Explosive Incarnation

Sunday 18th December 2011
Year B, The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Luke 1:26-38

"No I won't! What do you take me for?" brought Anna scurrying across the street from gossiping with her neighbour. "What's she getting stroppy about now! I wish she'd stop dithering over Joseph and settle down! What do you mean, an angel? Pregnant!"

Imagine what would have happened if Mary, a strong willed teenage Jewish girl, had said "No" to the angel. Of course, this is technically impossible  because God 'knew' (in single quotation marks) what Mary would decide of her own free will; but we won't go there, well, not today, anyway.

The point is that Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, was the divine agent of an explosive event in history second only to the creation itself: first, God created history and, secondly, in the Incarnation, God erupted into that history in the form of Jesus with whom 'He' was, to use the technical terms, consubstantial and co-eternal. But, with the greatest respect to the Fathers of the Church who struggled to find language in which to talk about the Incarnation, the Jewish tradition, of which Mary was a part, and which she reinforced in her prayer, the Magnificat, does not deal with what God is but what God has done for us. Mary's song derives from Hanna's song after she improbably bears her son Samuel; and Psalm 126 says: God has done great things for us." The modern catch-phrase for this idea is that God is a verb, not a noun and that is the idea I want to explore today.

There are three great events in the history of Incarnation and Mary was present at all of them. I mean, of course she was present at the birth; but she was also at the foot of the Cross and it is inconceivable that she was not with the followers of Jesus on the day of the Resurrection. Luke tells us that Mary was certainly with those waiting for Pentecost and I have often wondered how she could not have been present when Jesus made his post Resurrection appearances in Jerusalem.

What God has done for us in Incarnation history is to express absolute solidarity with humanity. The way that this is classically depicted is that Jesus renounced his divine attributes and came to us as a helpless child, that he died so that we might be saved, and rose again, conquering death; and although we are used to this formulation, I wonder how much it really helps us to understand what God has done for us.

Let me try to put the idea another way: because we were created to choose to love, to choose freely, of our own free will, it is inconceivable that we can live without making wrong choices. We know, collectively and individually we have made wrong choices, collectively in the mass slaughter of the Somme and the unimaginable horror of Auschwitz and individually mostly in sins of omission rather than commission, in staying silent when we should speak out; and it's important to note in that context how closely these phenomena are  linked, the staying silent and the catastrophe.

But God, 'knew' this all along; and so one way of understanding Incarnation history is to think of it as Jesus being alongside us in our imperfection. As Christians we are often challenged by people who ask how God can be really God if 'he' allows earthquakes or child cancer; and the difficult answer in the context of God's creation is that a world without suffering would be a world without choice. So to see Incarnation as divine solidarity puts God in the vortex of our suffering rather than being somewhere out there. In that context, the suffering and death of Jesus, whatever else they might mean, show us that no matter how badly we behave, even to the extent of murdering God, God's perfect love will be unimpaired; you could not ask for stronger solidarity than that. And, whatever the Resurrection means for humanity - another difficult question for another day - it signals continued solidarity; because the point of Resurrection is not so much what it might mean for us but what it actually means for Jesus who, in himself and through the Spirit, is with us as we seek to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

This post Resurrection struggle with language about God is a long way from that humble home where the angel appeared which only goes to show the limits of  theology in two ways: first, as I  have implied, the language is impossible; but, secondly, rationalising is secondary to obedience to God's will. It doesn't actually matter what we think about our calling, we have to do what God tells us we must do, once we are clear what that is; and often the call will cause us a good deal of trouble. It's easy to veer between sentimentalism and awe when considering Mary's obedience, so the best place to start from is Luke's account which is full of that most un-Christian attribute; joy. That, it seems to me, is what we are most missing in our religious observance. We are deeply conscious of our duty but we take no delight in it as Mary did. We aren't impressed with our own createdness and our own creatureliness; we aren't impressed by Mary's outburst of joy in God's solidarity; and, to tell the truth, we're much more focused on Jesus as a teacher than a brother. We get embarrassed if we think of ourselves as aspiring to divinity, building God's Kingdom now rather than postponing this to some vague place called Heaven.

And so, our iconography of Mary most frequently comprises an impossibly serene, almost nun-like new mother, a pensive bystander of Jesus' mission, a weeping witness at the foot of the Cross, and an extra in the Resurrection and Pentecost.

Don't you believe it! Mary would better be represented as a feisty servant of the Holy Spirit, an anxious and interventionist new mother, a positive helper in her son's mission, a woman of great fortitude during the Crucifixion and a triumphant old lady as the Word of Jesus spread throughout the Roman Empire. She, more than anyone else on earth, knew what Incarnation meant and it is  through her eyes, not those of later generations of men muddled by sentiment and misogyny, that we should see her.