This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The Revised Common Lectionary, Advent 4A: Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; and Matthew 1:18-25. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
A couple of weeks ago our choir and the brass quartet offered a really lovely service of Advent Lessons and Carols on the evening of Second Advent. We had things set up a little differently than you usually see our chancel and I hear later that someone had asked, “What’s all that Catholic stuff doing on the altar?” I was confused by the question because we always have “Catholic stuff” on the altar!
We have seasonally colored frontals. We have this pure white “fair linen” and this smaller piece of linen with a funny Latin name on which we set the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist. We have a chalice and a patten and a colored veil. We have candles! All of that is “Catholic stuff” and we always have it here on the altar, so I was confused by the question.
Then I realized that what the questioner was asking about were these . . . the icons that we place on the altar during our services of Compline on the last Sunday evening of each month and that I had thought would make a nice addition to the prayerful atmosphere of lessons and carols. This one is a representation of the Madonna and Child known in Greek as Maria Theotokos — which means “Mary the God-Bearer.” The other is called the Christus Pantokrator (the words mean “Christ All-Mighty”) and depicts Christ as a teacher or as the stern-but-merciful, all-powerful judge of humanity. They are actually not so much Catholic as Orthodox. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icons are an aid to prayer; they are called “windows into heaven.”
For that reason, icons are typically not realistic; they are very “wooden,” very simple, almost cartoonish. Much is left to the viewer’s, the prayer’s imagination. I love to pray with icons and with other “visual aids,” with paintings, photographs, candles, flowers, all that “Catholic” stuff. It is one of the beauties of our Anglican tradition that we understand worship and prayer to be an activity of the whole person, to engage all of our senses. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist wrote. (Psalm 34:8) We take those words seriously and so we don’t exclude any form of prayer or spirituality; we don’t distinguish between what is catholic or what is protestant. If it’s helpful in prayer, if it offers an aid to our understanding or our relationship with God, we thinks it’s fine. We draw on the catholic tradition, on the protestant traditions, on the orthodox tradition, even on non-Christian traditions. We’re willing to say “Yes” to anything that aids our connection to God.
But it’s so much easier to say “No,” isn’t it? I have a suspicion that the person who asked, “What’s all that Catholic stuff doing on the altar?” was also thinking something the along the lines of “We’ve never done that before.” That’s what we mean when we say “No.” “No” means we can keep with the status quo; we don’t have to face and deal with something we’ve never done before. That’s what Ahaz, the king of Judah, tries to do in the reading from the prophet Isaiah this morning. The prophet tells the king to ask God for a sign, but Ahaz declines to lest he be thought to put God to the test and be guilty of what Scripture elsewhere denounces as spiritual presumption. He knows that doing so can cause trouble for the asker, so he prefers to the status quo. He says, “No!” God gives him a sign anyway: “Look! A virgin will bear a son and name him ‘Emmanuel’.”
We’re all a bit like Ahaz; we prefer to stick with the way things are. The status quo may not be comfortable, but it is familiar. We know how to deal with it; we may not know how to handle something we’ve never encountered before.
“Yes” opens the future. It opens us to the unknown; it opens us to what we’ve never done before. Saying “Yes” is pregnant with possibility. But saying “No” is so much easier, so much safer!
The icons came to mind today because of the Gospel story.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we like to say that we honor Mary and, to an extent, that’s true. Usually, in two of the three years of the lectionary cycle, we hear about the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel informed Mary that she had been chosen to bear God’s Son. But this year, we hear the other story, the annunciation to Joseph when an angel, not named by Matthew but often also portrayed as Gabriel, appeared to Joseph in a dream and explained Mary’s condition to him. They were betrothed, almost but not quite married, when it was discovered that Mary was pregnant. Joseph knew he wasn’t the father, but he didn’t want to embarrass this young girl, so he planned to divorce her (in a sense) in a quiet, private way. The angel visits him to convince him otherwise.
The icons came to mind today because when I contemplate Bible stories, when I pray about these tales, I like to use art, to look at the way these stories of the faith have been portrayed by painters and sculptors. There are two paintings, in particular, of this story that I like, and one of the Annunciation to Mary that is absolutely my favorite painting of a biblical tale.
The Mary painting is by Sandro Botticelli, a Renaissance Florentine painter of the late 15th Century. In his painting, Mary is a Medici princess! She’s all decked out in these Renaissance robes, standing in a beautiful palace in front of window looking out over a lovely formal garden. Not very a very realistic depiction, of course, since she was a 1st Century Palestinian peasant girl! In any event, what is important is not how she’s dressed, but the emotions the painting conveys, and not only hers but also the angel Gabriel’s.
