A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Moana just wanted to go out into the wider ocean, something she had felt drawn to since her youngest days when she toddled along the beach near her village in the Polynesian Islands. The ocean called to her. But her father, the leader of her tribe, forbid it due to his own backstory of fear and loss out on the sea. Moana, the title character in the Disney film, spends the first act of the movie trying to get it right, trying to make her parents happy and proud of her as she learns the customs and traditions she will uphold when she becomes the chief after her father. But while she longs for their blessing, she cannot become who they fully want her to be because of that pull toward the ocean and toward her true calling.
The next two thirds of the movie deal with her adventures out on the sea, of course, on behalf of her people, and also the longterm environmental health of the entire archipelago. Along the way she learns fully who she is called to be. She does all this without the full blessing of her parents, but she does receive the grace of her grandmother who tells her to listen to the ocean and follow it where it leads her on the journey.
We hear some very familiar words this morning, especially for those among us who grew up Roman Catholic. The Hail Mary, while known in the NFL as a long deep pass near the end zone while time and the possibility of winning are slipping away, is for many a prayer on automatic pilot that can be said at a moment’s notice. “Hail Mary, full of grace….” (I knew some of you would join in!) The second line of that prayer was first uttered by Elizabeth, Mary’s relative. Elizabeth is herself pregnant even though Luke tells us she’s far past child-bearing years. When she hears Mary’s greeting, the babe leaps in her womb and Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Blessed. I have to tell you I’ve not really pondered that word in relation to this story much even though it’s the very first word uttered by Elizabeth, and she says it three times in her greeting to Mary. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. “ And then after questioning why Mary as the mother of the Lord would come to see her, Elizabeth declares, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Three times Elizabeth says it. Mary, you are blessed and so is the child you carry. You are blessed.
One of the things missing in our narrative about Mary in Luke’s gospel is the reaction of her family and village to her unexpected pregnancy. We speculate about it, of course, and we get glimpses from Matthew’s telling of this story when he focuses on Joseph to whom Mary is betrothed. In that case, the angel Gabriel appears to him in a dream telling him not to put Mary away—essentially divorcing her, as a betrothal, an engagement to be married, was legally binding in that day. Instead, Joseph is take Mary fully as his wife for the child she carries is the Son of God. If it took an angel to help her fiancé figure it out, I suspect that her parents didn’t know what to make of the whole situation. Mary had always been such a good girl, and shown a deep devotion to her faith and her God. But now she comes to tell them that she’s pregnant even though she’s never known a man and that an angel visited her with this news. I can well imagine the sleepless nights it caused them. They would have been worried sick. For her, for them, for their reputation in the town.
Like any normal family, I’d bet that there were arguments with this teenaged daughter over the dinner table. Things said that they regretted, “How could you be so foolish, Mary?” And, “Please just stop with that story about the angel, you’re not helping anything with that obviously fictional account.” When word began to get it out, you can bet Mary noticed the critical looks coming her way from the other women in the marketplace as they spoke to one another in hushed tones and shook their heads. “What have her parents been teaching her? I always thought they were such a good family. I guess you never know.” If I had to I’d bet Mary walked around those days feeling dejected and alone, despised by her friends, and feeling disapproval and uncertainty from her parents.
She felt anything but blessed. And perhaps she even began to see this whole business—her willing yes to God when the angel came to her with news of her chosen-ness—as a big fat curse. So she turns to the only person she can think of, her relative Elizabeth. She was the one mentioned specifically by the angel when he came to visit her. “Even now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” So Mary goes off to see her.
And the very first words out of her mouth are “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Can you imagine what that felt like? When all around her swirled feelings of rejection because of that child she now carried, her cousin looks at her and says, “You’re blessed, and so is the child you carry! Blessed, I tell you. Blessed!” If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say Mary immediately burst into tears of joy.
Wouldn’t any of us do the same?
