December 2, 2018: Incarnation: Finding Sanctuary – Advent 1 (Luke 1:39-55)


For those of you who know that the story of Mary usually gets pulled out on the last Sunday of Advent, let me explain. Let me explain why I’ve jumped ahead, jumped right into the heart of it, landed us on week one of Advent nine months out from baby Jesus, instead of the usual 800 years. Why I’ve started with Mary instead of the prophet Isaiah. Partly, it’s personal: I’m done with waiting. I turned forty-five this year and whether I make it to 90 or whether my journey is cut far shorter than that, I have determined that this my half way point, my mid life, this is where I get serious. And the first thing I’ve committed to as I step over this particular threshold is to put an end to waiting. Life is short: who has time for waiting, I mean really?

If I’m being honest I’ll admit waiting has been a life long struggle for me, so really all that I’m doing is admitting my true nature and letting go of the shame, I’m embracing my true self, giving up on patience once and for all! The writing has been on the wall for a long time. I’ve told you before that I couldn’t wait to sing in the children’s choir at church so when I was five I convinced the choir director to change her rule about knowing how to read before being allowed to sing, Then there was the time in my first year of university I was studying journalism but when Barbara Frum died that year, the national news anchor, I realized no one was going to hire me for her job with one year of training under my belt, well I dropped out of journalism then and there in search of a more immediate sense of gratification. I’m so bad at waiting that every year our rules about when we can finally put up a Christmas tree has been inching closer and closer to November, if I do make it to ninety I’ll be putting up the tree in July! But, enough about me!

In all seriousness, the urgency to get to Mary and her pregnancy and her three month retreat in the home of her cousin Elizabeth is about getting to the incarnation, which may sound like some obscure theological concept but really is not that complicated and is beautifully relevant and so very much needed in our time.  If we could really get our heads around, or our hearts into incarnation, I think we’d make huge strides in living out our faith.

Incarnation is about how God’s love is being born in the world, in our lives, in the material again and again. I think we need to wrestle with what this looks like and what it means in our lives. We’re going to spend all of Advent pulling back the layers on incarnation and so Jesus in the womb may be the right place to begin.

Incarnation is not a one off, it is not about baby Jesus in Nazareth, it is about the Spirit, God, what do you call it, how do you name it, light, divine presence, holiness being born, arising again and again in the material, in the very essence of our lives, born in our hands, our hearts, in our emotions, our sexuality, our relationships, in everything. And I don’t want to wait til Christmas Eve to get to it.

The Eastern churches have always lifted up the importance of the incarnation, they have always understood it as a universal reality, not a one off in Bethlehem. But for the Western churches we’ve taken a while to get there. Until Francis of Assissi came along in the 13th Century the church in her wisdom celebrated Good Friday and Easter as the most important.  But Francis said wait a minute we don’t need to wait until Easter to experience God’s love, if God had taken on flesh at Christmas then surely God’s love is being born in the flesh always.[1]

The Eastern church has always been better than the West at this than the western church – they made it very clear that the incarnation was a universal principle not just that God became Jesus but that God said yes to the material universe, physicality – they understood incarnation in a universal sense, it’s always advent, we are always waiting to see spirit reveal itself through matter, whenever that happens we are celebrating Christmas – it’s good to be human, to be on this earth, to be flesh, to have emotions, sexuality, we don’t need to be ashamed of any of this because this is what God loves.

 I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re not talking about baby Jesus yet. We’re talking about Mary and the problem though with starting with Mary is that you really can’t win with her. Think about it: if you believe in virgin births you must fall along the lines of those misguided folks who insist the world is flat. If you dismiss the whole thing as fairy tale you run the risk of pulling the foundation out of your entire faith. Can you have a resurrection without a virgin birth? Can you have a virgin birth and trust science? Can you dismiss it and still have enough of the story to root your faith in?

Protestants accuse Catholics of making too big a deal over Mary, venerating her to a place where she is as important as Jesus himself. Instead, we’ve tended to make as little of her as possible. I suspect it’s got something to do with the fact that to talk virgins is to talk about sex and we can’t have that in church. We gladly put her away with the rest of the crèche at the end of the season grateful that we don’t have to go there any time again soon!

Whatever you make of it, there is something about this story that has allowed it to be a story that lingers some 2000 years on, that takes root in our collective imaginations in a way that is somehow bigger than the story itself. I wanted to enter Advent with Mary, not so we could muse over whether it really happened that way, I don’t think that’s the most important part. I wanted to start with Mary because it’s a good story and a good story is always a fine place to begin.

The best stories, the ones that linger, the ones that grab hold of our imagination and draw us in are the ones that draw us in to the particular and in so doing reveal the universal. This is what the great poets do, it’s what storytellers have long done, draw us in with a tale that immerses us in the details of a story we’ve never lived but that we know like it is our own.

