Sermon preachedon the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2008 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York: Luke 1:26-38.
Advent has always had two poles—the two “comings” of Christ. We prepare to celebrate the first coming as we pray and wait for the second coming. We began the season with the latter, with a bit of apocalyptic writing.
In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:24)
Apocalyptic writing is poetry under pressure. The writing is symbol in a state of crisis.
This morning that seems long behind us as we hear the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary. It is a quiet, but awesome, story, about as far from apocalyptic as one might get.
Or is it? I want to speak this morning about Mary’s personal apocalypse and ours.
Most readers and commentators on the story we just heard marvel at Mary’s calm acceptance of the news that Gabriel brings. She does ask “How can this be?” but then accepts the explanation wholeheartedly. “Be it unto me according to thy word.”
In this she is held up as a model of faithful response to God. This oversimplification is unfortunate. It is unfortunate because it is impossible for any of us to live up to this model. There is some major work to be done between, “How can this be?” and, “I am the servant of the Lord.”
I believe that was true even for our sister Mary. True, it may have happened as quickly as they story seems to say, although I like to think there was a very long, tense, pause between Gabriel’s explanation and her acquiescence. A long, tense, pause in which the world—both hers and God’s—hung in the balance.
It is to her eternal credit that she said, “Yes.” But what went on in her mind during that long pause? Whatever it was, it was a vision of her life being turned upside down, having to grasp an impossibility, and deciding that the most unlikely path was actually hers to take. And to go through that process of thought—whether it takes moments or months—is a personal apocalypse.
I take it to be true, that Mary had her own personal apocalypse, because her answer, as well as every word she speaks from here on out, is in the language of poetry. She can only speak in symbol, and symbol born in crisis as we also just heard in her song.
Mary doesn’t have any other way of speaking than poetry because there is nothing rational to be said. The situation cannot result in careful prose or rational speech. She can only sing of “generations calling me blessed” as if she were a prophet, and “the lowly having been raised up and the mighty cast down” as if that had already happened even though it was perfectly, painfully obvious to the rational mind that this was and is not the case.
You can only speak this way out of a personal apocalypse.
Now I submit to you two things: God wants each one of us to have the same kind of personal apocalypse (many times over, actually), and we are terrified of it because we instinctively know that it means that life can never be the same.
You may already have had several of these apocalyptic moments in your life. What I am talking about may actually sound familiar to you. Chances are that you’ve had one and didn’t have any language for it. Many different kinds of experiences cause them, but they all follow the pattern of this story.
They all involve a moment when we can hear the voice, as of an angel, “Hail! Favored one! The Lord is with you!” It is actually the moment of our baptism when we are declared to be God’s child no matter what and forever. Our personal apocalypses are always moments when that divine truth becomes a little truer in our lives.
The hard part is that such a moment often comes as a sharp contrast to the situation at hand. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we have to be in crisis for apocalypse to happen. Of course, we don’t know if Mary was in crisis, the story doesn’t say. In fact, the story doesn’t say anything about her at all. She’s a nobody, literally.
That alone is important. We don’t have to be “somebody” to receive a revelation like Mary’s. But sometimes, as I said, our state of “nobodiness” is a time of personal crisis, an apocalyptic moment, a time of suffering or other personal trial. It is when we are at our lowest and then, suddenly, the good news is at our feet. You are my child. You are my beloved.
And then, as in the story, we have our doubts, our fears, even our quite negative reactions. Everybody in the Bible who learns something revelatory about themselves and God has these kinds of reactions. Moses complains that he can’t speak very well. Isaiah says he is unworthy. Jeremiah protests that he is too young. Jonah literally tries to run away when he has one. He could not deal with a God this merciful.
And then we are called through our doubt and fears to say simply, “Here am I.” We’re not called to haul ourselves up into a fit of righteousness to prove somehow that we are worthy of this revelation. We are called simply to say, “OK. It’s me. This is what you get.” And, in spite of that, God has called me beloved.
That is a personal apocalypse. You never know when you’re going to meet that angel. It will probably be in the unlikeliest of places and times. Now I know some of you know exactly what I’m talking about but some of you are not so sure and want an example. I’ve got one, but it’s personal and feels somewhat risky, but I trust you.
I met just such an angel one day this week in one of those unexpected places. It was in my psychiatrist’s office. Now a psychiatrist’s office is not the kind of place that the average person ever wants to be found—witness that I am very nervous talking about this in public. How will I be judged for having—needing—a psychiatrist?
And that is actually the place I was in when the angel came to me. I was in that place of wishing that I could be anywhere else in the world. I was in a state of grief and frustration and anger over my ongoing illness. And I blurted out one of my greatest fears: I will now and forever be perceived as being damaged. That was the exact used I word—damaged. That is how I felt.
The angel came to me in my psychiatrist. How he responded to me was all in proper psychiatrist-talk, but I heard divine language, especially in the days since that I have had to ponder it in my heart.
I heard, “Who are you to call yourself damaged? I know who you are. I know the illness from which you suffer. You will hurt sometimes, sometimes badly, but you are never damaged. I said quite the opposite when you were baptized and I meant it. I never say anything I don’t mean. You are my beloved. I know it’s hard to accept, but it is just possible that what you call ‘damaged’ is actually a gift you can give to others. You can offer good news out of your own experience of bad news; you can offer healing out of woundedness. So don’t come before me saying you are ‘damaged.’ Say the only thing I have ever wanted you to say and will ever want you to say, ‘Here am I, just me, this is what you get.’”
Well that was my most recent personal apocalypse. It’s the same kind of experience God wants to offer you, albeit in perhaps a vastly different way. Yet the pattern is the same.
“Hey you, nobody special, you are favored.”
“How can this be?”
“Everything is possible with God. Are you willing to be pregnant with possibility?”
“Here am I. This is what you have to work with, but here am I.”
And life is not the same—the low are lifted high, the damaged repaired.