Advent 4: Philia

         I love it when a story is told so vividly that you can see it playing in your head like a movie. Most of what’s in the Bible was written to do exactly that, to paint a picture that you could follow along with, almost like you were watching it happen.

         Well, maybe I’m embellishing a bit in my head for what’s in the text. But in my head Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s door. Elizabeth greets Mary, and the two women exchange a joyful hug. Both knowing for the first time that the other is pregnant.

         Elizabeth, we need to remember is about 7 months pregnant, but she is also older. She has been shamed and made an outcast in her society for not being able to have children. The child she is about to bring into the world, John, was a child of her advanced age, a miracle. Because of that, she didn’t let it be known she was pregnant.

         Mary, upon seeing Elizabeth, also sees that she is pregnant.

         But Mary, Mary is very newly pregnant. She isn’t even showing yet.

         Elizabeth knows immediately that Mary is pregnant.

         How?

         Well, I think there are two things at play here, the first is that John gets really excited to see Mary, this, we are told, is why Elizabeth knows.

         But I think it’s more than that.

         I think what’s unnamed in the Gospel of Luke, but very present, is our fourth Greek word for love, and where we will finish our Advent journey, philia.

         It’s possible that philia is the most relatable and also the hardest to define type of love. The simple definition is friendship. But Philia, philia is so much more than friendship. Brotherly love, the namesake of Philadelphia. A bond of friendship that’s more than the run of the mill person we have lunch with occasionally.

         It’s a person who knows without knowing. A person who can look at you and know there’s something more there, good or bad.

         In the Celtic tradition philia is the Anam Cara, the soul friend. In English it’s your bestie or your best friend. It can be a sibling, a child, a lover. Or philia can apply to none of those. The slang for it these days is your “ride or die”, the people or person you can call, no matter what, who knows you better than you know yourself.

Last week John so beautifully spoke about agape, divine love, God’s love for us. For me, the closest I will ever come to being able to experience that love is when I am with those I share phila with.

         In May, I had a socially distanced lunch with 4 of those people, all at once. We laughed and cried. We shared updates and hopes. And we all left feeling loved and fulfilled, rejuvenated for the next few uncertain days and months ahead. This moment made even sweeter by the time and distance between our times together, because of geography and covid.

         The same relationship is true, I believe, of Mary and Elizabeth.

         When I watch the story of Elizabeth and Mary greeting, as their joy at an unspoken truth is expressed through hugs and laughter and happy tears, when I see this in my mind, I see philia.

         And! It is within the safety of being with her soul friend that Mary says:

         My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
         God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.

God has shown strength with God’s arm; and scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
         God has helped Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

         The Magnificat. Stunningly beautiful. Hauntingly faithful. Unabashed in strength.

         Mary spoke these words to a true friend, with whom she shares philia. And also to another woman who is shamed by society – and make no mistake, once Mary returns home in 3 months, noticeably pregnant, she will be shamed by society. And she knows this. She knew this when Gabriel invited her to carry, birth, and raise God in human form.

         And with this shame looming, still she says, God has looked with favor upon me. God will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God is lifting the lowly, and bringing down the rich.

         In addition to being with Elizabeth and that experience of philia, truly looking at the words of the Magnificat, taking them in to our hearts, it’s clear that Mary has a philia relationship with God as well.

         A relationship where you know one another, you see all the flaws, all the wonder, all the beauty, and those things only make you love one another more.

         To have that with God!

         The thing is, we all do. Or at least, we all can. We can all nurture and grow in our relationship with God. This is a huge part of Christianity to me. Christianity is in part, to me, a way to grow in and nurture a relationship with God.

         It’s a way that over time has been whittled away into a much smaller approach to relationship with God that what Christ intended.

         In these last weeks of Advent we’ve seen that the role of women, and even of those who are just somehow deemed less than, have been intentionally marginalized. Along with those marginalized people went the approaches to faith that they offered.

         Mary Magdalene had a myth created about her that she was a sex worker. Mary Mother of God was treated as a God bearer and then nothing else is said about her.

         But I thought of something yesterday, as I listened to the Magnificat being sung at my friend Rowan’s ordination: Mary didn’t just say those words to Elizabeth.

         Using our brains for a moment, realistically, neither of them could read or write. There isn’t a scribe who is following Mary around, and no one else is listed as being with them. And if a man had been there, even Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah; if a man had been there he would be named.

         What this tells me is that Mary didn’t say these words once. I bet she said them a lot.

         I think she said them to her followers in the communities she was part of and perhaps helped created. I think she said them to Jesus and He made sure her words were repeated and remembered as her’s.

