Luke 1: 26-38
March 24, 2019
Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
You may be scratching your head wondering, “Did the preacher get confused? Why are we hearing a Christmas text in the middle of March?” Tomorrow is the Christian holiday of the Annunciation. As in, the visit that the angel Gabriel made to Mary to announce to her that God had a plan to bring Jesus into the world through her. Now, we don’t really know when Jesus was born, but since the ancient Church selected December 25th...if you back up nine months from that you arrive at March 25th. In this way, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere also end up with the lovely symbolism of Jesus’s conception at the Sprint Equinox and his birth at the Winter Solstice. Neat, right?
The Annunciation doesn’t always fall during Lent, but this year it does. And although it may seem strange to think about Jesus’s birth just as we are preparing to remember the end of of his life, it seems to me that the image of Mary, surrendering fully to the Spirit to live is a perfect story for Lent.
Becoming a parent, no matter how you do it, is all about letting go of expectations. When I was pregnant with my first child, I tried desperately to wrap my head around all the changes we were about to experience...but I could hardly even imagine what it would be like to add a tiny human to our family.
When I read today’s text from Luke, I am struck by the way Mary so simply and elegantly lets go of expectations and creates space for the Holy to move. I don’t know about you, but if an angel showed up and gave me the same message Mary received, I would have a lot more questions. Mary is slightly incredulous in the beginning, “But how can this be?” But when the angel explains, “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…” Mary says, quite simply, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
No more questions. Just acceptance. It’s astounding, isn’t it?
No wonder Mary has been venerated by the Church for millennia. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the role she plays in bearing Christ to the world. In the Eastern Church, she is called Theotokos - God-bearer. How’s that for a big title?
But rather than putting Mary on a pedestal as someone who lived long ago and far away...rather than seeing her as some kind of superhero...I’d like us to consider the ways we might also be called to be God-bearers, too.
In traditional Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a specific artistic portrayal of Mary that is prominent in many churches. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, describes this in his book, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today. The Archbishop explains that traditional Orthodox churches have a dome as their most prominent feature. This is where we find the image of Christ - Pantokrator, “the one who contains and holds all” - representing our connection with the heavenly realm. Then there is the nave, which is rectangular in shape and represents the earth with its boundaries and structures. This is where the people are located during worship, accompanied by images of saints who seem to blend in with the gathered crowd. 
Finally, there is the apse, which is located above the altar. This is where you will typically find an image of Mary with her hands extended in prayer. Drawn onto her torso is an image of the Christ, contained within her very body. Bartholomew says that this specific kind of image is called the Platytera (“the one more spacious than all.”) In Orthodox understanding, Mary is holding within her body God and the entirety of creation. Spacious indeed. 
Bartholomew says that “the apse in the middle serves to hold together the upper and lower zones, belonging to both and yet pertaining to neither, uniting both the heavenly and the earthly realms, while at the same time inviting people to reconcile Creator and creation in their own bodies as well as in their surrounding world. The icon of the Mother of God, who is normally depicted in the apse, assumes both spherical and rectangular shape. She is the personification of this vocation and reconciliation.” 
Mary personifies for us the call to reconcile all of creation. She is a model for us, inviting us into the work of reconciliation...bringing all things together as one.
Lent can be a time when many of us get a little more goal-oriented about our faith. We might try a new spiritual discipline...and then beat ourselves up a bit if it doesn't stick. Or we might really stay with it, hoping that some kind of transformation will occur. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. The image of Mary towering high over those ancient churches, silently holding the entirety of creation within her body, making space for all things to be made new through the power of God’s reconciling love….well, it’s quite an image for Lent, isn’t it?
“Let it be with me according to your word,” she said to the angel. And with that simple acceptance...that opening of space, the world was transformed.
We are invited to join Mary in this work of creating space. Attuning ourselves to the Holy, trusting that God is still working through creation to make all things new. We are invited to spaciousness...trusting that God still lives in us and through us. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
(Piano begins. Invite people to join us in singing Let it Be by the Beatles)
 Bartholomew, 32.
 Ibid., 33.