Fourth Sunday of Advent 2022
One of the aspects of Jesus that have always fascinated and drawn me is his profoundly feminine nature. Now I know to use such language is complex. It is risky. But at the same time, we do need language to chart and describe different aspects of our humanity however crude that language may be. In Jesus we see somebody who cultivated and created what we could call a community of loving care. Through Jesus' teaching, and in his lived experience, it is the least, the unnoticed, the unknown who are given attention and nurture.
But I would go further; in a society which was distorted and suffering from all the horrors of might and violence, just like today, Jesus embodied a way of vulnerable and suffering love, a way of gentleness, which still challenges us to this day. I am aware, of course, that these words about Jesus risk all sorts of things, a sort of sentimental cosiness perhaps. Of course, Jesus has so many aspects, prophet, lover, poet, subverter, but, again and again, Jesus reminds us of the maternal aspect of God, the God who will not let the lost be lost, the God who will heal you and restore you.
It is humanly unarguable that Jesus' mother was vital to this tenderness in Christ's personality. After all, it seems to be a strange understanding of the Incarnation to believe that Jesus was born with his virtues as it were pre-programmed into him, there was something in how he grew, how he himself was loved and nurtured by Mary and Joseph, which formed his own vision of a humanity and world remade by love. I was recently listening to a talk by Rowan Williams, and he said that the community which Christ calls into being is a community marked out by its care for others and for care of the material and natural environment around us. Mary is an image of just such self-giving care and attention. It is care and attention which brings new life into being.
Another aspect of Mary which is striking is her radical humility. Again, we enter dangerous waters here as there is nothing worse than constructing a Mary who is somehow subservient. But humility for Mary, just as much for her son, is a sign of power. The God-directed self has a capacity for self-limitation, self-restraint, not because these are somehow good and abstract virtues but rather because it is in self-limitation that we allow ourselves to grow beyond the confines of the anxious, noisy self and into the new possibilities of a personality with God at its centre.
Mary put God at the centre of who she was. Not piously but courageously. 'Let it be with me according to your word,' she says to the angel. Here is the human self allowing itself to be interrupted by God, the self which makes space for God to be God. And notice here how those words of Mary, 'Let it be with me according to your word' echo Christ's own prayer of self-abandonment in Gethsemane, 'yet, not my will but yours be done.' Can you see the golden thread of self-giving love that join these words together? Both Mary and Jesus knew that the self which relies on itself is a self that may make a great deal of noise, and possibly cause a lot of suffering, but it is the human self transparent to God which moves beyond the frontiers of the ordinary self in response to the divine initiative. In one of the gospel stories Mary turns up while Jesus is among his followers, and Jesus says that his true family are those who do the will of God. Some have read this as showing that Jesus and Mary had, shall we say, a strained relationship. But it might also simply be that outworking of Mary's intuitive wisdom of letting be and letting go, letting her child grow into a freedom beyond her care and control. That was the gift she gave, she let him grow beyond her.
What I personally love about Mary is her ability to be 'overshadowed.' As the angel says to Mary, 'the power of the Most High will overshadow you.' Now in a lot of life we live in a neurotic fear of being overshowed. You worry that A will overshadow you. I worry that I will be overshadowed by B. This is the dreary, competitive world we create when we lose touch with what Mary shows is possible. We jostle for space. I worry that you are standing in my light and in my way. For Mary this divine overshadowing is creative, generative. The word was made flesh. God within her, God growing within her. God born among us. But this whole story of salvation was begun by Mary's capacity to be overshadowed by the power of the Most High. Again this makes us uncomfortable. Yes, images of Mary as meek and subservient have led into narratives about female oppression but we should not allow the distortions of history blind us to the radical and creative possibilities of self-surrender, of becoming vulnerable to what is greater than you. Out of such wisdom new life is born. Just as examples, often when we stop over-thinking a new insight arises; when we pause, a new idea is spoken. When I stop talking, I hear you.
Mary rightly inspires and challenges and draws us. She prefigures so many of the new possibilities of the divine-humanity so completely shown in Christ. Her care, her compassion, her love sound through the life of Jesus. And, even more remarkably, Mary remind us what it is to be God-bearers in our own lives. As Eckhart said (and yes make sure you have asked Santa for a volume of Meister Eckhart's sermons for your Christmas stocking), 'What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the Son of God years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.'