what the Gospel is really about: it is about transforming society; it is about connecting God with the marginalized and vulnerable."

         "Mary as Prophet" does what prophets do: interprets scripture. Peggy's sculpture depicts Mary as a young teenager who carries the Eternal Word and is prompted by the Holy Spirit to share the world-changing of The Magnificat. The moment prompted this from Elizabeth: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."

         Mary's song of praise rings down through the centuries, as fulfillment of Micah's prophecy, and as full validation of a God who cares for all of creation, loving it into redemption with justice and grace. The Incarnation soon to come clarifies that God Incarnate, man divine, is an affirmation of humanity. This is the message that attracts so many to this Gospel and to Jesus Christ our Lord. This is why I wanted to include the Magnificat in our readings for today. We all need to remember this great song of praise.

         This fourth and last Sunday of Advent allows us time to reflect upon and kindle within ourselves the Light that is the Incarnate Lord. The foundation has been laid for what we will find in the cradle of that manger. Let us all ready to join the shepherds and the heavenly hosts in great amazement and much joy over what our Lord God has done for us.

         Let us pray:

         Almighty God, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary, and greeted her as mother of the Lord. Grant that as the affirming words of Elizabeth enabled Mary in her lowliness to proclaim the greatness of your favor, we too may recognize your presence in one another, and rejoice in the great things you have done for us; in the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ our Lord.

         Amen.