Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 21, 2014
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Earlier this week, a parishioner gave me a beautiful book entitled, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas. Now out of print, she had gone to great lengths to find a copy. The book arranges different masterpieces to mark each day of Advent. The portrait assigned for today is by Albrecht Dürer, a famous German artist who lived during the early years of the Reformation. Its title is The Virgin Mary in Prayer, and Dürer painted it in 1518. A copy is available in your bulletin.
At first glance, this work resembles many other portraits painted during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Mary is wearing a blue cloak. Her face is bathed in heavenly light. Her hands are clasped together in a traditional sign of obedience and submission. Her expression is peaceful, unflappable, gentle, resolute.
However, the first viewers of this portrait would have found Dürer’s depiction of Mary controversial, perhaps even offensive. They would have noticed that important symbols are missing from his portrait. Mary is not holding the infant Jesus. She has no halo. The Ecclesiastical symbols of her office and status are nowhere in sight.
They would have found other features disturbing. Mary is not looking at the viewer, or at Jesus, but away and upwards. This symbolically reinforces the sense that she has an independent spiritual life that stands apart from the position she holds in the church, and even from her role as the mother of Jesus. She appears as an ordinary German woman, or frau, with full features, red cheeks and hands, all of which suggest she is accustomed to hard work.
Dürer’s painting represented more than a mere an exercise in artistic license. He wanted to provoke his viewers and challenge them to see Mary from a new perspective. Dürer painted this portrait one year after Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In them, Luther attacked the sacramental machinery of the Roman Catholic Church. Grace comes, Luther stated, to those who believe. Grace is not bought or sold. Grace is the free gift of God we receive by faith alone, by God’s Word alone, by Christ alone.
Dürer was so taken by Luther’s writings and sermons that he wanted to paint his portrait. In 1520, he wrote in his diary, “I intend to make a portrait of him with great care and engrave him on a copper plate to create a lasting memorial of the Christian man who helped me overcome so many difficulties.” Dürer felt indebted to Luther, because he helped him see, as if for the first time, the liberating message of the Gospel.
If you could paint a portrait of the Virgin Mary, what would she look like? What would her complexion, race and ethnicity be? What would her posture be? Where would she be looking? Would she be holding Jesus? Would she have a halo? What symbols would you arrange around her? What would her hands look like? What Gospel message would she proclaim?
As every artist knows, these are unavoidable questions. Decisions about persons, politics, time and place stand behind every work of art. Art always reflects a particular cultural location. It always reflects a point of view. It always engages in social criticism. Every work of art runs the risk of being misread, of encountering opposition, of being rejected. This is why great works of art require courage.
The same can be said about every attempt to understand today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. In The Virgin Mary at Prayer, Dürer interpreted Mary from a perspective that challenged the way that story had been told before. Standing behind this portrait is his own encounter with Christ, his understanding of the Gospel. Salvation comes, he believed, through an impossible outpouring of grace.
At its core, Christianity stands or falls on the truthfulness of the story we read today from Luke. This truth does not depend upon our questionable ability to understand, or explain, the science behind Jesus’ birth. It does not rest on a mythological relic of a superstitious past that we can easily discount or discard. Then, as now, the birth of Jesus presented to believers a miracle that was impossible to accept except as an article of faith.
Instead, the truth of Christianity rests on the power of the story itself. Does it make sense? Does it persuade? Does it liberate? Does it heal? Does it reconcile? Does it transform? Most of all, this truth rests on our ability to open ourselves to the startling possibility that God can truly enter our existence to redeem our lives and our world. To believe this promise requires us to believe what is normally unbelievable. This is why Mary asks the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be?”
You and I must ponder these questions if we are to speak truthfully about God. We ponder them by using the colors of our lives to paint a portrait of the Gospel we have encountered. By doing so, we run the same risk an artist encounters when creating a work of art. That work may cause controversy. It may provoke. It may challenge assumptions. It may be met with opposition. Ultimately, however, the test of its veracity will not be the resistance it encounters, but the truth it proclaims.
I am not sure if I could paint a truthful picture of the Virgin Mary. My hesitancy is not due to my meager artistic skills, but to my belief that God’s truth is always larger than the limited and fragile equipment we use to convey it. The only option for me is to look for new perspectives on the Gospel that test the ones I already hold dear.
Mary’s question, “how can this be?” invites these thoughts and feelings. Her question reminds us that God’s story is always larger than the stories we tell. God’s truth is always larger and more comprehensive than the truths we use to negotiate our lives. God’s Word is alive, active and powerful in ways that makes every human attempt to speak about God appear – at best – a poor reflection and – at worst – a dead letter.
Mary’s question invites us to lose ourselves in the story of Christmas so that we might find ourselves again. This process of loss and recovery is risky, but it is the path you and I are invited to walk in Advent. We retrace these stories about Jesus, because Jesus asks us to stake our lives on a story. From him, we learn that the meaning of life is not a puzzle to be solved, or a riddle to answer, or a game to win, but a narrative to follow until it becomes our truth, our life, our word, our grace, our story.
And so it is, that Mary asked the Angel, “How could this be?” and the Angel responded, “nothing will be impossible with God.” As we approach this Christmas, may we continue to carve out space for these questions and answers, because it is precisely in the midst of risk and impossibility that we find our God and, more importantly, our God finds us. May this “mystery that was kept secret” for ages be revealed anew in our lives so that we might bear witness to the God whose love has closed the infinite distance between us by coming to us as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. Amen.