(From a sermon I gave at Mt Hollywood Congregational Church on 12/2, the first Sunday of Advent.)
On one seemingly ordinary day over 2000 years ago, a seemingly ordinary girl had an extraordinary rebirth.
Mary abruptly experienced the presence of an angel named Gabriel, who told her she would conceive and give birth to a son she was to name Jesus, who would be given the throne of David, king of Israel, forever.
Mary was born again. One moment she was a peasant girl. The next, she was royalty. After all, if you are going to give birth to a king, that makes you a queen! One minute, she was a double nobody in her culture: a peasant and a woman. The next, she was singing the Magnificat at the top of her voice, composing eloquent and powerful words of liberation and exaltation and uttering them with authority.
Has this ever happened to you? Ever seen it happen to others? A rebirth from a peasant to a royal, from a nobody to a somebody, instantaneously? No labor before this delivery, it would appear – and yet, there may well have been a gestation period that Mary didn’t consciously notice.
I’ve seen it, many times, in my career as a pastor, organizer, and educator. It never ceases to amaze me. It’s something to celebrate whenever it happens, but Advent and Christmas gives us a special excuse to pay attention. Because we aren’t celebrating the birth of just one child named Jesus at Christmas. We’re celebrating Mary’s birth and rebirth, too. We’re celebrating not just the first birth of one human being, but also the second and third and further births of countless other people. We’re celebrating the potential of our humanity being born into its actuality.
I worked at Stanford for many years as the liberal Protestant campus minister. One of my students was a young woman from New York City whose parents were immigrants from Asia. They ran a family retail business and they expected that when she graduated, she’d go back and work with them. She had volunteered with me in serving homeless people, and I had set her up with an internship in a low income housing corporation. She had been offered a job with the corporation after graduation. We talked a lot together as her graduation approached. She was a very quiet-spoken young woman, facing the toughest choice of her life. Could she do what she knew she was meant to do, and bitterly disappoint her parents? She cried, she agonized in front of me as she made up her mind. She stayed and took the job offer in low income housing development.
A few months later, I met her at her office to go to lunch. I could barely believe the transformation. She had been reborn. She spoke with confidence and authority. She was becoming who she was meant to be. She was doing what she was meant to do. Her potential had birthed into actuality. Call it a Virgin Mary moment!
The Christmas story belongs to Mary as much as to Jesus. It’s Mary’s nativity as much as it is that of her son. It’s about God incarnating in a young peasant woman and in a young Stanford student as much as it is about God manifesting in the little boy to whom Mary gave birth.
How can you prepare for your Virgin Mary moment?
I recently read a beautiful book called REVERENCE by Paul Woodruff, a philosopher at the University of Texas. My office co-hosted him for an event last week at USC. It was no surprise to find that he is a reverent, carefully-spoken, reflective person. He says reverence doesn’t belong to any particular religion, nor is it to be found only in religion. It is deep respect for that which is beyond the capacity of human beings to express or explain fully. Reverence is a vaccination against arrogance, tyranny, and violence of word or action. Reverence is a virtue – it’s not a rule or an ethic. Virtues are rooted in feelings. If you cultivate feelings of awe and respect, the power of those feelings will urge you to do ethical deeds. These positive feelings are more compelling toward doing the right thing than is the fear of punishment for doing the wrong thing. At its best, says Woodruff, religion develops our capacity for reverence through acts of service and ritual.
At its best, the church is a school for reverence – where we practice worshipful awe without containing God in some neat and tidy theological box. In church we are called to cultivate the positive feelings of wonderment and humility.
Reverence is what led to Mary’s rebirth. She was in awe of the angel Gabriel. She was in awe of God. She did not claim her regal nature with arrogance, but rather with humility. But once she had this second birth, she lived into her new being with gusto! Suddenly, she spoke Magnificat-ly, amazing all around her. She didn’t say “My soul magnifies myself!” She said “My soul magnifies the Lord.” But in the very manner of her expression of reverence, she was ennobled. She was more than she had been. Her humanity more closely approached divinity. Her humility wasn’t the false sort that downplayed her true excellence as a person. Her humility was the true kind that recognizes that no matter how magnificent a person might be, she or he still falls far short of the magnificence of God, who always remains beyond our comprehension.
So with the good feelings that flow from the virtue of reverence, let us enjoy the pregnancy of Christmas. Let us prepare for rebirth into the lives we are meant to live, the deeds of love and creativity we are meant to do.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California