Call Me Blessed
The following homily was originally given during the Advent Chapel service at the Virginia Baptist Mission Board on December 9, 2013. Since 2009, I've served the Virginia Baptists in a part-time capacity as campus minister at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
"He has looked on the humble estate of his servant," the text says.
And Mary—seemingly bursting with identity and meaning, purpose and joy—praises God, exclaiming: "…from now on all generations will call me blessed."
I’d like to concentrate our Advent reflection today on those three magnificent words:
Call me blessed.
However, before visiting Mary in Palestine, I wanted to re-visit the place called South Carolina—to wrestle with and to wrangle back some meaning from a word gone too familiar.
When I trekked my family from Oregon to South Carolina—in the spring of 2005—it was to join Winn Collier as co-pastor of a nondenominational university church in dear old Clemson, in the "Upstate."
Not that I was even from Oregon. I'm originally from Ohio, a Midwestern boy. Nonetheless, you can imagine the culture shock of moving from a state (Oregon) known for being on the politically "Left Coast" to a state known for being as Red as they come. Not to mention as Confederate as they come. Upon our arrival in 2005, for instance, South Carolina was just getting around to taking down the Confederate Flag from the top of the capitol building in Columbia—you know, the place where the laws are made.
When in Rome, do as the Romans, right?
In May 2005, then, only a few weeks into our South Carolina pilgrimage, I found myself attending a Civil War re-enactment of the "Battle of Central," a tiny town next-door to Clemson. It's the kind of town that many years ago maintained a grand vision of itself as being the central stop between Atlanta and Charlotte.
That hoped-for future never materialized, but every May the selective past gets rehearsed.
On this day, the theater of war with the wool uniforms, the horses and the live cannon pyrotechnics combined with the curious social theater. For example, I watched guys dressed up in the 1860s debate the merits, or lack thereof, of the U.S. war in Iraq.
But, for me, it was the glorious conclusion of the matter that lingered (in my imagination) far beyond the battle scene. After it was all said and done, the re-enactors lined up to take the customary bow. This group of actors included a tall drink of water, in a black suit and black top-hat, roaming the grounds as Abraham Lincoln.
The president's turn came for a bow. Predictably—but still very surprising—the heckling rained down. For this Ohioan then Oregonian now South Carolinian, the moment became more surreal than a dead Rebel soldier winking at his family while lying on the ground. There’s little love for Lincoln in the first state to secede from the Union.
Of the many cultural revelations on that Sunday afternoon in Central, South Carolina, one has most affected me over the subsequent years: Southern hospitality only goes so far. Southern hospitality, as we realistically know, has its limits and its very-defined borders or boundaries.
Almost immediately, the pastor-in-me began thinking about the nature of “Christian” hospitality. I imagined a limitless, border-less, boundless hospitality that is caught up completely in a vision of Christ, animated by his welcoming life and his giving death. I thought: There is a kind of welcome and a kind of giving inherent in Christ-type hospitality that far surpasses, actually transcends, our best culturally-informed hospitalities.
Like hospitality, when it comes to the language of "blessed" or "blessing," the Church must continue its good work in the world of keeping the deep-and-wide meaning of blessedness at the forefront of our Message.
Advent is surely a big story, set within an even bigger Story, and because of this every year becomes a significant occasion to get in touch with blessedness.
Call me blessed, she says.
But is Mary the classically naive first-time mom? I mean, to view yourself as blessed because you’re having a child (even the Child) is one thing, but, as any mother knows, then come the contractions and the labor, the pain and the suffering.
After Jesus’ birth, when his parents took him to the temple, some old man named Simeon would tell Mary: "This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel. And a sword will pierce through your own soul."
On that destitute Friday night after Golgotha—after the skies had gone dark in the middle of a day that would get worse before it got better—no mother in the world would've traded for Mary’s place.
First, for Mary, as for us, being blessed does not in any way protect us or insulate us from the every-direction onslaught of brokenness or marred-ness that besets the world. Pain and suffering mark this place; we are a part of this marked place; pain and suffering mark us—and very individually.
Our blessedness exists right alongside our heartache.
Call me blessed.
Mary has arrived at a profound understanding: She will be called blessed because God has, first of all, "looked on" her (Luke 1:48). This is, I believe, a massive spiritual insight of the highest order from a poor, lowly Jewish girl in the outlying Roman Empire.
Being blessed is not primarily related to personal achievement, family name, socioeconomic status, cultural honor, or (dare we say) religious belief and affiliation. Mary attaches her blessedness to the first reality: that God looked on her.
Blessedness is conferred by the look of Creator God, whose image all humanity bears. When he looks on us—with his sort of eyes—he does not see dignity, worth or value through the typical human lenses. Being people who are blessed means first affirming how God first looks on us when he looks; it's incredible that he looks.
Henri Nouwen says: "Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts…the core truth of our existence…that we are the Beloved."
Isn’t it true that you and I need to embrace and re-embrace how God looks on us when he looks? Surely you must know someone who is increasingly desperate for that look this Christmas—for some Good News through the eyes of God.
Call me blessed.
There is yet another aspect to Mary’s song that enlightens us with respect to our blessedness. And here is where we begin, more explicitly, to make "Christian" what it means to be blessed.
Mary sings: "He who is mighty has done great things for me" (Luke 1:49). Like her orientation, ours is individual—particular, not theoretical or abstract. For the Christian, inherent in our name is our specific story: the Christ story. We are blessed because of what God has done through Christ—great things: forgiveness, healing, restoration; in short, new life for this life and the next—for us.
As the famous apostle wrote: "Our lives are hidden with Christ in God." No wonder the modern chorus proclaims: "For all your goodness I will keep on singing / Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find."
When is there a more compelling season to meditate on the God-made-Person—and what he eventually did for you, for me, for personal reasons? You must know at least a person or two who is seeking more than existential answers to philosophical questions this Christmas—someone who is hoping for some Good News made extraordinarily and intimately personal, filled with personal reasons.
Call me blessed.
Finally, Mary helps us to see the panoramic view in the event we believers succumb to excessive navel-gazing. And often we do, we must honestly admit.
Mary locates within her own blessedness the privilege and responsibility of blessing her neighbors, of blessing the nations. She sings: "He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever" (Luke 1:54-55).
She has surrendered herself as a full participant in the mission of God.
Like Israel’s narrative, the Church’s narrative is occasioned by Abraham—by God’s vision that through Abraham all the families of the earth would have access to this blessedness. Like Mary, we locate within our own amazing blessedness this privilege and responsibility of being a blessing to all the families of the earth.
I love the way Nouwen succinctly puts it: "Claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others."
At Advent, how can you and I surrender to a fuller participation in the mission of God—to follow that Child who Simeon lifted up in the temple as blessed to be a blessing?
The Good News is: God has always desired everyone’s inclusion in the blessedness. Far as the curse is found.