Advent 4, Year C: Saying "Yes" to the Whole of Life
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Advent 4, Year C
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Mary has a special place in the Advent season. It’s a time when as the world speeds up and gets more and more frenetic, Mary’s stillness and silent presence serve as a reminder that it is in letting go and letting be that we make a little space in the manger of our hearts for Christ to be born in and through us. Mary is the model of true Christian discipleship, the supreme example of what it looks like to be surrendered to God and to become fruitful—even when on the face of it things seem impossible.
Mary’s fiat, her “yes” to God—“Let it be with me according to your word” at the Annunciation—is the sign for us of the fundamental disposition of the Christian life. Our lives can be stubborn, persistent “noes” to the ever-present invitation to feast at the banquet of divine love. We can miss the daily annunciations that literally litter our lives—the opportunity to let go of ideas of how things should be and behold something fresh, wondrous, new, and unpredictable—in favor of the tried and true, the safe and secure, the repetitive and mechanical.
In a certain way, this is what we see in the story of Zechariah. He too had an annunciation while he was busy with his temple chores—so busy was he “serving God” that he didn’t have time for God when he actually showed up! Zechariah the priest missed it. Mary, the little peasant girl in a dusty out-of-the-way town got it. She let herself be interrupted—she saw the sacred nature of the interruption and turned toward it, embraced it, welcomed it with her “yes.”
Dostoyevsky’s “Parable of the Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov tells a similar tale. Jesus comes back to Seville, Spain during the Inquisition and starts performing miracles. Crowds gather around him, but things grind to a halt when a Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, demands that Jesus be arrested. That night, the Cardinal visits Jesus in his cell and agrees to let him go as long he quits performing miracles. Jesus silently kisses the old Cardinal on the lips and disappears into the dark alleys of the city.
The Church in Dostoyevsky’s parable is getting along just fine thank you without Jesus. Jesus, unconditional, boundary-crossing love is an interruption, an inconvenience, a pest. Like Zechariah at the altar, it busies itself with the “things of God” while ignoring God when he actually shows up. Captured in the thrall of mechanized routine there is little room for the sacred to interrupt. Some of you might remember the Goon Show. There’s a little skit where one of the characters answers the phone—“Hello? Who’s speaking? Hello? Who’s speaking?” The voice on the other end of the phone replies, “Why you are!” “I thought I sounded familiar!” says the character and hangs up the phone.
Advent as a season is meant to shake us out of routine and habit that blind us to the wonder awe of what it means to be a human being. Advent is meant to prepare us to say “yes” to something other than the same old same old. Opening ourselves, our lives, our churches to the unexpected and the unplanned, we are finally ready to receive the gift that never accords with our prepackaged thoughts, concepts, and ideas. That is why we have the story of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth in today’s Gospel. Two outsiders—an old, barren woman and an unmarried teenager—become the vehicles for God’s transformative work in the world. Poet and Anglican priest Malcom Guite has a beautiful line in his sonnet for the Visitation, “Two women on the very edge of things/Unnoticed and unknown to men of power/but in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings/And in their lives the buds of blessing flower./And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,/Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’. Mary and Elizabeth are the least expected vehicles through whom God chooses to “turn eternity into time.”
Mary and Elizabeth are signs for us of how God is always showing up in the least likely of places. In strangers. In people of little account. In the midst of a messy divorce. In the midst of grief, loss, suffering, and even death. It’s our ideas about how things should be, our refusal to open ourselves to the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) that keeps us and the world locked into patterns of exploitation, greed, anger, and violence. It’s our fixed ideas that prevent us from seeing and living from the always present presence and action of God. The little mustard seed of our “yes”, our consent to God’s presence and action in our lives has the power to overturn all of this. The Magnificat is a song of what happens when a human life is lived in full co-operation with grace, when one’s whole life becomes a “yes” to God. The strong, the proud, the rich—they are sent away empty. But the lowly, the poor, the hungry they are raised up.
When we are rich in thought—secure in our knowledge of how things are—Mary’s song tells us that we are actually living a very impoverished type of existence. Like the character in the Goon Show skit, there is little room for anyone or anything but the sound of our own voice. There is nothing outside the world with ourselves at the center. Becoming lowly, becoming poor, hungering for God’s love is an acknowledgement that we need a savior. Our weakness, our littleness, our lostness is the actually the mechanism by which God’s grace begins to work in our lives.
Remember Paul. Three times he asks God to remove the thorn in the flesh and God refuses—“My grace is sufficient to you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say that now he boasts of his weakness. He is a kind of anti-advertisement for Gold’s Gym. Paul wants to become as weak as possible, as transparent as possible, as other-centered as possible that God in Christ through the Holy Spirit might live in him without remainder. Daily life, with all its ups and downs, its disappointments and failures, its interruptions, is the very place where God reveals to us the ways in which we have been trusting in our own strength and not in God’s. The disappointments and failures—the bread and bowl of tears that seem to characterize our going out and our coming in—are the very means by which God works in and through lives. At our wits’ end we turn to God, utter the mustard seed of our “yes” to God, and let God do the rest.
Mary and Elizabeth then are signs for us a fundamental disposition in the spiritual journey—that it is our littleness, our barrenness, our wash-upness, our “too youngness” and our “past our primeness” that is most pleasing to God. It’s at the end of all our striving, when our efforts are exhausted and it’s all come to naught, that God breaks through because there is a little space (finally!) in which God can act. That’s why we have that lovely little line in our collect for today—that Christ "may find in us a mansion prepared for himself. That’s why each of us is here—to make a little space, clear a spot amidst the hustle and bustle (even Churchly hustle and bustle) for our Savior to take up residence in the manger of the heart. He comes not once, not twice, but daily in his visitations. In fact, he’s already here visiting us all the time. Do you see Him?
Mary’s “yes”—the “yes” spoken from littleness and too youngness—flowers, of course, in the birth of Jesus. In a mysterious way, our “yes”, our consent to the presence and action of God within participates in the same process of enfleshing God, making God manifest by grace in our lives. We become to the extent possible in this life little instances of the incarnation in which God reveals to us what a truly human human being looks like, what love—self-sacrificial, self-forgetful, other-centered love—looks like in the world.
That is the grand destiny of the human person. That is the great adventure towards which the season of Advent and the Nativity of Our Lord point. Not simply that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but that following Mary and Elizabeth we might with the mustard seed of our “yes” give birth to Christ in our lives—even here, even now. That is how to truly magnify the Lord—to make a little space, to say our “yes,” that we might say with Paul “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). We gently let go of all that hinders the light, all that smudges up the magnifying glass, and discover in our littleness, our apparent barrenness, the advent of joy, unbounded, indescribable joy, leaping within.