The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Have you ever noticed that there are more than a few occasions in biblical literature when women are not the center of action or remain unnamed? We hear the story of Jephthah’s daughter, an unnamed young woman who got into the cross-hairs of her father’s promise to God that he would slay the first member of his household he saw upon going home. (Spoiler alert: While Isaac was fortunate in Genesis when God provided a ram for Abraham to slaughter, Jephthah’s daughter was not so lucky.) But it isn’t just in the Old Testament that this occurs…do you recall the anonymous woman at the well who asks Jesus for living water? …or the unnamed Syro-Phoenician woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter? …or the unidentified widow who shows her faith by offering her last two coins at the Temple? The Bible is not alone in downplaying or sometimes ignoring the role of women. It was typical in ancient literature and it reflected social norms.
But today’s text provides a startling contrast. Not only are Mary and Elizabeth named, their pregnancies are described! It doesn’t get much more feminine that. In the lead-up to this story, Luke recounts that Elizabeth conceived in her old age and said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people,” that is for not bearing children. (And let’s just get rid of that shame right here and now.) And the baby who leaps in her womb is none other than Jesus’ cousin, John, who will be known as the Baptizer. So, when John gives his mom a good, strong kick in utero, it is a sign that John would be the precursor to Jesus in charting a new spiritual course.
And the backstory with Mary also happens just before today’s passage: “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a own in Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph” and when the angel appears, he says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God…” and you know the rest of that piece of the story.
Even if you are someone who doesn’t believe it all happened in exactly the way Luke recounts it, please understand that there is a more-than-literal meaning. There is a message in this wonderful piece of Luke’s gospel that goes beyond whose sperm met whose ovum to result in the birth of Jesus.
We know that Mary was faithful…she responds to Gabriel saying, “Here am I [which is how prophets respond when God calls], the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Here’s another contrast in ancient literature: The Roman historian Livy describes a foundational story of early Rome in an episode of abduction of Etruscan women that we know as “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” Unlike Livy’s tale, Luke’s story is not about violence or force or coercion: it’s about faith in the very core of a woman that engenders a response.
Mary is venerated in the Christian Orthodox traditions as the “Theotokos,” or the one who brings forth God. And even if Protestants basically threw out the mother — instead of the baby — with the bathwater during the Reformation, there is much to hold dear of this faithful young woman. Our first hymn this morning speaks of her as woman of the promise, song of holy wisdom, model of compassion, and morning star of justice. You’ll hear a lot more about that next week as we explore the Magnificat.
As I was thinking about Mary as the Theotokos, it occurred to me that she is not alone. And it reminded me of a story about my sons, Cameron and Christopher. When Cam was five, he was absolutely thrilled to have a new younger brother arrive on the scene. He was (and is) an amazing big brother. But being the curious and word-loving boy he was (and is), Cam asked me, “What does Christopher mean?” And I told him that in Greek it means “Christ bearer,” and he thought that was pretty cool. And then he asked, “Well, what does Cameron mean?” And I told him the truth, that in Gaelic it means “crooked nose,” at which point, he burst into tears of both anger and sadness, and said, “You named him Christ-bearer and you named me Crooked Nose!” At which point I tried to reassure him by saying, “Yes, but you have a Clan!” And when the three of us visited the battlefield at Culloden in Scotland on my first sabbatical, we were very emphatic about visiting the Clan Cameron memorial.
The point is not so much about what we name our children is that you can be male or female to be one who bears Christ in the world today. None of us is likely to become pregnant by miraculous means, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. Rather, here are three ways to think about being a Christ-bearer.
Theresa of Avila wrote that “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” So, what is God calling you to do with your hands, your eyes, your feet in the world today? What blessing can you bring to others in the midst of pandemic and political strife?
Here is a second way to think about being a Christ-bearer. One of the well-loved hymns this congregation is “Won’t you let me be your servant?” and it offers these words: “I will hold the Christ-light for you in the shadow of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.” There is some light in each person listening to this service today, whether you consider yourself to hold a tiny flicker of an LED candle or a great beacon atop a lighthouse. Each of us has the light of love, the light of Christ, that we can shine into the shadowy corners we encounter. And it isn’t just our light, but the Christ-light, which we can reflect like a mirror, casting a beam into places that need more light. Where can you shine the Christ-light this week?
A third way to be a Christ-bearer comes from Sister Ilia Delio in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation. She writes, “Those who follow Jesus are to become whole-makers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love. Christian life is a commitment to love, to give birth to God in one’s own life and to become midwives of divinity in this evolving cosmos. We are to be whole-makers of love in a world of change.” You can help make this world whole by working with a bite-sized piece of it. Maybe that means sleeping out in the cold to raise money for homeless prevention. Maybe that means supporting a kindergarten in Ethiopia. Maybe it means shoveling your elderly neighbor’s walk and bringing them a loaf of cinnamon bread. What whole-making can you help bring about before Christmas?
Mary provides such a dramatic example of what a Christ-bearing life looks like, from her encounter with Gabriel and hearing his miraculous news to holding the lifeless, crucified body of her son. It may seem to you that her example is one that is impossible to follow.
Last week, Richard Rohr wrote, “Our task too is to give birth to Christ. Mary is the paradigm for doing that. From her we get the pattern: Let the word of God take root and make you pregnant; gestate that by giving it the nourishing sustenance of your own life; submit to the pain that is demanded for it to be born to the outside; then spend years coaxing it from infancy to adulthood; and finally, during and after all of this, do some pondering, accept the pain of not understanding and of letting go.”
Our future is pregnant with possibility…if we let God’s presence take root in our lives, not only will we be Christ-bearers for others, we ourselves will experience deep joy. May it be so in your life and in mine. Amen.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.