This is the fourth sermon in an Advent series entitled “Wilderness and Womb: We are the Ones Being Born”
Luke 1:26-38, 44-55
I used to regularly attend a meditation community in Oakland, and my favorite service was the one on Saturday at 5 p.m. The service leader would refer to this service as a hinge point in the week, as we ended the week just completed and were on the cusp of heading into Sabbath and the new week. My favorite part of this “hinge” service was when the leader would ask us to reflect silently on the week that just was — its high points, its low points, its joys, its sorrows, its anxieties. And then the leader would light a little charcoal and put a spoonful of incense on it, which would cause smoke to waft up into the air and a quite lovely scent to permeate the room. (I realize for those with chemical sensitivities, this would not have been so lovely.) In that quiet, darkened room, as we watched the smoke rise, we would pray together from Psalm 142: “May our prayer rise before you, like incense.” And I would have an almost physical sense of some weight lifting off of me. Whatever had happened that week, it was now done, out of my control. I was giving the week to God and praying that God would do with it what She would.
I loved that little ritual. It was a small, weekly exercise in giving up control, giving up my ego’s needs to direct, fix, manage, complete. It was an exercise in releasing everything to God. No matter what sorrow came into my life that past week, I gave it up to God. No matter what small victory had occurred, gone. No matter what was undone on my to-do list, I gave it over…. at least until Monday. No matter what anxiety I was holding, I imagined that I was releasing it to God in the smoke from the incense. It was no longer mine to hold. And in doing this, not only did I feel a weight lifting off of me, I also felt this spaciousness growing inside of me. I was just there, emptied, receptive, waiting without expectation for what the new week would bring and knowing that — at the end of that week — I would again entrust whatever happened to God.
Mary, or Miryam in her Hebrew name, is confronted with her own hinge moment in our Scripture for today, albeit a much bigger one than my little weekly ritual. Before the angel came to her, she was just like any other teenage woman from Nazareth. She was engaged to a man — which meant that the wedding contract or ketubah had already been signed — and she was waiting for the wedding to take place so that she could begin the life of an ordinary adult woman in her community. But then the angel appears, and her life stops moving in a straight line. She comes to the hinge point of her life. I’d like to explore that hinge point a bit more, in this story from Luke that Justina read.
Gabriel — Gavriel in Hebrew — appears and very quickly tells Miryam twice that she is “favored.” The Greek word for “favored” comes from the Greek word for “grace” and so we could think of being “highly favored” as being “receptive to God’s grace.” Miryam is told she will bear a son to be named Jesus or, in Hebrew, Yehoshua, which means “The Lord saves.” In Aramaic, the language spoken by Yehoshua’s people, his name may have been Yeshua, which is why we sometimes use that name for Jesus in our services. Either name situates Yeshua as completely and thoroughly Jewish. And I believe we can’t understand the stories of the New Testament, including this most central story, if we don’t understand how thoroughly Jewish these stories are. Gavriel says Yeshua will be Son of the Most High, which means that he will have royal authority. He will sit on the throne of his ancestor, King David. All of this would have been a threat to the Roman Empire that occupied their land, an empire that was not fond of anyone claiming to be a king. There was only one ruler, and his name was Caesar Augustus.
Miryam asks how this impregnation is going to happen, since she is a virgin. The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. In Jewish thought, the Holy Spirit will come to be named as the “Shekhinah,” which is grammatically feminine and is considered to be the visible presence of God that dwells with Israel. Shekinah comes from the Hebrew root shakhan that means “dwelling place” and can refer to God’s dwelling among the people or to the dwelling itself, as in mishkan. The mishkan is the moveable tabernacle the Israelites constructed to house the Presence of God. Andrew told me that Congregation Sha’ar Zahav is often referred to as “Mishkan Dolores.” Get it? (Hint: Mission Dolores is the name of the Catholic church right next door to the synagogue.)
It was the Shekinah, the rabbis said, that descended upon the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, the place where the Divine Presence was most palpably present. It was the Shekinah that accompanied the Hebrew people in their journeys, manifesting as the pillar of fire or the cloud of glory that goes before the people as they wander in the wilderness. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson says: “Wherever the righteous go, the Shekinah goes with them. No place is too hostile. She accompanies the people through the post-slavery wilderness and hundreds of years later into exile again.” The Shekinah is She-Who-Dwells-Within, the Divine indwelling Presence that flames out through our beautiful yet broken world. She is divine glory, says Johnson, the “weighty radiance that flames out in unexpected ways in the midst of the broken world.”
It is the Shekhinah, in the form of a cloud of radiant glory, that is going to overshadow Miryam as she becomes pregnant. A few verses later in Luke, the Shekhinah — the glory of the Lord — will show up as the angel announces to the shepherds that Yeshua has been born. A few chapters after that, the followers of Yeshua will be overshadowed by this same cloud of presence on top of a mountain, during the Transfiguration.
