December 17/18, 2022
Happy Winter Solstice today, and fourth week of Advent this week! Here is the homily I gave last weekend, based on these readings: Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1: 18-24
As a little girl in Catholic school, I asked a lot of questions. Questions like, “How can God be Father, Son and Holy Spirit in ONE? Why do we have to go to mass? How could Mary have a baby if she was a virgin?” And so many answers to these questions were something along the lines of, “It’s a Mystery.” It honestly made me hate the word “mystery” (and I always saw it in my head with a CAPITAL “M”) because as a young one it felt patronizing like, “you’re not smart enough to understand something as big as God yet but one day you’ll get it.” I wanted to know. I felt I could handle this mystery thing.
Then, as a 25 year old new campus minister, with no advanced degree in theology yet, I was asked to teach all the religious education for college students and our university parish. I went to the source any good Catholic would turn to when teaching the faith– the Catechism. And I was astounded by how many times the word “Mystery” appeared. In the introduction it felt like the most prominent word, almost the essential word to ground all other learning in– Mystery.
Hmm… I began to realize this isn’t just a word adults use to put off kids. This was somehow a central part of being Catholic. That if THESE guys– the theologians and bishops and popes through the ages, in the book that was supposed to have all the answers– had to use the word MYSTERY so much, it must have a lot to do with BEing Catholic.
Our readings today are kind of hilarious, when you look at them as a whole. It shows a bunch of humans trying really hard to find proof… to have authority… to know for sure… when in the end, the thing that anchors faith, the golden thread everyone clings to, is a wisp of ancient scripture remembered by Joseph in a DREAM… promising a VIRGIN will give birth to the savior of the world…the Emmanuel, the God-with-us.
This makes no sense. There is no logic. It is all Mystery.
But what’s striking and funny is how hard everyone tries to make sense of it. Isn’t this exactly what we do, all the time?
In the first reading, Ahaz wants a sign, then doesn’t want a sign when he realizes that wanting a sign might BE a sign of little faith.
In the second, Paul both at once seems to try to assert his authority while claiming authority doesn’t matter.
Our gospel today comes after a long piece of scripture devoted to naming all the MALE, mind you, ancestors of Jesus. It goes on and on… blah blah blah the son of blah blah blah the father of blah blah blah who gave birth to Joseph, who is in the line of David, so SEE, this whole Messianic prophecy makes sense, it’s him, it’s really him!! But as we all know, Joseph doesn’t really have much to do with the birth of Jesus (according to the MYSTERY at the center of our faith anyway) . This supposed genealogical line proving Jesus is in the line of David kind of ends at Joseph, at least biologically anyway. It’s almost like at this critical juncture when we’d get an A for our impeccable proof in geometry class, poof, it breaks down, the line is incomplete… AHH! FAIL.
Jesus is born of MARY, a supposed VIRGIN nonetheless, who’s father is GOD. Why then is this genealogical line so important? (I mean, sidenote it would make a LOT more sense if it was the genealogy of MARY)
My point is this– it makes no sense. And try as hard as they might to make sense of it, try as hard as WE might to make sense of it, it makes no logical, rational sense.
WE NEED OTHER SENSES TO ENTER THIS MYSTERY.
Incarnational faith, the faith at the center of the stories of this season, is not about rationality. It’s not about justification. It’s asking for a radically new way of thinking and being and living in the world. A mystical– or Mystery– mindset, an opening to embodiment, a deep grounding in the miracle of nature.
Our old pathways of thinking and analyzing and justifying and proving (and historically so far dominating and violating) are NOT working. There is destruction all around us– personal and familial, environmental and communal, governmental and political. And this was true in Jesus’ day– the people were suffering, oppressed by a power-over structure, robbed of their life and dignity and freedom. He came into a religious and political system of domination, of rules and regulations imprisoning people and serving only a few. He embodied simplicity, and closeness to the earth.
Jesus is announced in our gospel today, harkening the first reading and others throughout the Hebrew scriptures, as the God-with-us, Emmanuel.
