s004g01 Advent 4 Lockleys 23/12/01
"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way É" Matthew 1.18
This Sunday Advent 4 focusses us rather backwards, to the feasts of St Joseph on March 19th (this, year A), the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin on March 25th (year B) and the feast of the Visitation to Elizabeth on May 31st (in year C). These feasts are of course usually celebrated on the day they fall and hence perhaps by less than a full congregation, and so are brought to us on this Sunday before Christmass, to highlight their importance.
It is tempting to take Matthew's words about how Jesus was born to mean that Matthew requires us to believe certain "facts" about the manner of Jesus conception as literally true. In particular, we can conclude that God looks on us more favourably if we believe that Mary was a virgin. I personally would not believe in a god who treated people differently because they believed or disbelieved something about Mary's virginity. So I suppose I personally have an agnosticism when it comes to this particular belief. I don't deny that it's possible that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, so I'm happy to affirm the Creed each Sunday, but I confess a considerable amount of scepticism when it comes to the doctrine of Mary's continuing virginity. I am no gynaecologist, but having witnessed two births, I find it hard to understand how a female type person who has had a child could, from a purely anatomical point of view, be considered a virgin - however the child was conceived. If the teaching means that Mary continued to not enjoy an ordinary human relationship with Joseph thereafter, I wonder what this says about our attitude towards intimacy?
Bishop Spong points out that the impetus in the Church to proclaim the virginity of Mary really came when science realised that in procreation, it was not that the male deposited the seed in a woman who only nurtured it - as the ground nurtures the seeds of plants. I am told that "the basic word in Latin for womb was nidus, a nest." (Charles Curran in "From Inquisition to Freedom", Paul Collins p 51). When science realised that it was the conjoining of ovary and sperm, that the female parent had an equal share in the genes of a child, the Church realised that Mary had a much more significant role in the course of salvation than hitherto realised. Devotion demanded that she become even more exalted above the expectations of mere mortals and her purity and virginity began to be taught as being much more critically important.
I would want to say that this desire to exalt the Holy Family above the general "run of the mill" populous like us, runs rather counter to the whole spirit of the incarnation &endash; that Jesus came to be like one of us. I think that it is this aspect of Christianity which people perceive, and sometimes our devotion can exacerbate, all of which serves to "remove" the Holy Family from this immediacy to ordinary people like you and I.
One of the other things that has also served to remove Jesus from becoming "like us" is the doctrine that he was "without sin". Now I don't aspire to be without sin, not that in my case it would do any good me trying anyway. No-one really aspires to be without sin &endash; we consider such people "prigs". I enjoy life too much. I enjoy walking along the beach front and the figures of bikini clad female type persons gladdens my heart. I can't imagine Jesus doing anything else, should he have had the opportunity J. I must admit I don't especially want to return to the "good old days" when swimming costumes were considerably more modest.
But the reason that the first disciples described Jesus as being "without sin" was that he did nothing to deserve being crucified. And this should inspire us to consider just why the religious authorities took this path. It needs to be said that if Jesus had actually claimed to be the Son of God, the religious authorities were probably justified (if they had made proper enquiries and come to a different view) to have him killed. There is certainly no lack of people who claim to be someone great, ready to lead people astray, especially around Jerusalem - but in reality everywhere. We have our own serial pest - Mr Peter Hoare - who disrupts public occasions. He suffers delusions of grandeur that he is Jesus. Religious authorities are right to protect the ordinary public from such characters. In reality the tests are fairly easy. When people suggest others should give all their money to them, this is a fair indication that someone is trying to lead someone else astray. When Jesus talked about giving money, he suggested people give it to the poor who needed it, which is always a fair indication that God is inspiring someone.
So simply proclaiming that we believe that Jesus was the Son of God doesn't actually get us very far in how we are to exercise our faith. If the religious authorities could be justified in their actions, (that they were simply misguided in what they did, as Jesus himself said: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing") it really doesn't account for the instant intensity of their anger. This anger began right from the first contact Jesus had with the authorities. It is in the third chapter of Mark's gospel that we are told that "the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him." And in Mark's (14.65) account of the trial, it has "the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes" who physically assaulted Jesus.
