The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalmody; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Today physical and spiritual realities are joined on earth and in heaven and our modern minds’ longing for clarity is not satisfied. The physical is joined with the spiritual. But how can this be?
Right here in New York City, at 93rd Street and Park Avenue, is the Russian Orthodox “Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign.” “Our Lady of the Sign” is the title of a famous and classic icon of Mary. This icon, written on wood in vibrant colors over and over, across the centuries, so that all who want might pray before it depicts the Virgin who is Jesus’ mother. This is the maiden who became Mother of God. And she sits as a sign of the joining of earth and heaven. Her hands are open – open to all of earth and all of heaven. Open to the presence of God in her life. Her hands are open and there on her breast, she carries an image and the image is of priestly Jesus. This is Jesus the Emmanuel, God with us. This is the One who is to come and who has come through Mary by the power of God. This is the One who is God in our lives.
Here Mary, the maid of Nazareth, meets Jesus, God’s son, and the physical and the spiritual are joined. In this classical icon, Mary is an image of the church, the church across the world, the church throughout time and space. Mary is the virgin who reminds us that God is here, God is with us, and we are joined with God by God’s loving and powerful will. And here, in Our Lady of the Sign, the word that we have been hearing throughout Advent, the word that we have been longing to hear, the word becomes flesh.
What a source of joy for the church. Mary, the mother of God is the image of the church and Jesus is within her, is within us. Mary is the sign that God is here and that God comes to us again. And that’s where a great danger lies. We are insiders. We are those who attend, those who wait, those who listen and long and seek. Finding Jesus is promised. And we know it. We are insiders, and the danger is that others will be left out.
I was reminded yesterday about how difficult this issue is. I was downstairs celebrating an early Christmas with 45 guests at HUG, our weekly meal for neighbors in need, and a number of volunteers. Chairs and tables were in short supply so one of the volunteers said that she would simply leave. By doing that another cold and hungry person would be able to come inside and sit and eat. She volunteered to become an outsider so that an outsider might become an insider. The social worker who runs HUG responded to her, “I’m going to have to put you in time out!” So the lady repeated her offer. And the social worker repeated her humorous threat. “I’ll put you in time out if you do that!”
There is room for everybody. There are no insiders or outsiders in our life in Christ Jesus. We are all of us, every one of us, beloved. Our Lady of the Sign bears Jesus upon her breast to teach us that he comes to us for all of us. He comes to us as God, blessing our work in his name and blessing others to bless us. Many people at HUG have suffered a great deal in their lives. They come to us as signs of the imminent presence of God. These signs are all around us, in our world, in our daily lives, and they’re so hard to see. But they are there. Over and over they are there. Jesus comes in a physical body, Jesus comes in physical bodies, to be a spiritual gift of hope and truth and deep, undying peace.
St. Bonaventure taught that God’s center is everywhere and God’s circumference is nowhere. All of us, whether in church in New York City, or struggling to make sense of our daily lives, all of us are in the center of God’s love. None of us is at the edges. As we look at Our Lady of the Sign we look into the center of God. But this is not the first time that physical and spiritual realities are brought together by God.
King David saw that he was living in a fine house of cedar, but God lived in a tent. David decided to build a fine house for God. But God turned his physical intentions into spiritual realities. God told David the great king that he did not need a house built of fine cedar because his house would be founded in David, and his house and kingdom would be made sure forever. His throne would be established forever.
Physical David was taught by God that his spiritual descendants would rule forever. For ever. And earth met heaven. Physical met spiritual. God suffused all of life with meaning and purpose and direction. God’s center was everywhere and there were no edges, no periphery, no circumference. Physical met spiritual when the angel Gabriel came to Nazareth centuries later and announced to Mary that she would become the mother of the Savior. “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary became a sign for all of eternity. “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.” Earth and heaven are met together and we see through Mary a vision of God here in our lives.
We like to keep spiritual things spiritual and physical things very, very physical. We don’t like to think about the two being joined. But in the coming birth of Jesus the Messiah, they ARE joined. We cannot run away to church to dodge the realities of our physicality. And we cannot run away from church to avoid the truth that we are created spiritual beings, God’s people, people filled with the longings of the Holy Spirit to do good and to be united with God. This means that our lives are to be signs, signs of God’s overwhelming love and energy in our world.
Martin Luther wrote, “We must be transformed and renewed in heart from day to day. Otherwise Christ is born in vain.” I am often afraid to say “We must…” in preaching because it can all too easily sound like “We must…” do something so that God will love us. But Blessed Martin himself says we must be transformed and renewed – every single day of our lives. And if we’re not, all of this is in vain. I am really glad that Luther goes on to explain the problem. “This is for us the hardest point,” he says, “not so much to believe he is the son of the virgin and of God, as to believe that this Son of God is ours.” All of God’s grace stands with us today in a vision of eternity seen in Our Lady of the Sign. She draws us to the birth of the priestly Savior, the One to be sacrificed for us, so that we might daily be transformed from the mire of our physical problems and fears to the great, the all encompassing joys of our spiritual life, our life in eternity. The Son of God is ours. “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Amen.