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.


         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?


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