On the Edge of Advent with Mary
Posted 12/24/2023 by The Rev. Brandon Ashcraft
Good morning, my faithful Advent companions! This morning, we find ourselves gathered in a “liminal space.” From the Latin word for “threshold,” the concept of a “liminal space” comes to us from the well of Celtic spirituality. “Liminal spaces” exist on borders between what was and what will be. They are spaces of transition and transformation. The Catholic mystic Richard Rohr claims that all spiritual transformation occurs in liminal spaces, and that the very purpose of religion is to draw us into these sacred spaces “where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.” So what makes this particular space a liminal one?
For starters, we are still – for a few more hours at least – in the season of Advent, and Advent is a liminal season. It locates us on a threshold between two ages: the age of Christ’s first coming in the manager at Bethlehem, and the age of his future coming in great glory. Based on your presence here this morning, you are truly committed Advent people! And you have arrived at a uniquely liminal place within this liminal season. A place we only encounter every seven years or so, when the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve collide on the same day. The liminality of this moment is apparent when we consider our surroundings. Looking around, we discover that we are on the edge of Advent, because we can see, quite literally, the arrival of Christmas in the distance [gestures to the Nave that is elaborately decorated for the Christmas services later in the day]. And yet, in here, in this chapel, our “Kyrie eleisons” has not yet given way to “Gloria in execelsis”; the vestments are still purple, not white; and the Christ candle of the Advent wreath remains unlit. Our feet are firmly planted in Advent, but our eyes can behold Christmas in the distance. It does not get more liminal than this.
And every year, on this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, we meet the Blessed Virgin Mary. The vessel of the Incarnation. In whose womb humanity and divinity will meet for sake of the world’s redemption. No one denies that Mary is a central figure in the biblical narrative, but she is also a subject of some controversy. Christians of different traditions hold wide-ranging views about Mary’s importance and make conflicting theological claims about her. When the angel Gabriel greets Mary as “favored one,” does that mean, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, that she is an extraordinary human who is without sin? Or, as most Protestants suggest, is she an ordinary, sinful human being whose role in God’s drama of salvation reminds us that we, too, have important roles to play in God’s mission? As Anglicans, I invite us to be true to our identity as people of the “middle way” in our contemplation of Mary this morning. To put aside questions of dogma, or questions about the historicity of the Virgin birth, in favor of living in the grey. In favor of embracing the mystery. I invite us to assume a posture of awe and wonder at this incredible story we just heard.
Today, our gospel recounts the Annunciation: the event that informs Mary that she – of all the women in the world and across the ages – is the one on whom God has bestowed the singular vocation of giving birth to the Savior of the world. This incredible story has captivated imaginations across the centuries: memorialized in paintings, frescoes, stained glass windows, and mosaics in museums, cathedrals, and parish churches around the world. Although the story is brief, its characterization of Mary is rich and complex. In 12 verses of scripture, Mary is described as favored, perplexed, thoughtful and afraid. She begins in a posture of confusion and reticence, but by the end, she humbly submits herself to God’s call.
In his telling of this story, the evangelist Luke paints a rich and detailed scene, but he also leaves much to our imagination. We are left to wonder: what was Mary doing when the angel Gabriel arrived? Was she reading and meditating on scripture, as some artistic renderings would have us believe? Or was she engaged in some mundane, domestic chore? Did Mary heed the angel’s salutation to “not be afraid”? Did she come near to Gabriel, as if they were two old friends sharing a secret? Or did she prostrate herself at a distance in fear-gripped submission? When Mary inquired of Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” was her tone one of genuine curiosity, or indignant protest? Our capacity to imagine this story in different ways becomes evident when we survey artistic renderings of this scene, several of which I have included in your bulletins.
I wonder what moment in this story most captures your imagination? For me, it is one particular liminal moment. That precise moment after Gabriel reveals the full extent of God’s plans for Mary. I am fixated on the moment between Gabriel’s answer to Mary’s question, and Mary’s response: “Let it be with me according to your word.” Before she utters those faith-filled words, I imagine a pregnant silence, while she contemplates the magnitude of what has been asked of her. And in that silence, I imagine that all of creation, across time and space, is holding its breath, as it waits for Mary’s answer. Was there ever a moment when more was at stake? After all, the world’s redemption hinges on Mary’s answer. The God of all creation, the God who put the stars in the sky and breathed life in the dust to create mankind – that same God chose this singular moment 2,000 years ago and this singular young woman in a backwater Galilean town for this pivotal role in his plan of salvation. And it was Mary’s singular response that forever altered the course of human history.
The medieval monk and mystic, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, describes this moment in a beautiful homily entitled “The whole world waits for Mary’s answer.” I invite you to listen to his description of this poignant moment. To the Virgin Mary, St. Bernard says:
The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die [in our sin]. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life. Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet.
I wonder…when will your moment come to answer God’s invitation? To become a participant in God’s divine plan? In this liminal moment on the edge of Advent, with the feast of our Lord’s Nativity on the horizon, I invite you to linger for a moment with this story. To behold with wonder that God’s plan for salvation hinged on the cooperation of a lowly peasant girl in Galilee. Mary’s “yes” gave birth to the world’s redemption. What new thing might God birth through us, if we but have the willingness to say, with Mary, “Let it be with me according to your will.”