Sunday, December 20, 2020
In second grade, I was Mary in our church’s Christmas pageant. I did not want to be, but there were no other girls in my class. In looking back at that moment, the planners of the pageant that year must’ve rejoiced: there is a dearth of girl-characters in the Christmas story, after all. The shepherds, wise men, Joseph, and of course even Jesus are all boys. Even technically the angels, especially Gabriel, are supposed to be boys. Girls are usually fighting over who gets to be Mary. I’m not sure whose arm they twisted to be a boy angel that year, but I do remember who was Joseph, because right after the program was over, we walked out together and he planted a big kiss smack on my lips in front of everyone! I was so embarrassed. I have never liked being the center of attention, and of course people thought it was adorable to have these two second graders, Mary and Joseph, kissing, but that was NOT what I wanted my first kiss to be like!
We know the Christmas story so well that we don’t often think about how this strange news from the angels would have sounded to Joseph, to Mary, to the shepherds at first. It is very likely that like me, Mary did not want a starring role. She is “much perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be,” Luke says. “How can this be?” she asks the angel. Surely it is going through her head that this “good news” doesn’t sound too good, really: “Mary, you get to have a baby out of wedlock at about 13 or 14 years of age, and he will be God’s son so he definitely is NOT going to fit in or be a normal child to raise, and in about 30 years or so he will be killed, and a sword will pierce your own soul, too!” I don’t blame Mary for taking a minute to think about this news before responding.
Protestants historically have downplayed Mary’s role, sometimes too quickly dismissing her, in response what we perceive as overemphasizing and even divinizing her role in Roman Catholicism. Yet, Martin Luther had a high view of Mary as an example of obedience and discipleship. Referencing writings on Mary from the church fathers, he wrote that the greatest miracle in Mary’s story is not that she is a virgin who gives birth, or that God is a human being in the form of the baby Jesus, but that Mary trusts that God can use her and that God has indeed favored her, no matter how unlikely a candidate for the role of God’s mother she is. Luther then goes on to say, “This is for us the hardest point, not so much to believe that [Jesus] is the son of the virgin and of God, as to believe that Son of God is ours.”
As we very soon will celebrate Christmas together, let’s remember that our celebrating is not just a historical re-telling of something that happened in the past to other people far away. God’s incarnation is for us, today. The Son of God is ours. “Be born in us today!” we sing in the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem.
In the context of patriarchal first-century Palestine, Mary is not the expected or likeliest choice for how the Son of God, Emmanuel, God in flesh, is to come into the world, but this is how God works. And ultimately, as we heard in today’s gospel reading and in the Magnificat, our Psalm for the day, Mary trusts that if God says he can use her, he can and will. “For nothing will be impossible with God,” Gabriel reminds us.
For all of us who don’t like to be the center of attention, for all of us who are more “behind the scenes” people, this is God’s message to us: you, too, are favored by God. God can still use you, even you. Yes, God gives Mary a unique role in being the mother of our Lord, but Christ is not just born of Mary for Mary, God makes it clear that Jesus is born for us. The Son of God is ours, Luther reminds us. Perhaps that is the most impossible thing for us to believe and trust, that Jesus is ours, too. Jesus, this baby in a manger, is God’s sign to us that we, too, are highly favored and blessed. When we start to think that we’re not good enough, that we’re too sinful, or even that we’re just too ordinary, Mary’s response encourages us to believe in spite of everything else we know that God loves us and favors us, too. There’s really no reason that God should send his only son into the world to be born and to die for us, except that God loves us, each and every one of us, that much.
For all of our questions – “But God, how can this be? I’m just an accountant…I’m just a stay at home mom…I’m already in my nineties…Do you even know where Syosset IS?,” God’s answer is, “nothing will be impossible with God.” Just as the angel calls Mary to be a part of God’s kingdom work, God calls Joseph, and the shepherds, and the wise men, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, and the circle keeps expanding as Jesus calls his disciples, then women like Mary Magdalene and men like Paul and so on and so on until the call comes to you and to me. Just as these characters we know so well each have a different role to play based on the gifts and experience they have, so we can use what God has given us to not just share good news but “bear God” to others, to reveal the Son of God, Christ, living in us. We may not ever get a spot even in the Syosset Advance, our work for God might never go viral on social media, but God continues show us today in all kinds of ways that God has looked with favor on us, his lowly servants and has called us blessed. May we have the courage to say along with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Amen.