The particulars of this one are captivating. An angel appears to Mary, gives her this news that she’ll have a baby. She is young, alone, what goes on inside her at this encounter? Has she been visited by angels before? Is she scared, confused, ashamed?  You may never have been visited by an angel with news that you’ll have a baby when nothing in your life is ready for such an upheaval, but I bet you have experienced that sense that the pit of your stomach has just dropped, frozen in your steps that the rug has been torn out from your well laid out plans. Have you felt ashamed for events in your life that seem beyond your control or at least not fully of your making, have you ever worried about what people with think?  Shame and guilt, fear and confusion – those are the universals that keep us coming back to Mary and her angel encounter. This is incarnation.

This is where we pick up the story today. The angel flies back to wherever angels go after turning people’s lives upside down and Mary runs as fast as her feet will take her out to the countryside. Trust me, you didn’t do stuff like that, you didn’t travel like that, yes visiting family was usual but a young girl, by herself, you can be sure there were layers of shame and embarrassment. Regardless of how it happened, it is no wonder she fled for the hills, that she went seeking refuge, or comfort or escape of some sort with her older cousin, anywhere but here. Again, Mary’s particular story slips into the background, becomes the foundation on which we explore our own story. You may never have run away from home but which one of us hasn’t struggled with not knowing which way to turn when life takes a turn, for better or ill? Which one of us doesn’t know the experience of both escaping either into the same patterns and addictions that keep us trapped or having the good sense to escape to the one place we know we will find the care and encouragement we need for such a time as this?

What shame are you running from? What emotions are you trying your best to squash, to push down to ignore? Where are the safe places you can take refuge as you seek to create the space to settle in and accept what this circumstance has to teach you? This is incarnation.

Incarnation whatever it is begins in this story before Jesus ever comes on the scene, so to suggest that the incarnation of the divine, that the presence of God in the material was a one off thing in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is untenable.  Mary doesn’t even speak of the news from the angel, but she walks through the door, crosses the threshold into the home of her cousin and the life growing in her womb reveals to her the divine presence in Mary’s womb. Or to put it differently, the holy presence in one woman ignites the awareness of the divine presence in the other! And who amongst us has not glimpsed a vision of that one?

This is the part of the story that I don’t think we fully appreciate. I don’t think we really own it. I think we like the idea of a spiritual saviour, it frees us of some responsibility. To think that the divine is actually present in you’re and in the other, not just in a theoretical sort of way but for real, it’s unsettling.

Incarnation matters because it is in the particular that we learn the universal. I think of the couples I counsel as they set out to enter a life long commitment and I tell them that this will be one of the primary relationships for them to learn to become the people the divine longs for them to become, one of the main ways they will learn to become holy. Somewhere in the midst of those discussions about whether the toilet paper should roll over or under, in the arguments about whether the tree really needs to be attached to the wall with fishing line, and whether it’s appropriate to fix broken chairs with duct tape, somewhere in the experience of lost jobs and dreams there will be “chances upon chances to learn what it means to be patient, kind, humble and honest, to learn what it is to forgive and to be forgiven, to hope and to endure.”[2]

We have the same opportunity with friendships and communities in which we participate, opportunities to learn humility, to learn patience to see what it means to put the needs of the other first or to simply step back and see that ours is not the only perspective in the room.

The ripples go one, we learn to love through our pets and other animals, through the stunning beauty of snow capped mountains and the subtle sound of the waters hitting the shore.

In this season there is a lot of pressure to escape in the material in the worst possible way, to drown ourselves in store bought gives and too much Christmas cheer but there is also tremendous opportunity in the gathering with friends and family  and family of our choosing to be attuned to the way divine light is bursting through the cracks. We are welcoming the universal Christ, the cosmic Christ ever being born in the human soul, we need to make room for that, we tend to see things in their physicality, materiality, we don’t see the cosmic spirit hidden in everything

In this season there is a lot of pressure to escape in the material in the worst possible way, to drown ourselves in store bought gifts and too much Christmas cheer

but there is also tremendous opportunity in the gathering with friends and family and family of our choosing to be attuned to the way divine light is bursting through the cracks.

So I do apologize if my impatience is imposing. The paradox is that we wait in this season, in this season of the church year but perhaps more importantly in this season of our lives, we wait for that which already is. You don’t need to wait til Easter to know that the light shines in the darkness. You don’t need to wait til Christmas. You don’t even need to wait til next week. You just need to remember that what you await

is already taking shape within your very being, Being born again and again in all that makes you human, in your emotions, your actions, your sexuality, all of it. The only question is what are you waiting for?  Amen

[1] You can listen to more here:

[2] Deep thanks to Teri Daily not just for this quote but for the concept in this paragraph.