Clearly, nothing is impossible for the Shekinah. That same Presence that led Miryam’s people out of slavery and through the wilderness is now going to lead her. The same Shekinah that dwelt with her people for centuries is going to dwell in her.
Which brings us to the true hinge point of this story. Consenting to all of this — consenting to be the mother of Yeshua, the son of the Most High who will sit on the throne of David — this consent will have many consequences for Miryam. No more ordinary life for her, no more straight-line trajectory. Let’s start with the fact that she could potentially face lifelong scorn and ostracism for having a child out of wedlock. And who knows what the years ahead would bring with such a son, who would certainly threaten the Roman Empire. Her life would not be easy. To say yes to this invitation was to put everything — her reputation, her marriage, the whole course of her life — on the line.
Talk about a hinge point. Miryam is on the cusp of a decision that will change her life. Will her life continue on the conventional trajectory it had been on? Or, will she turn and send her life on a completely different trajectory? Will she entrust her past and her future to God?
We know what she chooses.“Here am I,” she says. “Hineni” is the Hebrew word for “Here am I” and it has rich associations within Judaism. It’s said by Adam, Abraham and Moses in response to God. It’s the name of a prayer of preparation and humility chanted by the rabbi on Rosh Hashanah, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar. Leonard Cohen fans may remember that he sings “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my lord” in his song “You Want it Darker.” Rabbi David Cohen says the word indicates a “receptive mind and an openness of soul.” It means: “Here I am, I’m ready and waiting to do your will. Here I am, a partner with You in the eternal covenant between You and our people. How can I fulfill my role more fully?”
And I realize now that that little ritual I used to do every week at my meditation community was a practice of Hineni. A practice of readiness to the divine will. A practice of receptivity, of emptying myself of my ego attachments — my cherished self-identities, my wants and demands, even my sorrows and anxieties — and saying “Here I am. I entrust my past to you. I entrust my future to you. Here I am.” It helped that that releasing ritual was followed by 20 minutes of meditation, where I would try to attend to my mantra (my prayer phrase) and my breath, and let go of all thoughts and emotions that arose, not identifying with any of them, releasing, releasing, over and over and over again.
When we can release our egos, at least a bit, release our small graspy selves, then we form within ourselves an empty, receptive place in which the Shekhinah can dwell. When we can release, at least somewhat, our “right” to control our future, our need for certainty about it, our plans and strategies to get what we think we want out of it, our fears about it — then we form within ourselves an empty, receptive place in which the Sheknihah can dwell.
And when we become servants of the Divine will in this way, when we allow the Divine to be born in us in this way… watch out. The world turns. What seems impossible becomes possible. In Luke’s Gospel, after Miryam says “yes” to the Shekhinah dwelling in her, she sings one of the most revolutionary songs ever, the Magnificat. She “bursts into an anthem of hope and justice for the world’s poorest, most forgotten, most brokenhearted, and most oppressed people,” says the writer Debi Thomas. “She describes a reality in which our sinful and unjust status quo is gorgeously reversed: the proud are scattered and the humble honored. The hungry are fed and the rich sent away. The powerful are brought down, and the lowly are lifted up.”
The reality proclaimed in the Magnificat is exactly what will get Miryam’s son Yeshua and his movement for liberation in trouble. In fact, the revolutionary reality proclaimed by the Magnificat has led to it being banned at different times in history. When the British ruled India, for example, the Magifnicat was prohibited from being sung in churches. In Argentina, when the mothers of “disappeared” children gathered in the central plaza of the capital and put up posters with the words of the Magnificat on them, the Magnificat was banned by the military junta. Throughout the centuries, Christians have felt a “perpetual need to tame or ignore the Magnificat because it is so deeply threatening to the lives we live,” says Thomas.
And yet, isn’t the reality the Magnificat proclaims what our souls truly long for? A world without hoarding? A world without scarcity? A world in which we all have enough? “A world,” as Thomas says, “in which the poor receive truly good things — not leftovers, not hand-me-downs, not miserly scraps that insult their dignity — but good things? A world in which our own cluttered, bloated fullness is mercifully taken away from us, so that in newfound emptiness, we find room for all that is truly life-giving?” Can’t you imagine it? Don’t we pray for it?
Friends, we are at a hinge point in human history. In the next decade, we will collectively determine the future of this planet. More than ever, at this hinge point in history, the Shekniha longs to born in us. The Shekhinah longs for souls ready to say: “Hineni. Here I am, I’m ready and waiting to do your will. Here I am, a partner with You in the eternal covenant between You and our people. How can I fulfill my role more fully?”
May our prayer rise before you, like incense.
I am grateful for the insights of The Jewish Annotated New Testament in preparing this sermon.