Monday, December 22, 2008

To Be Virgin

Scripture appointed for the 4th Sunday in Advent:
II Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

The mating of scripture lessons in liturgy is assigned in the lectionary (table of readings) in the Book of Common Prayer. At its worst, that means assigned by a committee. At its best, that means assigned by a committee… of men and women who know how to listen with the inner ear, how to employ imagination, people who, like Mary, magnify the Lord.

I am grateful that I do not have to mate our scripture lessons, Sunday by Sunday. That they are assigned puts me in the same boat with you, having to consider points of view not my own. As it is, that takes a significant amount of time and effort each week. If also I had to select the readings, my wife would see less of me than she does. And I suspect I would see less of God.

I say that because the way it is, I don’t get to select scripture that illustrates my pet preoccupations from the-week-that-was. I must listen to voices that, through the liturgy, seek me out, sit me down, and roll over me from two, three thousand years ago; and, in each case, I must do what you must do, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church,” and thank God for it, for that timeless foundational message which is at once so general as to be for us all, and so specific that the Spirit will ride the Word right into the mind, the heart, the gut of one person—as the Spirit entered the womb of Mary—one person who so needs God today, or whom God so needs today, that by that person’s obedience the Word will become flesh, uniquely full of grace and truth.

What to make, then, of today’s mating of the Second Book of Samuel from the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel of Luke? The first of these readings opens with King David comfortably settled in his house after the lengthy battles he has fought, and in gratitude for peace the King proposes to build a house for God. David has a house of cedar—why should God not have a proper sanctuary? The prophet Nathan gets wind of David’s project, and knocks the wind out of it by announcing the Word of God: Am I asking for a house? No! Rather, I will make you a house, O David, a royal house for the sake of my people.

Fast forward many hundreds of years to an unsettling experience for a young woman named Mary. No house as yet for Mary and her fiancĂ©, Joseph, though they want one of their own. Joseph is “of the house of David”, not the kind of house that puts a roof over your head, but evidence that what God promised a thousand years earlier has a very long shelf-life indeed: when God establishes a house, it is established.

Christmas Eve, we’ll get Luke’s full story of just how unsettled life is for this young couple. For now, we glimpse only the beginning: a perplexing visit by a messenger. And it isn’t the UPS man.

Listen to how the poet Rupert Brooke presents the scene:

“Young Mary, loitering once her garden way,
Felt a warm splendour grow in the April day,
As wine that blushes water through. And soon,
Out of the gold air of the afternoon,
One knelt before her: hair he had, or fire,
Bound back above his ears with golden wire,
Baring the eager marble of his face.
Not man’s or woman’s was the immortal grace
Rounding the limbs beneath that robe of white,
And lighting the proud eyes with changeless light,
Incurious. Calm as his wings, and fair,
That presence filled the garden.
She stood there,
Saying, ‘What would you, Sir?’
He told his word,
‘Blessed art thou of women!' Half she heard,
Hands folded and face bowed, half long had known,
The message of that clear and holy tone.”

I’ll stop there. This is just one of countless poems and paintings (and, of course, stained glass windows) considering, imagining, the Annunciation.

The angel’s message? The story’s point? God is making another house, more lasting and yet roomier than the house of David. God’s Word is housed uniquely in the womb of a very young unwed mother who has nothing to call her own except her honest sense of self, her fearless love, and her brave trust in God. This is what God needs to establish a house for the sake of his people. Honest sense of self, fearless love, and brave trust in God.

That she is a virgin seems to unsettle many people, especially those who expect this story to be told in a reasonable way. Madeleine L’Engle addresses that wish in her little poem, “After Annunciation”:

“This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.”

Suggesting that if we want the good new of God in Jesus Christ to bless and redeem our whole condition, irrationality and all, we’ll do well to consider what “virgin” means, not toss it out.

Thomas Merton, in his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” described the true identity he sought in contemplative prayer as a "point vierge", a virgin point, at the center of his being—in his own words, “a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth… which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fanatasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point… of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.”

Let’s welcome one more author, Presbyterian Loretta Ross-Gotta, who says that Gabriel summons Mary from a safe place of conventional wisdom into virgin territory where few of the old rules make much sense, to being on her own, at a place where no one else could judge the validity of her experience. Doesn’t that make the Annunciation sound like the call each of us hears, to dare stand on one’s own and make the journey that faces fear and discovers truth?

“To be virgin,” says Ross-Gotta, “means to be one, whole in oneself, not perforated by the concerns of the conventional norms and authority, or the power and principalities. To be virgin, then, is in a sense to be recollected… The wise men had their gold, frankincense, and myrrh… Mary offered only space, love, belief. What is it that delivers Christ into the world—preaching, art, writing, scholarship, social justice? Those are all gifts well worth sharing. But preachers lose their charisma, scholarship grows pedantic, social justice alone cannot save us. In the end, when all other human gifts have met their inevitable limitation, it is the recollected one, the bold virgin with a heart in love with God, who makes a sanctuary of her life, who delivers Christ who then delivers us… The intensity and strain that many of us bring to Christmas must suggest to some onlookers that, on the whole, Christians do not seem to have gotten the point of it… What if, instead of doing something, we were to be something special? Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.”

Rupert Brooke’s poem “Mary and Gabriel” can be found in Volume II of “Chapters Into Verse”, edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder (Oxford University Press, 1993). Madeleine L’Engle’s poem appears in her book “The Irrational Season”. Kathleen Norris’s and Loretta Ross-Gotta’s comments can be found in “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas” (Orbis Books, 2001).