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 What Sort of Greeting?

Homily - 12/18/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 1:26-38

So we have been sharing angel stories through this season of Advent, and I have another angel story to share with you. The story that occurs a little earlier in the text, of the annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel.

But before I read that text, I want to take you to that place where this is said to have occurred. And that of course would be Nazareth:

Nazareth today is a very modern, bustling city, not anything like the small village that it would have been during the days of Jesus. It has the largest Christian community in Israel, and I had a chance to visit there on a tour sponsored by the American Jewish committee.

When you come into Nazareth, one of the first things you notice is the church that dominates the skyline:

And that is the Church of the Annunciation. It was built over the foundation of four other churches, the oldest of which dates back to the early fifth century. It has a very large entrance area, over which the Angel Gabriel presides:

Posed in a traditional greeting fashion (which is not the peace symbol, it is the sign of the Trinity):

I took great heart when I saw Gabriel, because I had always thought that angels were supposed to be clean-shaven, and he has a beard. You know, I thought only God was allowed to have a beard in heaven, so it gave me great hope :)

In any event, down below is this gathering space where tourist groups come and are given an introduction to the church:

And you notice behind there, against the wall, there are a number of mosaics. These are mosaics from all around the world, depicting the holy family, or Mary and Jesus in different settings. Here you see just Mary and Jesus:

That one comes from the Dominican Republic. This is a mosaic from the Ukraine:

Here is one from the Philippines:

That depicts the Annunciation itself, appropriately enough, you see Gabriel there hovering over Mary. This is kind of a startling one, much like the Madonna in St. Peter's Basilica, that Michelangelo did, you have a crucified Jesus on the lap of Mary:

Ad notice Mary's heart -- can you tell? It's filled with daggers in her heart.

My favorite is this one from Korea:

When you go inside the church, there are even more images of Mary in stained glass:

And mosaics:


The one on the left is from China, and the one on the right is from India. Notice how everyone portrays Mary after their own likeness -- she's universal, appeals to all nations.

And of course a beautiful, very large, modern sanctuary:

By the way, this church was built in 1969. But below it is the main attraction. Below that sanctuary, there is another gathering space:

And this is where you see the foundations of those older churches. You can see in the front, some tile -- that's from the Byzantine era, about the 12th century. Behind where this priest is celebrating the mass there (for some pilgrimage group, likely) behind him there are the remains of a first- century dwelling on which they have found inscriptions with the name of Mary, dating as early as the second-century:

And so the belief is that this became a worship site as early as the second century. And the belief, then, this was the home of Mary, where she received that visitation from Gabriel.

Of course, such claims are impossible to prove, but you can point to that evidence from the start of second-century and say that at least for those people in that time, they certainly believed it to be the home of Mary.

And there is a sense, when you enter this space, of something special, something sacred that occurred here. And that is precisely why, of course, why we build such fabulous structures. Remember that story of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus -- what do the disciples do?  Immediately they want to build something, they want to erect a tabernacle, some way that they can preserve this wonderful event for all time.

So I invite you to put away for a moment any doubts you may have about historical accuracy, or the factuality of angelic visitations, and just put yourself in this place. In that sacred space, to hear the wonder and the awe of this story:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

This story speaks to something special that happens in human history. Such stories, of course, were not uncommon in the ancient world. Suetonius, who a Roman historian from the first part of the second-century, chronicles the lives of the first 12 Caesars. And in that history, he informs us that Caesar Augustus was conceived when the God Apollo impregnated the very human Atia, who then gave birth to Octavian, later to become Augustus.

Augustus, as everyone at that time in that part of the world knew, was proclaimed to be the son of God, Savior of the World. So clearly, if one were to make such a claim, one had to back it up with an appropriate story of a miraculous birth that would attest to the fact of who they are.
And you see, what makes the Gospel story of Mary and Jesus so different from that of Atia and Augustus is not so much the miraculous conception (because Augustus could claim the same), it was the ordinary mother. Atia was a niece of Julius Caesar. Born into aristocracy herself, she was very much a part of the 1% we hear so much about these days.

But Mary, an unknown peasant girl (the very humble remains of this home attest to these humble origins), is then part of that larger 99%. Now, while we hear much about Mary from this point on in this story, we have nothing about her history, nothing about her lineage, nothing about her character. You know, has she done anything to deserve this honor? Nothing is said about that. Only that she is engaged to Joseph and is a virgin. And in those days that meant probably about 15 years old.

Now, to be perfectly blunt, in spite of all these wonderful images and statues and icons that depict Mary as the very special mother that she would become, at this point in the story she is remarkably ordinary. And here is where I think these holy places are a mixed blessing -- do they help us relate to Mary as one of us? Or are they more of a hindrance, putting her up on a pedestal, so distant and remote from our experience?

Outside of that church of Annunciation, there are a pair of statues of Gabriel and Mary:

And you see Gabriel there on the right (the only reason you know it's Gabriel is because he has wings on his back, just very small, modest wings). What I love about this portrayal is that Gabriel is down on her level. They're looking eye-to-eye, not overpowering or overbearing. And the response of Mary you see there, with this look of astonishment, this look of "Who, me?", with her hand on her chest.

