Zephaniah 3:14-17; Luke 1:26-38
The third Sunday of Advent traditionally focuses on love and on Mary. Tradition holds that this Sunday’s candle is pink in honor of Mary. Pink for Mary may be misleading.
Pink, a delicate color that means sweet, nice, playful, cute, romantic, charming, feminine, tender. Pink is associated with bubble gum, flowers, babies, little girls, cotton candy, and sweetness. Pink is the official color for little girls and represents sugar and spice and everything nice. Pink, with red, is the color of love. Pink is the sweet side of the color red. While the color red stirs up passion, aggression, and action, large amounts of the color pink can can calm and weaken the human drive.
Yet when Mary is pictured in almost all art work, she is draped in blue. There are several reasons for this, which also miss the point of who Mary was. Artistic representations can trace back Mary’s appearance in blue to about the 5th century. At this point, royalty was represented by blue. But perhaps more important was that the paint pigment for blue in this era was derived from lapis lazuli, equal in value to gold. When a painter was commissioned to do a piece, the patron was expected to buy the blue and gold for the painting, not the artist. And so, the use of gold and blue were a statement of the patron’s wealth, as well as their devotion to the subject of the painting. Hence, we see Mary in blue.
But her color, would more likely have been a neutral, something commonly woven from sheep’s wool, or linen – not true white, nor a dyed color. Given who she was, it could have been something as radical as camel’s hair which John the Baptist wore. Scratchy, rough, simple – all characteristics which describe Mary, and John the Baptist, too, for that matter.
Many who study this passage have noted that the angel’s visit to Mary is like the call narratives of the Hebrew prophets. All of the elements typical to that pattern may be found here: a greeting (1:28), a startled reaction (1:29), an exhortation not to fear (1:30), a divine commission (1:31-33), an objection (1:34), a reassurance (1:35), and the offer of a confirming sign (1:36-37). Similar patterns are found in the call narratives of Moses (Exodus 3:1-12) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13). Mary’s final response, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38) recall the words of Samuel, “Here am I, Lord. Speak for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:4-9).
Mary is being called to a prophetic task. A task no less harsh and grueling than it was for Jeremiah, Samuel, Isaiah, Amos, Elijah, or John the Baptist. It is in this group where Mary belongs. A prophet, called to bear God’s word into the world. Yes, her call was unique. She alone was called to give physical birth to the Word in the world. Jesus was Mary’s prophetic word. The call of Mary is so much more significant and difficult that we often realize. It was Mary who would train up this child in the way he would go. It was this woman who would shape his memories and his values. Of course, Joseph was also involved, at least in the early years. But the Bible clearly puts his role in the background, leading us to surmise that he died early in the story. Mary was called to the difficult task of child-rearing. She was the one God chose to call to the task of raising this particular, child, who would be God’s word in the world.
Mary’s call is not particularly associated with love. She is not presented as in any way, pink. A cuddling, soft mother. When Jesus first appears at a wedding, it is Mary who instructs Jesus. Later, too, she tries to intervene in his tireless work, and this time is made the object of a lesson, that Jesus is giving birth to, raising up a new family. And Mary, we know from the story, continues to be part of that new family. She is still there helping at his death.
Christianity became focused on her role as the God-bearer, and lost track of her later life. But there is a strong tradition that she continued to be a missionary, traveling into Europe and possibly as far as the British Isles. She was as passionate a leader of the Christian community as her other sons were. James, Jesus brother, became the primary leader of the Jerusalem church. It only makes sense that Mary, called to nurture the world of God into life, would continue this task for the rest of her life.
God chose Mary because she was faithful. She must have been courageously full of faith! She was willing to be used of God. She believed that the things promised were coming, indeed coming in her own lifetime. Let me see if I can explain what I am trying to say here.
Today, after all the centuries of waiting, we tend to see the fulfillment of the promises as something so far in the future, that they are referred to an afterlife. The people of Mary’s time had also been waiting for centuries. Yet Mary was one who believed and expected the promises now. In fact, her great hymn of praise, the Magnificat, expressed these promises as already fulfilled, in the past tense.