This past year a group of us here at St. Mark’s read Ronald Rolheiser’s book Sacred Fire: A Vision for a Deeper Human and Christian Maturity. In the final part of the book, Rolheiser points to the crowning feature of a mature life both as human beings and Christians: Blessing others. He points to the life’s work of psychologist Robert Moore who suggested “that most adults live in a world of chronic depression.” Rolheiser quickly points out that this is to be differentiated from “clinical depression, which is an illness that crosses a certain pathological line and take one into a realm where professional help is needed.” Rather, he writes, “What [Moore] is naming … is an inchoate grayness, a flatness, a joylessness that permeates life and robs it of color.” What many of our lives are missing, he suggests, is delight—which he defines as “the joy of being alive, of being healthy, os standing inside so rich a life and spontaneously saying, ‘God, it feels great to be alive!’” (220-21).
Where does this delight come from, you may ask. Rolhesier tells us, it’s in both the giving and receiving of blessings.
The word ‘blessing’ comes from the Latin meaning simply to “speak well of.” Rolheiser states, “Anthropologists tell us that there are three components to a blessing. To bless someone is to see and admire that person, speak well of him or her, and give away some of your life so that he or she may have more life.” (223)
I think we all need more blessings in our lives. Especially from those older than us who cherish and respect us. The ones who truly see us, and tell us that they are so proud of us. The ones who will go out of their way to speak well of us. The older colleague who sees in us not competition but someone who brings skills necessary to the greater good. The professor who encourages us to go further in our studies. The mentor who notices we have a gift in a certain area that could change other people’s lives for the better. “You are a blessing because of this thing I see in you. Don’t give up. Keep at it. I believe in you.”
And here’s the truth, friends, our kids, our teens and young adults need that just as much from us. They need it from other trusted adults. They need to be seen in the totality of who they are as they embark on adulthood with their feelings and understandings all jumbled up, and for us to say, “This thing you do, you are really great at it. I’m proud of who you are and who you are becoming. Know that I’m here with you, cheering you on believing that you will add to the beauty of this life simply because of your personality and your gifts. Blessed are you, among women, among men. Your life is a gift to us.”
Through this process we give them a piece of ourselves. Rolheiser explains it this way, “To bless another person fully is to give away some of one’s own life so that another person might be more resourced for his or her journey…. Good parents do that for their children. In all kinds of ways, they sacrifice their lives for their children. They die, but their children live. Good teachers do that for their students, good mentors do that for their protégés, good pastors do that for their parishioners, good politicians do that for their countries, and all good elders do that for the young. They give away some of their own lives to resource the young.” (230)
To see the delight of a person we bless brings us delight too. And by blessing, we will be blessed.
A word to the children and youth of this parish: know that we see you each individually for who you are and the gifts you bring to our common life. We cherish you for your enthusiasm and excitement, in your questions about faith, and the new ways you look at things. Our world would be incomplete without you. There will be days when you will feel alone, and will think that new circumstances will change how we feel about you. But that is not true, we would do anything to support you and encourage you and to help you see the way forward. You are a blessing to us, and we bless you —we speak well of you—hoping that you surpass us in the joy you bring to our world. We are with you. Never give up.
For the rest of us, the young adults and the ones still finding their way in their careers and life, for those in middle age who are supposed to have figured things out but still at times feel flummoxed by it all, and for the elders who see less years in front of them than the ones behind them: know that you are a blessing to us. We see you and know that you bring so much to our life. Perhaps you didn’t receive enough blessing in your own life as you grew up and still feel that loss: trust the word of scripture which tells us that God looked on us at human beings at the very beginning and declared we were all very good. No matter where life has taken you or what you believe to be true about yourself: You are beloved by God. Become a mentor who blesses others. Give blessings freely even though it will mean losing a piece of yourself through sacrificial love. Jesus reminds us that it is only in giving that we receive, only in blessing that we are blessed. Find delight in each day. Be the Elizabeth for a Mary in your life. As one who is further along on the journey, lift another up. We are with you, we bless you, and we need you.
As we near the end of this Advent, know that the one who is coming brings with him an abundance of good words about each of us. Jesus looks on us just as we are, and he experiences pure delight. You are a blessing to God. Blessed are you, my sisters and brothers, among women and men simply because God has created you. Relish in that blessing from the Almighty. And let your most abundant gift this Christmas be through speaking well—of blessing—others in your life. Give your love, as it is both very much wanted and so desperately needed in our world. Amen.