Some of you know that I’ve been meeting with an old Christian saint for coffee these last weeks. His name is Gregory of Nyssa, and he lived during the fourth century of the current era. He lived in an area known as Cappadocia, just south of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Unlike many influential Christians from that period Gregory was probably married. Before he was called to the priesthood and church leadership he taught rhetoric.
Gregory wasn’t as charismatic as his more famous older brother Basil; nor as original as his saintly sister Macrina. But he did come from the same venerable family. His sister, known as Macrina the Younger, bore the name of their grandmother, Macrina the Elder. Macrina the Elder came to be revered as a saint because she refused to deny her faith and subsequently was forced to flee her hometown. Their grandfather too was highly respected: he was killed during an imperial persecution of Christians.
Together with his brother Basil and a friend Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa helped articulate the understanding of the triune character of God formalized at the ecumenical council of Nicaea in 381. That conference and the Nicene Creed it produced has been exceedingly influential in both eastern and western Christianity. What Gregory and the others argued for was nothing less than the claim of Jesus’ divinity. This is the confession that whatever God is (they didn’t try to define that)—whatever God is, Jesus shares in it. Gregory and church leaders like him were trying to express in an ancient Greek thought world the NT assumption that in Jesus we encounter God.
Now, you probably could have read something much like that on Wikipedia, but here’s my point: Gregory of Nyssa had the pedigree to make strong claims to understand God and to know God. During political races, like the ones we’re witnessing here in Canada, candidates make all sorts of strong claims based on their experience, their influence and their past accomplishments. That’s why I find it so surprising, haunting even, that Gregory describes God as unknowable darkness.
To know God, Gregory says, is a sort of “seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness” (Gregory, 95). Behind this quotation lies Gregory’s reflection on the life of Moses, especially Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai in the Arabian wilderness. Exodus 20:21 was what Gregory had in mind: “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”
Gregory believed that when we first encounter the divine we see God as a thing knowable, as light. It’s only as we proceed further that we realize the true difference between divinity and ourselves. Our spiritual path turns in the direction of the mysterious. I think this is why a pastor friend of mind says he loves it when congregants come to his study to tell him that they just can’t keep up belief in God existence. “Then,” he says, “they are ready to get serious.” It’s only through the journey of seeking God over a lifetime that we come to appreciate the deep swirling, mystery of God. This is one of the benefits, even the payoff, of doubt.
When I read Gregory’s reflections on the life of Moses the picture that comes to mind is of what paddlers—kayakers, canoers, rafters—call a ‘hole’. When you’re paddling a river a ‘hole’ refers to a place where the water passes around a rock or over a void. When that happens the river turns back on itself and creates a deep vortex that pulls in all kinds of flotsam. Under the surface are complex, swirling hydraulics invisible from above. Holes are unpredictable, dangerous and mysterious.
God is a deeply complex churning mystery. Anything we say about God is metaphorical—‘analogical’ as Thomas Aquinas would put it.
Our reading from the First Testament today took us again to the book of Isaiah (Is. 42:14-17).
“For a long time I have held my peace,” says this mystery in chapter 42. “I have kept still and restrained myself,” says this mystery. “[N]ow I will cry out,” says this mystery. “[L]ike a woman in labor,” says this mystery. “I will gasp and pant,” says this mystery.
What a metaphor that is: God comparing himself to a laboring woman; God describing herself gasping and panting.
“I will lay waste mountains and hills,” says the mystery. “I will lead the blind in a way they do not know,” says the mystery. “I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do,” says the mystery, “and I do not forsake them.”
Who, I ask you, would want idols after that? What a shame it would be to trust in things made with the flesh of our hands, when the divine mystery forgoes all restraint, pants and gasps, opens in anticipation of birthing something new. What a shame to think creation could bear the mystery of the divine image.
Our New Testament reading took us to Luke’s Gospel and the story of the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).
Mary couldn’t have known of Gregory of Nyssa, or the way he would measure and probe her child with the tools of Greek philosophy. But she knew the story of Moses to which Gregory referred. She knew too the prophetic words of Isaiah and the darkly apophatic sentiment of Job. But Mary was not an aged saint: Mary was oh so young. Was she so different from the youth we know, from our friends, from ourselves?
She was so young when the angel Gabriel greeted her and called her “favored one.” “The Lord is with you,” said Gabriel. But, the Bible tells us, Mary was perplexed. I don’t know if she would have admitted that or not. Some young people aren’t much for admitting that they don’t understand. Mary had a right to wonder though. What sort of greeting was this?
Would you have any assumptions about what an angel would want if one showed up and greeted you?
It’s hard to know what to make of angels, isn’t it? Our modern, western worldview doesn’t have much space for them. Yet it was the very modern and very western theologian Karl Barth who went to bat for angels. Whatever cultural mythology has developed around angels (through television shows, sappy poems or weepy art), old Barth said that in the Bible they are simply messengers of God. Through the work of angels the mystery of God takes up space in creation. Barth wrote, “For real angels the only thing which matters is the glory of God on earth. They serve earthly creatures by showing them the proximity and distance, the distance and proximity, in short the mystery of God, and therefore God himself” (CD III.3, 517). And why not? Why not believe in angels if you believe there is more to life than what can be pinned down and measured?
Perhaps Mary was perplexed by just this proximity and distance: surely Gabriel was right about the Lord being with her . . . but the Lord was still a mystery.