         I know this because! Because these words of the Magnificat, they are a summary of Christ’s teachings!

         Let your soul, your existence, your very being, magnify God! Rejoice in God, be humbled in God. Use your relationship with God to strengthen you to do God’s work! To upend unjust systems, cast down those who have profited unjustly, and use their ill-gotten wealth to lift up the poor, while simultaneously scattering away those who think themselves better than others.

         Mary said these words, offered these teachings. She didn’t just give birth to Christ and go away to the side meekly.

         She was fierce, she taught fiercely, she loved fiercely. And she was supported in her fierce love by her philia relationship, her deep and life-giving friendship, with God.

For all of us, myself included, the Advent journey has been one of seeing and appreciating love. Love in all it’s forms, not just the romantic type that’s most celebrated. Love, like faith, is more than one narrow thing.

Love, like faith, gives back as much as we put into it.

Love, like faith, is something to be nurtured and respected. And if we put in the effort, we will reap incredible returns!

Love, like faith, needs to be a two way street, where both parties are contributing to the give and take, the carry and the be carried, the speak and the listen. That is true in healthy relationships of all kinds, including your relationship with God.

Now that we have considered love, I invite all of us to consider the ways in which we show our love to God; our love of God.

So please, in these last few days before Christmas, as we sit with Mary and anxiously await the birth of Christ, find a moment, or take a moment, or make a moment, to sit and consider love. The Great loves in your life. And your love with and of God.

How does your love of God play out on a day-to-day basis?

What do you need to feel competent and able to grow in your relationship with God?

Amen

On Eros and Mary of Magdala

         So. I have a confession. A confession that starts 4 Christmases ago. I was working at a Church in Northern Virginia as their curate before I moved to Rhode Island to join the Bishop’s staff there.

       The Christmas season can be a lot for Clergy. That particular Christmas season had a lot of tribulations, and by the second week of Advent, I was exhausted.

       I was sitting on the couch of the tiny basement apartment I was renting, flipping through tv channels, when a familiar face appeared on the screen.

       Now, I could not tell you who that face belonged to, only that I stopped long enough to think of where I knew this person from, and suddenly realized that I was watching a Hallmark Christmas movie. And that I had been watching it for like 15 minutes.

       I had never done this before. I had never watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. But I was exhausted, there was a familiar face, I left it on.

       My confession, is that I like Hallmark Christmas movies.

       I’m not exactly proud of this, but I’m also not ashamed of this. Plenty of people like the cheesy, predictable, warm natured films. Especially in stressful times – like the holidays.

       There’s actually been some studies about why we are drawn to this genre of films, and it seems that in times of high stress and unpredictability, which summed up the holidays pretty well even before Covid, our brains like the predictability and the certainty.

       We like knowing that the Price will choose the waitress over the heiress. And sure, there’s no way that the big city lawyer and the small-town florist can actually make a relationship work, but we’re all still cheering when he proposes after 6 days anyway!

       I have not conducted research on this myself, but I also have a theory about why so many of us enjoy Hallmark style Christmas Movies, or can at least tolerate them: we love, love.

       Love, is what makes the world go round. Love is what we hear in so many songs, it’s what Hallmark figured out a format for that makes into over the top movies with bad acting be enjoyable.

       As we began to discuss last week, Love, the word love, has been consolidated in English from several different words in Greek. This week we turn our attention to the love that makes the world go round, that keeps us up at night, that Hallmark has made a fortune selling: Eros.

       Eros is the root word that erotic comes from. It means a passionate love, a sensual love, that all encompassing form of insanity, as the Greeks considered it. A form of insanity, I should point out, that was not something to base a decision as important as who to marry upon in the Ancient Greek world.

       Plato considered Eros to be life energy, not just a carnal passion. The thing that gives life purpose, direction, meaning.

       It is Eros that we linger upon this week.

       Eros, is an interesting thing to preach upon. And in looking at the Mary’s that have been passed down to us from Scripture and Tradition, there is no one more perfect, in my mind, to use to illustrate Eros, than Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene.

       Because, through no fault of her own, and based on an inaccurate reading of Scripture, Mary Magdalene has been cast as a lustful, unable to control herself, sex worker, and possibly adulterous woman of low morals who was healed by Jesus and became a follower.

       This idea that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker came from the way that Pope Gregory the first read Scripture in 591. He conflated an unnamed “sinful” woman who anointed Christ’s feet with Mary of Magdala, who was a prosperous woman, remembered as having had flaming red hair, and who was so important in Jesus’s ministry that she is the one who was chosen for Christ to first reveal himself to in his resurrected form.