The New Revised Standard Version, as I read for you, says that Mary was perplexed and "pondered what sort of greeting this might be". Now, if you are in your bedroom and an angel appears to you, do you ponder? Huh? I wonder what this might mean? Is that your reaction?

I've been reading a lot lately Eugene Peterson's "The Message", which is a paraphrase, not a translation, of the gospel. He puts it so beautifully, in his version Gabriel says "Good morning! You are beautiful with God's beauty, beauty inside and out. God be with you!". And then it says "Mary was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that". Yeah, you think? What do you want from me, right?

When I read this story, one of the messages that I think is absolutely clear but that gets lost when we put Mary up on that high pedestal is that this story is not about her. It's about God, and what God is doing. There's really nothing special about Mary that causes God to choose her. I mean, she could be any one of us. Well, maybe not me :) Maybe not the men in our presence, but you get my point -- that Mary is simply an ordinary person, a commoner.

Several of us went to see Rhett Ybarra in Romeo and Juliet at Thurston High School a few weeks ago. And Rhett did a fabulous job portraying Romeo. I had forgotten until I had seen it again (even though I saw it a year ago when it was done at Sheldon High School) that Juliet is just shy of her 14th birthday. She's 13 years old! I mean, if this were modern-day, Romeo would have to register as a sex-offender! Did anyone tell Rhett that? I don't think so :) Aside from that little suicide thing.

So if you'll recall that story, this is just two normal teenagers (very young teenagers, Romeo presumably a few years older), who in a single weekend meet, fall in love, get secretly married, and then they die. So what else is there to life, right?

Mary and Joseph are kind of like that, only it ends a little bit better. Only not a whole lot. Read the story. Gabriel says Mary is 'favored' by God. So just how does this 'favored' thing work out?

She gets pregnant out of wedlock. She almost loses her engaged husband over it (remember that?). Then when she's what, 8 or 8 1/2 months pregnant, he loads her on a donkey and takes her 70 miles. Have you ever ridden a donkey? Even a mile? It's got to be a 2-3 day trip to Bethlehem. When she gets there, it's no surprise that she gives birth. There they are, it comes time, and Mary has none of her support, none of her family, none of her friends. You think Joseph is going to be any help? There's animals there? You know, born in a barn.

And then, remember what happens when that kid grows up? When Mary, and some of the other siblings come to him, and want to talk to him. Remember what he says? "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?" I mean, it's like he turns his back on his mother. A dagger through her heart. And then he gets crucified, for treason. Do you want any favors from God? It didn't work out too well for Mary.

Bible lesson 101: prosperity for one is not a blessing bestowed by God. Prosperity from God is prosperity for all, if it is for anyone.

I enjoy football, it's true. And lately, like many Denver Bronco fans everywhere, I've become a Tim Tebow fan. I mean, you've got to love this guy, who is spectacularly ordinary for three quarters, and then at the start of the fourth quarter, he steps into a phone booth and changes into a Superman costume, and comes out and saves the day. It's a lot of fun to watch.

And you may be aware, Tebow is a very devout Christian who uses his newfound fame to proclaim his steadfast faith in Jesus Christ. All good, and wonderful. Except when he goes just a little bit too far, and he gives credit to Jesus for winning the game. I mean, really?! We all know that Jesus does not care who wins professional football games. We know that Jesus cares who wins COLLEGE football games! Go Ducks!

If you think Jesus loves you more than the other team, so much that Jesus is going to cause you to win and the other team to lose, you need to go back and read your Bible. That's not the message of the Gospel. That a chosen few are so special, chosen above all others, to be the victors of life and everyone else can go to hell. I know some read the Bible that way, but that's not it.

Mary's favored status does not mean she should cash-in her life savings and buy a Powerball ticket because she can't lose, God is on her side, right? No, the message of the Gospel, and the meaning of Christ's birth is good news for all people, all humanity, all creation.

So what, then, does Mary's favored status actually mean? Three things:

First, that Mary is one of us. She is part of that 99%. Jesus is not born to privilege with a silver spoon in his mouth, his family is an everyday, ordinary family. John Dominic Crossan says "Where do you find God -- in power that dominates people from above? Or in empowerment that liberates people from below? Where do you locate the divine -- among the ruling aristocracy with Augustus, or among the oppressed peasantry with Jesus?" You see, this is the challenge of a divine messenger that comes to an ordinary peasant girl.

Second, Mary is given--and she accepts--an invitation to participate in God's redemption of humanity. This is the reason why we exalt Mary to such a high status in Christian tradition. She accepts this surprising new role for her with great humility. 'Here I am, a servant, a handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your will'. Favored status that comes from God is not something to celebrate with a victory dance of great triumph, rather it is a calling of service one accepts with great humility.

Third and last, God's action to redeem our world requires willful participation to be effective, to be successful. We often portray the birth of Jesus as the only thing Mary did to bring the Son of God into the world, as if he changed his diapers all by himself, right? And fed himself and washed his own clothes (mothers could only wish :).

Any mother can tell you that the pains of childbirth are just the beginning of that God-given task of parenting. The true glory of Christmas is not contained in a Bethlehem stable of long ago. That is but the beginning.

The glory, the wonder, the joy, and the hope of Christmas is when ordinary people like Mary and Joseph--like you and me--accept that favored status offered by God, and share, and participate in God's plan of redemption for all creation.


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