The utter good news is that this NEW way of being, this Advent and Christmas faith, Christian life really, what Jesus embodied, is so so much what the world needs right now. And it’s incredibly easy, entering this Mystery. It just SEEMS hard because we live in a long tradition of making it harder than it needs to be, because we got all up in our heads about it, seeking proof and reason and logic.
What happens when we let that go? What happens when we just fall into the Mystery, when we FEEL the profound truth of the heart of our faith, the salvific heart of the world?
You’re probably thinking, ok, Erin, how the heck do we do THAT? That does NOT sound easy. I am here to argue that it’s so easy we miss it. It’s so simple we think it can’t be possible. We live so INSIDE of the cycles and seasons of God-with-us we have forgotten who we are.
We can begin remembering by looking around us when we go outside. The trees are bare. The sky darkens much earlier and the nights are long. We can still see the burnt orange of leaves on the ground, having fallen from their branches not long ago in their brilliant death song. We feel the air of the season– COLD. Crisp. Getting into our bones and requiring the warmth of layers of wool and fire. We notice what happens to our insides… maybe we hate the winter. Maybe we’re in resistance and wall ourselves off until things warm up again. Maybe depression starts to creep in and we are afraid.
Whatever is here, it is HERE. We are in the season of Winter, and like every other season of time and our lives, we are asked to enter it. To be fully present. To let it work on us and in us. Why? Because we are human BEings, miraculous participants in a miraculous world. When we escape into our heads or into our fears, we miss so much. We cannot fully participate in the magnificence that is weaving us into being ALL THE TIME, in every turn of day and night and the wheel of the seasons.
This season of winter is teaching us the essential truth at the heart of the gospel, these events that not coincidentally are placed at the time of the winter solstice, when our ancestors remembered that even in the darkest of nights, the sun will rise. Even at the coldest hearth, fire would burn once again. Mary being a virgin, Joseph receiving guidance in a dream, Jesus being the savior of the world, these things are not meant to be proven logically. They are meant to be held reverently, as indicators that, indeed, what we thought was impossible is made possible. That life comes through all barriers and against all expectations.
When you’re in the dead of winter, cold and everything bare, gray and lifeless… don’t you, at some point, some part of you, begin to wonder if spring will ever come again? Don’t you wonder if you can endure the darkness and the cold any longer? I know that happens to me. And then, when spring comes, there is almost ecstatic joy and wonder and awe. It happened again! Life is coming again! It breaks through, despite all odds. I learn something about the world, and about myself– the capacity to endure, to strengthen my mind and heart, to BE light in darkness.
The mysteries of this season, of Advent and Christmas, are often made out to be these spectacular, special events. Christians can even use them in practices of domination over others– we see it in the way Christmas songs and consumerism have become a mainstay of American and global culture, even though many, many world citizens do not hold these stories as central to their paradigms of faith and life.
But what if these events aren’t special or spectacular or even miraculous (and therefore the best, Jesus the ‘true’ savior?) What if they are a humble and simple wake-up call, a reminder of what human life has always been and what it can be? What if Emmanuel, God-with-us means that we are Woven into the rhythms and cycles and seasons of nature. That as creatures part of creation we can constantly become aware of all the ways new life is always breaking through. Is nature the real miracle, the way the impossible is always becoming possible?
And what if part of the wake up call is that we are asked to live and move and have our being in the full capacity of human BEing, not human DOing, in awe and wonder of the natural world, humbly living according to Her rhythms, taking less, giving more? What if we knew part of our human capacity was coming home to our bodies, our souls, the dreamworld, as well as the nature that surrounds us? What if it’s about really realizing that we, too, are nature, creation, not human thinking and analyzing and therefore dominating, but human being, breathing, becoming more and more instinctive, natural, vulnerable, open to all that lives and moves and has its being in this beautiful world.
Sounds a lot like the One we all turn to now– a tiny, totally dependent baby, cradled in a feeding trough, with only the animals, his mother, and the night sky for company. Jesus is born in a cave, and will be buried in a cave. In the womb of both his mothers– Mary, and the earth Herself. Returning, in the end as it was in the beginning, to the earth. To nature. To true miracle. To Mystery.