“Love” by Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! Welcome to this fourth Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday before Christmas: all of our Advent candles are now lighted, and on Christmas Eve we will light the Christ candle to celebrate Christ’s birth, and that he lives among us. Because Christmas is still nearly a week away, it’s just possible that you have a few things to do: I know that some of folks have had, or are preparing for, family gatherings this weekend. Maybe you will have several such gatherings in the time between now and the end of the year. We hope you will be able to include Creekside’s Christmas Eve service as part of your plans, but if you will be traveling or celebrating elsewhere, we wish you blessings for you and your families. The people whom we love are the most precious gift we have at this or any time of the year.
Our final Advent candle celebrates Love. This is not romantic Valentine’s Day love, with cards and flowers or even in some of its lustier forms: but it is love which is embodied and even embedded in the flesh and blood of humanity. Of course, the love which we celebrate at Christmas is God’s love, but a crucial part of that celebration is that God’s love came to us in the form of a human infant: a kind of love which all but the most abused or broken people can relate to and understand.
The text which Stephen read for us comes from the gospel of Luke, the only gospel in which it appears. This account of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth comes immediately before the text of Mary’s prophetic song, the Magnificat, which we considered last week. Like the Magnificat, this text is also so well-known and beloved that it has its own name: the Visitation. Luke chapter 1:26-55 include a trio of texts about Mary, the mother of Jesus: The Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she has been chosen to be pregnant with the Son of God; The Visitation, where Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth; and the Magnificat, Mary’s song of Joy. But even before Mary’s story, the writer of Luke’s gospel tells us about her cousin, Elizabeth, who has a miraculous pregnancy of her own. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were an obedient and righteous couple; Zechariah was a priest, and Elizabeth was a descendant of the tribe of Aaron. They had been married for years, but had no children — a cause for shame in that culture. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was doing priestly duties to inform Zechariah that he and Elizabeth were going to have a son. Zechariah was skeptical, and questioned Gabriel — arguing with and angel is never a good idea. Elizabeth did conceive, but Zechariah was unable to speak throughout the pregnancy. This was punishment for Zechariah: Luke doesn’t tell us what Elizabeth thought of her husband being struck dumb for nine months.
Elizabeth is a cousin to Mary, so after Mary is visited by the same angel several months later, and informed that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit, Mary sets out on foot to the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. They are both pregnant with children who have been conceived and will be born with a special purpose. Elizabeth’s son will be named John: a man we will come to know as John the Baptist, the one who prepares the way for Mary’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of God, the Messiah, the crucified and resurrected One. But that all happens later. Our story is when these pregnant women see each other at Elizabeth’s house. When Mary calls out a greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps in response, and Elizabeth recognizes that there is a divine connection between these babies and recognizes Mary as the mother of the Lord, and pronounces a blessing on her.
It is not the divine, but the human nature of this encounter which is especially meaningful to me this season. You may know that both of our daughters are expecting babies next year: one is expecting in February, so is 7 ½ months pregnant, and the other is 5 ½ months pregnant and due in April. All our children were at our house last weekend, and I happened to witness our daughters greeting one another. The met in the kitchen and gave each other a big hug, and then stepped back and looked down at their bellies and laughed, because those babies bumped into each other in between them. I don’t know if any leaping went on, but there was certainly blessing, both in their response to one another and in my tearing up watching it happen.
This meeting of Mary and Elizabeth has been irresistible to artists from medieval times to the present. I want to share one of the images I found that I liked the best. This is called “The Windsock Visitation”. [Slide]
As you can see, this is a representational image of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, but there are elements in this painting which are specific to the community which commissioned it and the ministry which they do. Take a few moments to look at the image, and then I’ll share from their website.
This image of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth was commissioned for the Monastery of the Visitation in north Minneapolis, a group of monastic sisters [nuns]. In what has become a well-known neighborhood tradition, the sisters hang a windsock outside their house every other day of the week as a signal to the neighborhood children that they can come in and enjoy after-school activities. They read and paint. They pray and have fun. The sisters celebrate birthdays with the kids and walk through hard times with them as well. The spirit of the first Visitation, where Jesus was so lovingly shared between two kinswomen, is very much alive today and is the inspiration for this painting.