As Mary is depicted, she seems to be flinching away from the angel, holding her hands out as if fending him off. The expression on her face is nearly unreadable, but it is certainly not one of acceptance. Gabriel, also decked out as if he were a Medici courtier but these lovely, golden, semi-transparent wings billowing behind him, is kneeling before her. His hands are reaching out as if pleading. The expression on his face is one of apprehension. You can almost hear him thinking, “Oh, no! She’s going to say, ‘No!’ I’m going to have to go tell God that I blew it!” Of course, she didn’t say, “No.” But . . . what if she had?
The paintings of Joseph are, first, a painting by an 18th Century German Bohemian painter named Raphael Mengs. Other than this painting, I don’t know this painter, but I did see this painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is notable, first of all, for it’s depiction of Joseph as a relatively young man. Usually in art, Joseph is portrayed as an old man because of a legend that he was very old, had been previously married, had other children (who are those identified in the Bible as Jesus’ brothers and sisters), and passed away early in Jesus’ life. Scholars generally disagree with that: most now believe that Mary was probably only 13 or 14 years of age, Joseph perhaps 16 to 20.
In Mengs painting Joseph is perhaps a bit older than that but still a young man. He is fit and muscular, clearly a hard working man; Joseph, of course, was a carpenter. He has fallen asleep at his workbench, and the angel is speaking to him from behind, sort of over his shoulder. Joseph’s sleeping face is somewhat shrouded in shadow and hard to read. Sometimes when I look at this painting, he looks puzzled or confused; sometimes he looks angry; sometimes, simply uncaring. He does not look like someone who is going to readily agree to whatever the angel is telling him.
The second painting of Joseph is by another 18th Century painter, the Frenchman Georges de la Tour. De la Tour is more conventional. He portrays Joseph as an elderly man, bald with a bushy beard. He appears to be in bed and to have fallen asleep while reading; a book is in his hand. The angel stands next to him; the scene is lighted by a single candle standing on a bedside table between them. We cannot see the candle, but only its light on the angel’s face and on Joseph’s. Joseph appears to be waking up, but not quite awake. He seems to be in that in-between, liminal stage — not quite asleep but not quite awake. I don’t know about you, but if someone tries to get me to do something when I’m just waking up like that, they’re going to get a resounding “No!”
Again, just like Mary, we know that Joseph did not say, “No.” He did not divorce Mary; he carried through with the marriage. Jesus was born and Joseph reared him as his own son. This is terribly important to Matthew, who traces Jesus’ lineage to King David through Joseph; as the acknowledged foster-adoptive son of Joseph, who is a blood descendent of David (the angel addresses him as “son of David”), Jesus also is “of the house and lineage of David.” This, for Matthew, legitimizes the claim that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah predicted by the prophets.
Think, for a moment, what might have happened if either of these young people had said, “No.” If Mary had declined to bear the Son of God, there would have been no Jesus. Oh, surely, God would have worked the plan of salvation in a different way, but it wouldn’t have been the way we know; there wouldn’t have been a Jesus Christ, a Christian church, the history of the world as we know it. We cannot imagine what it would have been, but it wouldn’t have been this!
If Mary had agreed but then Joseph refused, what might the childhood of the Son of God have been like. As it was, he was reared in a typical 1st Century Jewish family. He learned his lessons, worked with his foster father, learned the craft of carpentry, went to school at the local synagogue, learned the Scriptures and the traditions of his faith, obtained all the knowledge that was the necessary foundation of his life and ministry. But if he had been not the son of a merchant craftsman? What if he’d been the illegitimate son of an unwed mother? Again, we can be sure that God would have worked with that, but the story of salvation would have been radically different!
We have made it nearly all the way through Advent, this introspective season of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity, the celebration of the Incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But it is more than that; Advent bids us prepare not only to celebrate Christmas, but to get ready for what we call “the Second Coming,” the Messiah’s return at the end of time. Christmas (which technically hasn’t even started yet) will be over soon. As a church season, it lasts only twelve days starting Tuesday night. For many of us, it will be shorter than that. The tree will be taken down, the gift wrap thrown away, many of the gifts returned to stores and other gifts already broken long before Twelfth Night! But there’s still that unknown and unpredictable “last great day” when Christ will return to “judge the quick and the dead.”
Between now and then, we will have many opportunities to say “Yes” or “No.” We will have many opportunities to open the future. Will we do so? Will we say “Yes” and embrace the unknown pregnant with possibility? Will we play it safe, maintain the status quo, say “No?”
As we come to the end of Advent, give that some thought, give some thought to Mary’s “Yes,” to Joseph’s “Yes,” and prepare yourself again. Get ready! Keep awake! Be alert! When the opportunity comes remember Mary and Joseph, and say “Yes!” Open the future!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.