This is the written text from the guest homily I preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA, on Sunday December 20, 2015. Below you can watch a video of the sermon preached.
“We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration. The primordial blessing, ‘increase and multiply,’ has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror. We are numbered in billions, and massed together, marshaled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race and with ourselves, nauseated with life.”
These are the words of the great spiritual writer and Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, in an essay he wrote on Christmas. His words reflect for me the chaos and confusion that typically accompanies this time of year, especially the last week of Advent.
The pressures of the season, the social demands of our work and families, the overwhelming reality of so much that must be done and, ostensibly, so little time to do it, we find ourselves not in the midst of the season of joyful hope, of great anticipation, but rather in the midst of the chaos of our lives.
There’s always one more gift to buy, one more cookie to decorate, one more activity that we have neither the strength nor the stomach to face. Indeed, as Merton says, this time is a time of no time, a time of the end.
When we find ourselves in such a state, harried and hurried, exhausted and seeking excuse, we have left no energy to contemplate the mystery that calls us forth, we have – as Merton says – no space; no space to consider who it is that is this mystery that calls us forth. And this, I believe leads us to a crisis of identity.
The identity crisis is not immediately our own, although that surely follows. The identity crisis about which I’m speaking has to do with God. Or, better yet, it has to do with our inability to remember who God is (which, as Merton wisely reminds us elsewhere, means that we are then unable to truly know ourselves).
When we find ourselves in the time of no room, the time of no time, the time of no space, confusion sets in that leads us to forget the difference between what St. Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians calls the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God, to forget the difference between the proliferation of opinion and the truth of divine revelation.
To put it technically, what troubles me is that we have forgotten the difference between what the ancient Greeks called doxography and the doxology we are called to profess in faith. Let me explain… Doxography is the term used to refer to the act of referencing preceding opinions, to either affirm or refute them in a philosophical argument. Doxology, on the other hand, is the prayerful expression of the church in praise of God the Creator.
It seems to me that one of the more common problems in our modern, American culture, if I can put it so simplistically, is that today everything seems to have been reduced to an opinion. As a result, people find it easy to dismiss one another with lines like, “well, that’s just your opinion.”
All views, factual or otherwise, are treated as if they were merely differing perspectives and this has sadly bled over into our experience of Christianity and our vision of God.
No longer does sacred scripture necessarily unsettle us with the challenge of right living as presented to us in the biblical covenant and the Gospel proclamation. Instead, like the insecure and self-conscious representatives of the human family in the garden of Eden, we reject what God has assured us is sufficient and good – very good, in fact – and instead set out to cast our own images to worship. Though God created us in God’s image and likeness, out of fear and anxiety we return the favor creating gods in our own image and likeness, according to our own comforts and preferences.
This is how God can be associated with the violence that exists around the world and, as Merton and others remind us, so often even in our own hearts. This idol, the god we create in our own image and likeness is a god who, “helps those who help themselves;”… Is a god who, “blesses America, and yet seemingly disregards the majority of the world’s population;”… Is a god who, “can be on the lips and written in the tweets of lawmakers who ‘pray for victims of gun violence,’ yet deny any responsibility for the conditions that make such tragedies possible, who fill their campaign coffers with funds from the industry that promotes the sale of guns at all costs.”
This is the god of doxography, the god of our opinions, the god of comfort and familiarity, the god of convenience, and this god exists because the one, true God – the God of Jesus Christ – is unwittingly dismissed by so many because the God who is revealed to us doesn’t always fit our agenda or outlook.
What we hear in the Magnificat, that great hymn of Mary proclaimed as our first lesson this morning, is true doxology, the glorification of the true God.
The God Mary praises is the God who brings good news to the poor and suffering, yet dismisses the rich and powerful.
The God Mary praises is the God who raises the lowly and weak, yet deposes the mighty and the proud.
The God Mary praises is the God who has, as we read in the Book of Exodus in that great theophany to Moses, been there for our ancestors, is there for us now, and will be there for us into the future.
The God Mary praises is the God of Jesus Christ, the Creator whose true identity is love and mercy.
Whether consciously or not, this God Mary praises is too often pushed aside and dismissed in our time – the time of no time, the time of the end. In addition to the truth that God not only disapproves of the power and politics of acquisition and individual comfort over the collective needs of the common good, God actually favors and sides with the poor, the abused, the marginalized, the victims, and those treated unjustly.
The God Mary praises is the God who takes the side of the unwed, pregnant teenager, who nevertheless rejoices in her distress, in her anxiety, in the fear that must have overtaken her, because she recognizes that God has done great things for her, and the love and mercy of the Almighty will prevail.
The moral theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written about the stories we tell ourselves and the gods we construct, especially in the United States. And he reminds the church that, “Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.”
Mary understood this, finding herself in a desperate set of circumstances, faced with what seems like an impossible task, she recalls in her song of praise the history of salvation that has unfolded. She remembers the narrative of faith into which she has been incorporated. And She proclaims the truth of the story not of her making, but the true story of who God is and who we are.
In addition to the reminder of who God really is, today our lessons from scripture also unveil another frequently overlooked dimension of our story. That is the centrality and importance of women in the history of salvation.
Some communities have become better than others at remembering this, but we see in the Gospel proclamation a subtle reminder of the patriarchy that was both pervasive in the culture of Mary’s time and yet remains all-too-present in our own.
Mary’s own recognition of her so-called lowliness, her littleness and vulnerability reiterates the dire conditions of her reality. To whom could she turn? Who would come to her aid?
As my colleague John Martens, the scripture columnist at America Magazine, recently wrote, “Women knew the reality of childbirth and the vulnerability of womanhood, so Mary does not run to priests, scribes or scholars, to tell of her encounter with God but to her relative Elizabeth.”
Furthermore, John reminds us that, “God came into the world as an infant; and the Incarnation was entrusted to women, who would not only bring the child to us but care for him among us. They were willing to see and embrace the smallness of us all in light of God’s mighty work. They were open to the love necessary and due to any child and open to God’s saving power in their midst. The Messiah was entrusted to the natural processes of human life, in the most vulnerable of hands, in the most vulnerable of ways, so that God’s glory and salvation would not overwhelm us, but accompany us in solidarity with the suffering of all of us small and little people, in order to teach us the value of human life and the greatness of each of life. By each of her actions, Mary is telling us: Prepare to adore him.”
But a world in which women are still forced into positions of lowliness in the forms of subjugation, human trafficking, sexual abuse, among so many other crimes against humanity, it is difficult to heed Mary’s call to adore the coming Prince of Peace.
Indeed, even in our own society, the United States of America, which despite its numerous doxographical gods, dares to imagine itself as a “Christian nation,” still disadvantages women in systemic and institutional ways. One need only look at the wage gap that persists, where on average women make 79 cents on the dollar when compared to men in the same position.
In these last days of the our season of anticipation, may we examine ourselves, examine our faith, examine our hearts to see who it is we are celebrating this Friday. Is the God we worship the god of our own making, the god who endorses the story of our own choosing? Or is the God we worship the God who reveals God’s Self to us in the song of Mary and in the truth of divine revelation, the God who identifies with the weak and the lost, the voiceless and the oppressed throughout history?
If, indeed, we have the courage enough to embrace the God of Jesus Christ, who then must we think about this Christmas and in the days that follow?
I believe that Merton offers us a glimpse at this question’s answer in his essay, observing that, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination.”