The other thing that talking about the virginity of the Blessed Virgin is that we can be seduced into thinking that the basic Christian message is a commendation of chastity before marriage. I suspect that there are many in our society who actually think that this is the main teaching of the Church, along with the evils of "pokies". Now the reality is that if this was the message Jesus came to bring, it was hardly likely that the religious authorities would have disagreed with Jesus at all. They would more likely promote him to chief scribe J. It is no wonder that people haven't got the Christmass message, when we ourselves are not sure what our message is.
Bishop Phillip spoke to our Parish Council recently about the Church needing to be aware of just what our "product" is (speaking in management terms). Recently I was blessed with a gift voucher from the Mothers' Union for my work, and I chose two books: "Godlust - Facing the Demonic, Embracing the Divine" by Kerry Walters, Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College and "From Inquisition to Freedom" by the Australian Catholic Priest and Religious Commentator, Fr. Paul Collins. I immediately associated the invitation of Bishop Phillip with the words of the Sri Lankan theologian, Fr Tissa Balasuriya who said: "The question of what salvation is, from what, to what, by whom and how, remains a focal point for Asian theology." (Collins p105) Bishop Phillip invites us to explore what we as people actually believe, not to trot out the answers we were given in our preparation for Confirmation.
I wonder just how many people in our society think that because they weren't chaste before they were married, they are now quite beyond redemption? Of course, thinking along this line means that the whole teaching about forgiveness and new life is not even considered.
It is my strong contention that the real reason the authorities were intend on having Jesus killed was that Jesus associated with people other than themselves. And, of course, this is the essence of the incarnation - which we celebrate at Christmass - that Jesus came and was born of poor peasant parents &endash; people who were not any different from you and me and the rest of the mass of humanity. God did not choose Mary and Joseph because they were in any way different from the rest of humanity. God chose Mary and Joseph because they were indistinguishable from the rest of humanity. So God comes to us and to all people and accepts our offerings and the offerings of other people, where they are and who they are.
This means that we too do not have to become better people before God will deign to come into our lives. We, each of us, indeed each and every person, already bear the imprint of the Almighty. In our uniqueness and in our ordinariness, we have all been made in the image of God, and God continues to work through us as we are. We do not have to put on long white frocks like I do each Sunday morning. You and I, exercise our real ministries as we do as Jesus did, seeking out others with whom to live in harmony.
Indeed, as I come to think about it, the darker side of thinking that the Holy Family were different from ordinary people, would be to put more urgency and fear into our woeful attempts to live more closely the religious life. "If Mary and Joseph were peasants, clearly the standards required by religion are not beyond anyone ..."
Those who know me will not be surprised when I say how delighted I was to read the words of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya who said "Therefore the mission of the Church is not so much to convert to Christianity as to convert all to humanity." (Paul Collins p105)
So Jesus came, not to make us "more religious", or primarily to forgive us our sins or to get us to proclaim his special status to the rest of humanity, for all people to accept him as such or go to hell. No, the primary purpose of the incarnation is that we too might seek out others with whom to live in harmony.
Jesus was born in this way ... If we go down the track of saying that the important thing is that Mary was a virgin, we give ourselves the task of trying to convince everyone else of this fact, which might be nice, but in the end is not likely to affect the course of this world very much. And of course, this is not either of the first or the second of the great commandments which Jesus gave us. If we go down the track of saying that the important thing is that we can find the divine in all people, then it is rather more likely that the course of this world might be bettered as people look for and find this divine in others. And at least this seems to inspire us to love our neighbour.
The incarnation means that God sought out Joseph and Mary, accepted their offering to raise the Holy Child, and to live in harmony with them, and so Jesus seeks us out, accepts our offerings, and lives in harmony with us. We, in turn, are merely bidden to do likewise - to follow him - to seek out others, to accept their offerings and so to live in harmony with all.
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