Sunday 20 December 2020 St Andrews Anglican Church
Luke 1: 26-38: The Sublimation of God
© Richard Fay
I expect if I was a first century reader of Luke’s Gospel, I may likely burst into laughter at the absurdity of what I was reading. The words “greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you” is as nonsensical in the context of the culture and the situation Mary finds her self in as Jesus saying blessed are the poor. It is difficult to imagine a less favoured person than an unmarried girl, let alone one who is about to be told that she is with child. This must be some kind of angelic sick joke. We read that Mary was much perplexed. Perhaps that is the understatement of the entirety of Scripture. Yet again, a second time the angel insists that Mary has found favour with God.
What is the angel doing? In bestowing blessing, the angel is empowering Mary. Empowerment is the starting point of all that God does in us.
At the end of this visitation, Mary’s closing words “let it be with me according to your word” echo throughout two millennia as the bedrock of feminist theology. It is not a submissive “do whatever you want, I’m just a girl” defeatism, but full, conscious and extraordinarily courageous consent to mystery. It is a statement that usurps every merely rational assertion by its sheer trans-rationality. It is not less, it is more, because it is bedded in relational trust and reciprocity. Is it possible that Mary could see not only in Gabriel’s promise to her but also in the mention of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that something new was afoot? That somehow, women, trust, relationship, willingness and full engagement were thrust into the story that has always been about men, authority, kingship, hierarchy and power?
The answer, based on the Magnificat that immediately follows this visitation, is an unequivocal yes. She is not naive or ignorant, as many male readers might suspect. She is fully aware and prophetically insightful. Her words “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” tell us that this is and has always been the mission of God as revealed throughout the prophets of the Old Testament: To turn foolish human wisdom on its head and reveal the scarcity models of limited human power as impotent, and replace
it with the endless reserves of God’s loving, holy justice for those at the bottom of the pile.
Even before we get to this passage, a priest – Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth – has been struck mute for his disbelief at the angel’s words, in stark contrast to Mary’s great faith. This muteness was only lifted when Elizabeth spoke up at John’s circumcision and named him – something surely no woman had ever done. In Luke’s account, it is women who overturn the notion of kingship, laying the grounds for what Jesus’ life and work was to be. In Matthew’s Gospel, we read that Joseph was planning to quietly divorce Mary. Men keep failing the test. In contrast, women keep rising to the occasion. There is the wonderful example of the perpetual prayer of Anna in the temple. Apart from wise old Simeon and perhaps a few bedraggled shepherds (whose gender is not revealed), it is women who shape the formative days of Advent. It’s not that God suddenly became anti-male, it’s simply that when you have always had a position of entitlement and power, you cannot see what you cannot see. When God is going to do something new, he needs people who are not blinded by their biases. We even assume the masculinity of Gabriel. As far as I know, messengers without human biology are genderless.
God is the ultimate recycler. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted, not even the superseded notions of kingship and priesthood.
Tracey’s partner would lose it with her every week, and would hit her until she bled. Tracey learned to even fear the footy on the TV, because she knew if her partner’s team lost, he would take it out on her. He didn’t seem to need much of a reason to pour out his brutality. She’d cover the cuts and bruises, tell others she was clumsy, trying to cover her shame and protect his reputation. Then one day, when he started hitting one of the children, she’d had enough. She found a women’s refuge and got herself and her kids out of there.
After therapy and support from some very caring people, Tracey wanted to give back, so she started a group for women who are victims of domestic violence. These women don’t just find solace in Tracey’s group, they find solidarity, they find worth and strength and restoration. They discover that the fierce protective love they hold
for their children is greater than the weakness of the violence they have experienced in the past. In psychological parlance, Tracey has sublimated her pain and her shame. She has transformed them into strength and beauty.
Tracey is in Mary’s kingdom, for this is what God did in Mary. God is sublimating. The last becomes first, the least becomes the greatest. Violence and domination, certainty and control are all superseded by inclusion and partnership. Surely this is why Mary was found at the foot of the cross 33 years later. She understood that somehow, her son would be the last sacrificial victim and make every earthly notion of kingship look feeble in comparison. Her son is an eternal king who speaks to the fallacy of passing kingdoms. “And of his kingdom there will be no end.” She never forgot the angel’s words, but stored all this in her heart, the greatest repository of truth, which only someone outside the male-dominated system could comprehend.
The German theologian Karl Barth suggested that the revelation of God in Christ was the sublimation of religion. I am proposing the the revelation of Mary became the sublimation of all society. It has taken us 2,000 years to see this, and still too few do. If we are willing to peer more deeply into Mary’s revelation, it has endlessly life giving ramifications for how we order our world and imagine a future where peace and goodwill to all humanity might become an increasing reality.