O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.
I love those words found in our hymnal. I love the glorious absurdity of a single flower dispelling the darkness everywhere.
The flower the hymn sings of is, of course, St. Mary the Virgin, the once again soon-to-be mother of Jesus, who always shows up on the fourth Sunday of Advent.
According to Anglican theologian David Brown, “One of the principle ways [God] speaks to humanity is through the imagination” — a force that refuses to stand still, is always re-visioning things, sliding up and down the generations, in order to show you something true you’ve failed to see. Or something you’ve neglected to see, perhaps even tried not to see.
You can hear God speaking to us through the imagination of Mary this morning in her bold Magnificat. And can also see God at work among us in the many ways people have re-imagined the identity of Mary over the centuries.
One way all generations have called her blessed is through the work of the imagination. The Virgin Mother, as you know, has a history of showing up everywhere: in the quarrels of all ages, in the skins of all people, in the dresses of all cultures, across and through two millennia.
Here, in this parish church, for instance, we meet her as Our Lady of Peace alongside the names of fallen soldiers, and over there we remember her as Our Lady of Guadalupe alongside Our Lady of Walsingham.
My favorite nearby image of Mary, though, is at the side entrance to our parish office. There you meet another Lady of Walsingham – the first to take up residence here at St. Paul’s: she is dark and she is beautiful, what tradition might also name a Black Virgin. Having come through a parish fire, she is a Lady of Ordeals still holding on to her son, who, in turn, raises an absent hand: his arm, charred by fire, still lifted to bless the world.
Some days, I wish that damaged figure resided here, within the body of our devotional spaces. Other days, I imagine she’s right where she should be: keeping watch at the margins, her back against the wall, facing the street, proclaiming from her throne of grace, “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”
The single flowering of some true thing “dispelling the darkness everywhere.”
The presence of many Maries bears witness to the imaginative and enlivening embrace of the Incarnation itself, how the life of God Made Man in Christ means to have theological reach: extending into and through the whole creation, from beginning to end. And yet, oddly enough, that glorious extension with its universal embrace began with one particular girl. Not the Maries we came to see all over the world. Not our Lady of Walsingham nor Guadalupe. Not our Ladies of Ordeals or Peace or Sorrows. But the Girl of Nazareth.
Or more accurately, Myriam of Nazareth, a Jewish girl of first-century Palestine.
To my eye, it seems no accident that the Star of David — here to my left on the south wall — hovers just under a window where stands Mary the Queen of Saints. That star belongs to the Abraham window just below her, and yet by way of its visual proximity to her window, it also marks an essential reality in the life of Mary and, through her, in the life of her son.
The Star of David looks back to the ancient biblical stories yet also signifies the living faith of Judaism still with us today. It names the Mother of Jesus as one of its own, and signifies both the royal line of David and the generational suffering of the Jewish people. And for that reason, it’s rare to see a Star of David in a church. I know a parish in Alabama that drew a curtain over the one they had, and did so in the immediate wake of the Holocaust. I don’t know why they did that. I’m guessing: to mask unspeakable suffering.
But the truth is, we need the flowering image of that Star in our midst, as surely as we need our various images of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Notably, the glorious song she sings today in St. Luke’s gospel is both hers and not hers. She sings it, yes, but every word of her Magnificat draws on the depths of the Jewish imagination. The Psalms are all over it. So, too, is the Song of Hannah and the prophet Isaiah, while her rousing conclusion remembers the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants forever.
Mary’s imagination, so like our own, looks in all directions: backward toward ancestral gifts, here and now toward what’s needful, and out ahead toward the hope of some new flowering of truth.
Years ago, when my daughter Grace was only six, our family attended her first piano recital. It was billed as a Christmas recital for an arts program put together by a local church. As a whole, the audience looked forward to moments of sweetness and light.
The first half was a dramatic performance put on by students of theatre, and the second half, a program of carols given by piano students, each sitting on the front row clutching their sheet music.
To my surprise, the drama students performed a scene from The Diary of Anne Frank. As I watched their performance, I grew angry, wondering why anyone would choose something brutal for a children’s recital in the season of Christmas. Without really thinking about it, I wanted to keep Christmas separated from the Holocaust. I wanted to shield my child from hearing about terror, and I wanted her to play her part with an untroubled mind.
The actors were high school students, performing an extended early scene that fortunately, to my mind, never reached the eventuality of death, but it was there for those who knew the story. My hope, right or wrong, was for Grace not to know what the play was talking about. And when the second half of the recital began, I was relieved to see her looking calm and ready as she walked to the piano to take her turn.
She played a one-line arrangement of Joy to the World.
Later that night when it was bedtime, I read her a happy story, and we said our prayers. The room was dark, and she was quiet.
I thought she’d fallen asleep as I tiptoed to the door. And just as I was leaving, she asked me in a little faraway voice, Mom, what happened to Anne? Did she die?
Yes, I said, she died.
And Grace answered, I thought so.
I learned she was unbearably open — more than I wanted her to be — to knowing things, even hard murderous things. And that night I allowed myself to remember the fearful powerlessness of Anne Frank dying in a concentration camp at the age of fifteen.
The truest hymns, the truest art, the truest telling of history – all rely on the imagination daring to name the truths we can’t bear to name. Or haven’t yet fully named.
Let there be peace on earth, we cry, and cry it near tears because there isn’t, and because we yet believe in it.
The power God calls you to embrace is frail and defenseless as a flower. It’s the tender power of lifting up the lowly, caring for the poor, and loving your neighbors, your enemies, the strangers at the door.
O flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere. AMEN.