Mary, dressed in gold because she is the woman clothed with the sun, also wears a cape with green stars and blue crosses, which symbolize Bethlehem and Calvary. She is a little fearful of the news she has recently received herself, that she was pregnant with God’s child. But Luke tells us that she put her fears aside to be with her cousin Elizabeth and help her in her own miraculous pregnancy. Elizabeth’s bright and welcoming smile assures Mary, and us, that in God’s plans, everything always works out for the best. The tops of their halos form a heart which meets at the bottom in the wombs of the two women. The fluttering windsock behind them reminds us of the wind of the Holy Spirit, ever fresh, ever new.
My assumption, when I saw this piece, is that the artist was African, or of African descent, but that is not the case. When I saw that his name is Mickey McGrath, I realized that he was portraying women who probably look like the mothers of the kids in North Minneapolis, not his own mother or aunts or sisters. Mickey is a white guy who grew up in Philadelphia. He began drawing at the age of 4, underneath his mother’s ironing board. Now he spends up to eight hours a day drawing and painting, creating works of art for chapels, books, posters and pamphlets. As a child, he drew cartoons at recess, and now, inspired by icons, Gothic and Romanesque art, he paints images of Jesus, Mary and the saints, often in contemporary situations. Mickey’s message is always about the healing power of art and its ability to lead us to light and grace.
I am so grateful to have this back-story about this art and the artist, because it illustrates some things which are important to understanding love, especially the gift of God’s love. Love is not limited to any single gender, culture or ethnicity: this ought to be obvious, but we don’t always act in ways which are consistent with this truth. We tend to represent Jesus — whether in painting, sculpture, poetry, or our own perception — as looking like us. None of us are Palestinian Jews, as the human Jesus was, but that doesn’t keep us from creating images of Jesus which are safe, comfortable, and familiar to us. Brother McGrath painted characters who were experiencing something he will never experience — pregnancy — who come from a race and culture which is not his own. I believe the work of Christmas, that is, the work of Christians, is to develop the capacity to see Christ in everyone we encounter. Elizabeth is a model of how the child within her womb literally leapt with joy at the presence of the child within Mary. That recognition is surely a divine gift, but there doesn’t have to be anything supernatural about it, it doesn’t have to be between women, and you don’t have to be pregnant — ever — to recognize Christ in another person. However, seeing Christ in others does take a willingness to be challenged, and a lot of practice. [Slide down]
It is probably easiest to see Christ in people who look like us. It would be amazing, frankly, for a pastor in the month of December to see her pregnant daughters embracing and NOT think of Mary and Elizabeth. But we are given opportunities every day to greet and bless other people. If we are suspicious or afraid, it’s difficult to recognize the humanity of another person, let alone the divinity of Christ within them. God’s coming to the world as an infant — born to a peasant family, at that — is the clearest sign we could have that God’s love and presence are not dependent on wealth or status or merit. If God’s Son can show up in a feeding trough in a stable, God’s Son could be anywhere: in a classroom, on a factory floor, at the local food pantry, in line with us at the grocery store. If we take God’s love seriously — that is, if we act like we believe it, rather than just talking about it on Sunday mornings — we need to embody that love in the way we see and interact with other people: not only the people who look and act like us, but the stranger and the other, and even the enemy. This is what Christ taught his followers, and this is how the Word is made Flesh today, through people who continue to follow the example of Jesus. Embodying that love may be sharing the joy and blessing of recognizing Christ in someone else, as Elizabeth did, but it is also having the grace and humility to receive that blessing, as Mary was able to do. Recognizing and honoring the Christ in others, especially those who are different from us, takes practice. Recognizing and receiving Christ from others, especially those who are different from us, is the work of Christ.
This challenge, to carry Christ within ourselves and to recognize Christ in others — is not for sissies. There is nothing sentimental about it; embodying Christ is hard work, it takes practice, and it carries a fair amount of risk. Carrying Christ also has the possibility for deep joy, as we learn from Elizabeth and Mary: the joy of connecting with others, the joy of being part of God’s purpose, the joy of sharing Jesus Christ with others. Come into our hearts, Lord Jesus. May the love and the light of Christ shine in us for everyone to see. Amen.