Mary of Magdala was the apostle to the apostles, the one who was so important in Christ’s ministry and in the efforts immediately following his death, that she is widely believed to have had to escape to what is now France in order to escape being murdered.

Instead of being lauded, Mary was intentionally diminished as part of a larger goal to diminish the importance of, and role for, women within Christianity. So a narrative was invented about Mary, one that discredited her completely, and she was used, along with Mary Mother of God, to create a binary in society that allowed women only to be vessels for having children, or sex workers.

This narrative about Mary Magdalene is still widely believed, although the Catholic Church did, in 1961, say that Pope Gregory was incorrect in his assessment of Mary. And in 2016, Pope Francis moved her liturgical day, July 22, from a celebration, which means it’s optional to celebrate, to a feast, which means you must celebrate her when July 22 falls on a Sunday.

Though Mary Magdalene has been vindicated, 1,400 years after she was so thoroughly slandered, the narrative about her hasn’t really changed in the last 50 years. She’s still considered to be a reformed sex worker, and not venerated as the Apostle to the Apostles. Her Gospel is still dismissed, as are the Gospels of Peter and Thomas, in addition to several other ancient texts, all of which show that Mary was remarkably important to the Ministry of Christ.

But even in what we have in Scripture, we can see that Mary and Jesus shared a special bond. A bond that goes beyond Rabbi and follower. I can’t say exactly what their relationship was, because I wasn’t there, but they shared a special connection. One that made Jesus ask Mary not to cling to him, not to bind him to earth, when he returned.

It may not be a physically passionate love that they shared, but it’s clear that Eros is a term that would apply more than the other forms of love we can wrap our human minds easily around.

So how then was Mary Magdalene so easily confused and dismissed?

In researching this sermon I came across one tidbit that I think summarizes a lot of where all this confusion comes from. Mary, as it turns out, was BY FAR the most common name for women in first century Israel. There are a lot of Mary’s floating about and playing roles within Jesus’s ministry. Several of the women with roles that were important enough to be mentioned in Scripture were named Mary, Magdalene, Mother Mary, Mary and Martha, Mary of Bethany. And there were unnamed women who’s stories appeared near stories of these various Mary’s.

The sheer number of Mary’s was used to conflate Mary Magdalene with several other women, and that conflated person was the one who was used to suppress women, and to try to create a fear and a stigma around women and Eros.

Really, everyone and eros.

A stigma was created around being passionate at all. Sex was made to be an evil thing outside of when it was for the specific purpose of procreation and within a heterosexual marriage. For example, to this day, Catholic doctrine says that sex can only happen within a marriage, and that it is purely for procreation. No other reason. Any other incident of sex is a sin.

This, comes from Augustine’s creation of the doctrine of Original Sin, which is complicated, but basically, lust and sex for pleasure are the original sins committed by Adam in the Garden of Eden (but not Eve) after eating the fruit of all knowledge.

Since lust is the original sin, fathers, whom we remember from last week were understood to be the only one’s who had anything to do with children – women were just incubators for their seeds – fathers commit the sin of lust in any sexual encounter, and therefore their children are born with original sin. This is why Jesus was not born with original sin, because his father is the Holy Spirit and not a human.

I know, it’s a lot. Deep breath!

Eros, was taken from being a life giving force, a beautiful thing that gives life purpose, often in conjunction with Agape love. It went from a beautiful life giving thing, to sinful and to be avoided at all costs. With the limited exception of for procreation within a heterosexual marriage.

Eros became much smaller, limited to lust and desire, instead of a genuine passion, and potentially a beautiful, life giving love, that was not limited to carnal matters.

Mary Magdalene, went from being a loving and beloved companion of Christ, to a lust driven sex worker, and with her, went the larger understanding of eros, and of what love can be when healthy and allowed to bloom.

Last week, I invited everyone to consider storge love, and those relationships within their family that are healthy and life giving. This week, I invite everyone to consider, in any quiet moments, if there are relationships you have, or have had, that are places where you have a life giving love. This is the place to think of our romantic relationships, but also other passions.

Eros, like Storge, like Philia to come in our discussions, and Agape, these are the loves that we feel when they are absent. These are the loves that we long for as humans, at least that most people long for.

What I invite everyone to do is to think of those places where we have these great loves. And to give thanks for them.

Great love is what Hallmark is trying to sell. But in reality, a great love is a relationship that is worth the work. Because all love is work. Family, friends, lovers, sports teams, and pets. It’s all work.

What are the relationships in your life that are worth the work? Take a moment this week to give thanks for those places.

Amen

Mary, Mother of God, and Storge (familial love)

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?

Amen