She was one of those people who still held the belief that God would come to save. That justice would be known again one day, and that that day could be today. Today, many would categorize her with Don Quixote de la Mancha, tilting at windmills. Crazy. Living in a dream world. Like Quixote, she gets up and heads out on a pilgrimage the moment of her call. She goes to her relative, Elizabeth, who was also expecting a baby as a sign of God’s promise coming to pass. She needed to be in this woman’s presence, to know what it was like to embody the dreams of her people.
Mary’s call was not all soft and cuddly and – pink. Perhaps the scratchiness of an upright yule log would be more like it. Her call would demand strength of character beyond what we think of as young girls in pink. Sorrow beyond what any of us would choose to bear.
This year, again, we will hold a “Longest Night” liturgy on December 21, the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. This time of the year can be very difficult for those who grieve, and the longer we live, the more we know this is all of us. This would have been Mary. Whether she knew it or not, she was processing grief in her lost childhood, along with the excitement and fear of a new life. I think this was one of the reasons she went to be with Elizabeth. She needed the company of someone who understood, at least a little, and didn’t think she was crazy! Advent, as the season of yearning, can be a relief to many who do not experience the schmaltzy twinkle of Christmas in America. Instead, this is the time when we recognize that all is not right with the world, and we are going to accept God’s call anyway. It looks dark and hopeless and we are going to dream anyway.
But this call is from love. Let’s not miss this. John tells us that God is love and that where God is, there is love, or, where love is, there is God. Out of love, God sent the angel Gabriel to give a gift which no one was going to understand. Love. Jesus embodied love, showed us what love looked like.
People – even Mary and Elizabeth and John the Baptist, and Peter and Judas – yearned for the Kingdom of God to come. They knew that somehow in these angel announcements, it was coming.
How would it come? Not with military conquerors and kings. Not with power and influence. Not with wealth and comfort. But it would come with love. Something which is available to everyone. We are created from God’s breath, which is love. And so it is there in us. Perhaps the old Cherokee legend is one way to think about this:
The elder recognizes the internal battle between doing good and the urge to power and control.“A fight is going on inside me,” he said. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
We have the breath of love in us. Will we feed it? Or will be be swayed by the urge to power and control? The way of the kingdom is the way of the breath of love.
Let’s think about color again for a moment. Let us learn a lesson from light. We don’t see its colors, except in the presence of a prism or a raindrop. And even then, we can only see a few of the colors that are there! Colors innumerable. When light passes through a prism or a raindrop, its colors are fanned out in a display for our eyes to see. We call it a rainbow. But it only lasts a moment. Light does not live most of its life divided, but one. When all the spectrum of colors come together, they make light. When they are separate, we see a rainbow.
I am not a physicist, but here is how it seems to me. Looking through a prism, we see different colors. And if they stay long enough, we begin to choose favorites, or try to make some colors more dominant than others. But it is when all the colors blend into one that they do their best work – they make light.
These days, we sit at separate tables, red and blue of course, but there is the green party too, and those accused of being “yellow” cowards. Or we could change the color metaphor to skin colors, and it is the same thing. We see it only from the perspective of our own color. The kingdom being born among us, Love, tells us that it is only when we cross the aisles and work together at one table that we do our best work. And what is the power that draws us to that one table?
Love is the energy which draws us toward each other with good will. It is God. We can do it on occasion seemingly on our own, but so often it is simply a gift, something which comes unbidden from outside which takes our breath away, and causes us to stop and join hands. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. All are needed to make light.
And we also don’t lose ourselves as we join each other at the table. It just takes a bit of a different perspective, offered by a prism, to reveal that we are all our unique selves. And if we were not our unique selves, we could not make light. We must have it all to make light.
So love is not pink, perhaps, but the power which draws all the colors into one beautiful light in the world. Mary, not pink perhaps, but a simple, durable neutral serving the great Love of the universe. That twinkle in the mother’s eye? What is it? Light! All the colors come together to show the way.