Once when I was young I was playing football in a barn with friends. I was running to catch a pass, when I was brought up short by the jagged sound of flapping wings. I walked forward slowly, cautiously and found a large hole in the barn floor. It was just where I was about to run, and we hadn’t seen it before. Looking down through the hole, I could see ten feet below a concrete floor and herd of steers. I looked up—instead of an angel I saw a pigeon.
The mysterious thing with angels is that they don’t always show up when we need them. Neither, I guess, do pigeons. But perhaps sometimes one does the work of the other.
Protection is the sort of thing I would expect of an angel, but that is not what Mary got. What Mary got was the announcement that she would conceive and bear a son. She was supposed to call him “Jesus”—“Yeshoua” in the Hebrew or “Joshua” in English. And this “Joshua” would “be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” Gabriel claimed that his reign would last forever.
As outsiders our minds naturally drift to questions like these: Do Gabriel’s words really suggest that this ‘Joshua’ would be divine? or What would it mean for him to have David’s thrown? How would this baby achieve political power? The Roman province of Judea wasn’t exactly a meritocracy in the first century. But those weren’t Mary’s first questions, of course not, because what Gabriel was announcing would involve her own body.
“How can this be,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” The Holy Spirit would bring it about, was Gabriel’s reply. And on that account, this ‘Joshua’ would be holy. He would be called the “Son of God.” And the church would wrestle for centuries with what that meant. It takes our best efforts to say what that means in the contemporary context of our relationships with Muslim neighbors or in the public square of pluralist Canada or in the early years of the Byzantine Empire—Gregory’s day. Gregory and others would need to reach for technical Greek words like “homoousios” and “hypostasis” to speak adequately of this act of mystery.
It wasn’t an outside, external thing that was being proposed to Mary. Mary is being asked for her body, and (this is in the subtext) for her honor. What else did she have? She had no real voice, no education, no employable skills and few rights to speak of. This young woman was being asked for everything.
Her response is simple, spare, unremarkable and yet gut-churningly exemplary. The Christian community would stumble over itself for generations to give her due honor: Mary’s words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And with that the pants and gasps of this mother would become those of God, bearing in created flesh the divine Word into the world. And then, one day, watching as that very flesh was torn and abused. And she would love this ‘Joshua’ when even God the Father dared not. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” Mary’s son cried. The Father’s back would turn, but Mary would be there. Subsequent generations would indeed call her blessed.
Later biblical writers would describe this ‘Joshua’ using the Greek term logos, a double entendre that would reference the Hebrew Torah and the Greek logic of the universe. Logos, the ‘Word,’ the self-same speech of God, nurtured and birthed by this young Hebrew woman. This young woman, who in response to Gabriel’s message, proclaimed that her soul praised the Lord and that her spirit rejoiced in God’s saving power: “[For God] has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” she would sing.
I’ve been alluding to the great and wise tradition of honoring Mary. It’s true that she isn’t the only model available to us; Scripture presents us with a multitude. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, focused on Moses. But whichever biblical model we look to, the point is the same. As Gregory suggested, we look to them to as maritime navigators once looked to mountain peaks or beacons of light to find safe harbor. They, not the Ikea catalog, help us find the good life.
How does Mary’s example guide us? Well, we see in the texts we read today that she is an example of bearing good news to the world. Her song of praise, the magnificat, shows the world-flipping character of this news. She proclaims that the proud would be scattered, the powerful would be brought down, the lowly lifted up, and the hungry filled. But this isn’t just Mary’s news. It is our news as well. We don’t conceive it like God’s Spirit, or give it birth like Mary but we are asked to witness to it.
And this, I think we all recognize, is no easy thing. Speaking of such news or of spiritual things in general can feel too personal, or too abrasive. We often quote St. Francis to say that we should always preach the gospel, using words only if necessary. In reality it doesn’t seem that Francis actually said that. He spoke quite a bit and taught those he mentored to do the same. He lived radically too, there’s no doubt about that. Francis earned less than he could have and gave more than perhaps he should, but he didn’t separate words and actions. He didn’t allow one to hide behind the other.
If you’re like me you find it pretty easy to recommend a brand, a company or some way of doing things. But we find it much harder and more awkward to tell those we know about the faith that orients our lives and gives us the hope that our future isn’t determined by our past. We’ve inherited a lot of bad models for that I’m afraid. And what’s more, we live in a new age, one where the Christian establishment has died and where we are still figuring out how to be church after the funeral. The ways in which previous generations spoke of their faith often don’t seem to fit this age. We struggle to know how to be Christians and good neighbors and good citizens all at the same time.
As we conclude, let’s remember that Mary was called to bear the Word of God into the world. We are her children, in a sense, and we inherit part of her calling. The specifics of her life probably don’t apply to us. We don’t occupy the same social position she did, or live in the same part of the world she did. And neither is God asking us to bear the Word in precisely the same way that Gabriel announced she could. That sort of thing only happens once.
We need, as Gregory recommended to readers of his Life of Moses a “subtlety of understanding and keenness of vision to discern from [such historic examples how] we shall embark on the blessed life” (33). The question or the challenge for us is this: How can we, like Mary, make room for God in our lives, and not just in the corners we aren’t using but right at the core of who we are? How can we, like Mary, bear divine life and joy? How can we, like Mary, nurture it and share it and love it? How can we, like Mary, speak it and live it in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our places of work and in our places of play?
— Holy Spirit of God, give us the boldness and the joy of the Lord’s servant Mary.