For the Fourth Sunday of Advent + Gospel, the annunciation, Luke 1:26-38
It’s complicated. It’s one of the eleven options on Facebook for your relationship status. But what does complicated mean? Still living with the ex? Getting back together? On and then off? Something else? Friends with benefits? One blogger called complicated relationships dysfunctional relationships! But—wouldn’t you agree that all relationships are complicated, whether with parents, peers, pastors kids, friends, significant others, etc. etc.?
You have to admit that Christmas is complicated. Wishing we could go back and do childhood Christmas over or just glad it’s over. All kinds of emotions—many unconscious and irrational—swirling around within us especially in the next 24 hours. So be gentle with yourself and others.
And though our manger scenes may look pristine, and our carols sing of a divine child that doesn’t cry, and certainly doesn’t poop or puke . . . if being human is complicated and Jesus was truly human, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the story of Jesus’ birth is complicated, too.
My Advent reading included the new book: A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why It Matters by Kyle Roberts. Certainly apropos to today’s gospel. The author grew up in a conservative kind of Christianity and now teaches at a liberal seminary. It seems, as he writes, that he is working out his own move from a literalistic understanding of the Bible and his faith, to one in sync with science and contemporary understandings of life. Though the author admits that the mention of a virginal conception in today’s gospel helps make the point of Jesus’ divinity, there are problems with it as well.
The early church sanitized the very human realities of blood and birth in the story. Mary needed to be a virgin not only before Jesus’ birth, but after as well. And then to not be stained by the sin of sex, not only Jesus needed a virginal conception, Mary needed an immaculate conception. Or on the other extreme, read through the lens of our day and the last several months, “divine artificial insemination”—without Mary’s consent—could seem abusive on the part of God. Conjecture, for sure, but that’s what theologians do.
Since this is a homily and not a book review, let’s cut to the chase. The author eventually comes out by saying that what is most important for Jesus’ humanity is not the virginal conception but that he was born as one of us, like one of us, all of it. To quote him, “through the agency of Mary, and through the birth of Jesus in the power of the Spirit, something new arrived—a new way of being, a new way of living, a new world colliding with the present one.
That’s not to take the mystery out of the story. Mary has her “how can this be?” moment. How can this be? Why me? There must be someone else more worthy, more ready.
Haven’t we all our “how can this be” moments? Eventually life catches up with us and we realize that it isn’t turning out like we thought, or liked we hoped. The relationship is complicated. Our career is complicated. Our retirement is complicated. Our health is complicated. Or think back to the past year alone. How can this be? The state of our country and the world, the health of the earth.
Even writing sermons is complicated. A week ago I was listening to Pastor Ben’s sermon, and he started quoting the short poem I was planning to use this week—and still, am, by the way. “After the Annunciation,” by Madeleine L’Engle:
This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.
Maybe the Holy Spirit was working ahead of time, but Ben went on to say a few lines I was planning to say! “Advent is irrational, but then again, so is the birth of our Savior Christ to an unwed mother . . . during this irrational (and I would add “complicated”) Advent season, we must let go of our reason, be open to surprise, and imagine the possibility that Christ is born in the places we haven’t been yet.”
Today’s gospel is filled with one-liners that have inspired painters, poets and preachers for centuries. The “how can this be” leads to the angel’s “nothing will be impossible for God,” and eventually to Mary’s “let it be.”
If we think this is only a way-back-then story, we’ve missed the connection to our lives. After all, in baptism God declares over and over to us: “O favored one, the Lord is with you.” In our complicated contexts, we wonder about our worthiness or giftedness, what difference we could make in the world. It reminds me of the well-known quote by Marianne Williamson: “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure . . . we ask ourselves who am I not to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”
Like Mary, our mysterious calling is to surrender who we are, what we think our lives need to look like, and let the Holy Spirit do a new thing within us—transforming our emptiness into a dwelling for God. It will seem irrational. It will feel complicated. But that’s the way God is born, then and now.