Tuesday, July 12, 2016

On Birth and Death

When she was just a young woman, Mary of Nazareth heard the whisper of an angel, bringing her an unexpected word: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Mary, blessed Mary, the child in your womb will one day rule in glory, unceasingly and without falter. You will witness the in-breaking of God’s New Kingdom, and your heart will swell with pride.  Mary, blessed Mary, holiness will come forth from your own flesh.  Mary, blessed Mary, O highly favored Lady, nothing is impossible with God.

But could there have been any words that rang more false for her than those whispers from the angel as she stood and watched her own son’s inglorious murder? Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Gabriel brought words full of hope, announced that her womb would be filled by an Everlasting King, and set before her a horizon of wonder that was, on the day of Jesus’ death, darkened by a pain worse than child-birth. The little child whose hands were bound with swaddling clothes at his birth was now a man whose hands were bound by rugged nails on a Roman cross.

But it wasn’t just some man on the cross, a close friend of Mary’s.  It wasn’t a step-son, or a nephew.  It was her own son, the son she carried in her womb and delivered.  It was a son who shared in her own flesh…her life taken up into his as she nourished him in her womb, nourished him at her breast…it was her flesh on that cross, too.  She gave of her very life just as Jesus was giving of his own.  So, rather than Gabriel’s words echoing in her ears, I imagine she remembered the words of Simeon: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too." All those years, she must have wondered what that meant, pondering Simeon’s words as she watched Jesus splash in a riverbank, or scrape his knees as he stumbled in a courtyard.  And on this great and terrible day, it all became clear.  Whatever God was accomplishing through her son, however this endless kingdom was to become tangible, whenever he would take the throne of David…all of those things would first be realized through a loss of unfathomable proportions. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

Mary was waiting her whole life for this kingdom of kindness to come to pass, never guessing it would come at the price of her son’s life.  The words of the poet Naomi Shibab Nye seem so fitting: Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. Jesus was indeed something Mary held in her hands, as he was once a swaddled child in need of his mother’s gentle caress. She had to let go of her son, let go of her own ideas of how his kingdom was to be ushered in. In the process of letting go of Jesus, she let go of herself, and stood as a priest in her own right: open handed, offering that which she held so dearly, her son, her very flesh, for the life of the world.  And as we, too, stand before the cross, we need to let go of ourselves, to come alongside the sacrifice of Jesus, taking our place as priests, hoping that our offerings of prayer for the wholeness of the world share in his life-giving sacrifice.

Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. 

*A sermon preached on Good Friday 2016 at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM.  The texts were Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, and John 18:1-19:42.

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