When I was in my first year of law school, so I think I was somewhere around 26, the young son of a friend of mine got sick. He was somewhere around 6 at the time. Our rural doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on and sent them to Baltimore to see pediatric specialists. My friend, Shane, called when I was headed back to Maryland for Christmas to let me know the specialists had diagnosed a highly aggressive form of leukemia. They were going to do a few more test to figure out the best course of action. But they were 99.6% sure it was bad.
When I got home I called our next door neighbor, Mary Lou, a devout Catholic, to see if I could go to church with her that night; she of course enthusiastically said yes. I didn’t know what I could do to help my friend, but I wanted to do something, church seemed like a good place to start.
As I explained the situation to Mary Lou she suggested I light a candle to Mary, because Mary always loves and protects her children.
I had never lit a candle to anyone. I wasn’t exactly a heathen, but I was definitely NOT a Catholic. I didn’t know what to say or how to do it, but I put the money that Mary Lou gave me in the little slot and I lit a candle, and prayed for a miracle.
As I was driving back to Georgia (where I was in school) the call came from Shane that the highly aggressive leukemia, was actually an exceptionally rare but curable condition, when caught early. And one of the very few specialists in the United States happened to be in Philadelphia, a mere 3 hours away.
It was an actual miracle. I could feel it. Shane still considers it to have been a miracle that saved Caleb.
And that was when I decided to go back to church. Maybe there was something to this “God thing” after all. The friend I was driving back to Georgia with happened to have recently started going to an Evangelical Church, and he was getting something out of it. He invited me without my even bringing this up.
And here we are, 14 years later. That little boy has graduated high school and can now legally drink; I’m an Episcopal Priest, still not Catholic, Shane and I have drifted apart because of ideological differences but talked this week, actually, and I’m still an ardent fan of Mother Mary.
As we begin Advent this year, an Advent where we are taking an intentional, and different, approach, I can think of no better way to begin than by beginning with Mary, and the way that she shows us familial love, specifically the love of parent and child.
It’s important to pause for a moment to acknowledge that not everyone is able to experience the love of a parent or of being a parent. I myself don’t have children and was rejected by a parent (though, those two things are actually unrelated). The harm of rejection by a parent is real. And nothing I offer today, I hope, will hurt wounds that some of us carry.
Rather, this look at the love of parent and child comes from our attempt in these next few weeks to take a deeper look at the word “love.”
Because, what is encompassed in the word love in English, actually means several different things in Greek. To begin this season of Advent, we look at storge (store-gay), or familial love.
Perhaps some might consider agape, or the way that God loves humans, for the way a parent loves a child. But honestly, that’s outside of my experience. I’ve witnessed the love of other things come between parent and child, as I’m sure you all have as well. Addiction, money, tradition, politics, religion, youth, mistakes, you name it. And while these things can come between parent and child, they don’t come between God and human.
So we’re starting with the birth of the love humans can experience, storge, and Mary, Mother of God.
The way that Mary is so often depicted, virginal, innocent, naïve to what she was being asked to do, and then fading into oblivion, I’ve always struggled with that.
Mary was so committed to God, by God’s own standards, that God offered Mary the opportunity to bring Christ into the world. Mary was chosen, and was bold enough to say yes, to what was honestly a remarkably difficult call.
Let’s remember that Mary was quite young. Her betrothal would have been arranged shortly after her period started, anywhere between 12 and 15. She would have been married shortly thereafter. Some women did marry later, but usually only if they were previously in a religious life or from an upper class family.
So it’s more than likely that Mary was between 14 and 16 when she became pregnant with Jesus.
I, am not going to comment on the immaculate conception nor on the idea of Mary being and continuing to be the Virgin Mary, other than to say, the idea of Mary continuing to be the Virgin Mary after Christ was born started in the early 300’s, and was developed by a group of men who wanted to create a standard for women to hold themselves to, and in the process created an impossible standard, one that limits women to being vessels for procreation.
Also important to note is that at the time it was understood that the woman played no role in the genetics of the child. A woman was simply implanted with a man’s seed and grew his child. She played no role other than oven and delivery system. This is why the immaculate conception is far more difficult and controversial today than it was in the early church.
Just pointing those things out for you to chew on. Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past God for an Immaculate conception to be possible, and it really doesn’t impact my belief in God one way or another if Jesus was born of Mary and the Spirit, or Mary and Joseph with a blessing of the Spirit. However, if any of this does impact your belief in God, please talk with me!
Back to Mary, the one chosen to bring forth the chosen one.
Mary was a teenager, quite possibly rebellious by human standards, but perfect by God’s standards. More than likely she wasn’t from a wealthy family. She had dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes. And apparently she loved the color blue.
At this time of year I imagine her super pregnant, scared about becoming a parent, confused as to how to be a parent, very confused about the line to walk between letting her child grow and be a regular child with chores and friends, and also knowing that she’s carrying a son who will be remarkable.
I imagine her exhausted after having given birth, and wrapping her newborn baby boy in her blue shawl, holding him, and looking down into the eyes of her infant.
That look, that moment, that’s the love I wish to linger with today. Storge, familial love, it’s the love that exists because of a bond, a bond that goes beyond anything we can genuinely articulate. It’s a love that’s pure and innocent. A love that exists because it exists. And something to be cherished and held carefully.
It’s also the love that’s easiest to manipulate. It’s the love that hurts the deepest when it is manipulated.
It’s the love that can make a woman take on the form of a bear or a lion when someone threatens her cub.
It’s the love that’s easiest to take for granted. One of the hardest to mend.
And the absence of this love leaves a chasm. One that often we seek to fill with other things, and in other ways.
This is the love that keeps therapists employed, and also the love that made so many hugs so sweet after months of separation.
Within storge is also the love between siblings, cousins, grandparents, even aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.
It’s a love that should, and often does, bond people together. It’s a love that feeds the desire to foster a relationship between people who are remarkably different, even when there is a proven history of hurt.
This love is seen in the story of Mary and Martha, where one sister works and the other sits at the feet of God. Was Martha upset that Mary was sitting at the feet of Christ rather than helping her, yes. But also, Martha wouldn’t have taken away that opportunity from her sister.
It’s a love that God honored in stopping Abraham’s knife from plunging into Isaac. It’s also the love that Abraham broke in that action, leaving Isaac and Rebecca to never speak to him again.
It’s a love that brought Esau and Jacob back together after Jacob manipulated and hurt Esau.
It’s the love that reunited Jacob’s sons after Joseph had been sold into slavery; the love that called to Jacob to forgive his brothers and save them when faced with famine.
Love is complex, multifaceted, impossible to control, nearly impossible to explain. That gets even more complicated when looking at families. Where for most of us, our most complex relationships can be found.
As we look at this love in Advent, I think it’s important to look at our own lives and our own families. We are beginning a journey this week, a journey that ends with baby Jesus wrapped in his mother’s blue shawl.
As a young woman prepares her life and her heart for motherhood, we are also preparing our hearts and lives for a renewed welcome of God into our lives, hearts, and homes.
I hope, sincerely, that those who are listening to this sermon today don’t need a miracle to be dropped into their world in order to see the need to make room for God in their lives. I did, and I own that.
Our invitation to consider this week is that as we are going through our days and find ourselves with a few moments to think, commuting, walking the dog, showering, knitting, let’s consider where there are spaces that we can make room for God in our lives, this is Advent, after all. We’re preparing. And let’s also take a look to see if there are healthy and loving storge relationships in our lives. And if so, take a moment to give thanks for that love.
And let us all do our best to live into the first line of the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the lord.
How can we alight our souls to magnify the lord?