December 19, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I want to come back to the snakes. Last week, we heard John the Baptist call his listeners a “brood of vipers.” In the children’s sermon, I brought some rubber snakes that I used to hide in my nieces’ bed, and we talked about how snakes shed the skin, maybe a sign for us that we, too, can change, shed our skin, become something new.
Who would have known that one of the renovation questions this week was, “What to do with the snake?” Many people never saw it. At the high altar, in the center, engraved into the marble floor was a snake. The square marble panel served two functions, a practical one and symbolic one. Practically, it was the place where the pastor needed to stand so that the architecture of the room would carry the voice to the back of the church, one of those live spots that sends the voice farther than you think it could go. And it really works. When you stood in that spot and speak, people in the balcony and can hear quite clearly. It’s the sweet spot.
Symbolically, when the assembly is making its great thanksgiving for the Eucharist, and the pastors began by recalling the angel’s words to Mary, “The Lord be with you,” they were treading on the serpent, a symbol of the fall, when Adam and Eve made that fateful choice to be fearful of God. This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia!
There is no record of the decision to use a snake as a marker for where to stand, but I’m fascinated by it. I’ve never seen anything like it. The renovation question is whether to keep this piece of marble in a historical display or to embed it in the floor in a place where, perhaps, we all walk over it when we enter the sanctuary, not just the mighty high priest.
Let me add one more layer to the week’s snake theme that my own cultural ignorance missed. Last Sunday was the festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a festival in Mexico that draws millions to the Cathedral of Guadalupe, built on the spot where in the sixteenth century, the virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, leaving her image impressed on his cloak. When he asked her name, she answered in his native language, “The one who crushes the serpent.” The ruling Spaniards attempted to that image as a symbol of Christian Spain’s conquest of Aztec culture. In the end, it didn’t work. That image on the cloak became the symbol of poor and indigenous Mexicans to rail against oppression, violence, and poverty. She became a symbol of libertad. An expression of her own song, “The mighty shall be cast down from their thrones and the rich sent away empty.” Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec peasant, not to the rulers.
For centuries, people have tried to domesticate Mary, to make her demure, subservient, or just a symbol of the spiritual inner-life of self-denial and devotion. But the holy spirit of her son, formed by her magnificent, lullaby song, refuses to be coopted. And she refuses again and again to do the work of status quo, wealth, or power, but comes to those who are wounded, sent to the margins, or silenced.
There have been a series of memes on social media about the song, “Mary did you know.”
Mary did you know that your baby boy is the Lord of creation.
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations.
In one meme, the answer is, “Um, yes. The angel told me.”
and another, “Yes. And please stop the song now.”
When Mary and Elizabeth meet, they immediately know that God is doing something. In their words are layers and layers of references to women in the Bible who experienced God’s liberation at work. They call all of them into the room, and they know that they are part of the long line of liberators. Deborah, Hannah, Yael, Judith. Elizabeth feels her own child leap at the contact. She immediately says, “Blessed are you among women, a blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And Mary sings the Magnificat, which if you really listen to its words, you can understand why authoritarian governments banned it from being sung in church. So many have tried to silence Mary.
Here we are with our own serpentine challenges: omicron, depression, inequity, racial violence, national discord, addiction, family drama, runaway accumulation, illness, climate disaster. We’re always standing on some form of that snake.
Feeling its power, what do we do? We leave home and travel to this place. Or we flip on the TV or computer. We visit our relatives in the faith. We call into this space, or our living rooms, women and men who have already been part of God’s saving work. We offer great thanksgivings. We greet one another like the angel greeted Mary: The Lord be with you. We share a meal. Today we even sing Mary’s song three times.
I know sometimes it’s a leap.
The leap is faith and a hope being born. It is already the birth of a new reality. This promised reign of God, this coming world of peace, harmony, love and justice is coming into being. Its gestating, forming, knitting, growing, kicking, leaping in the womb of our being. Blessed is the fruit of this womb.
The miracle of singing this song, standing on the squares of everything we’re living through, is that this song can travel farther and into corners that you never would have believed possible. If we sing in this very spot, it can be heard around the world, even within the secret parts of our own hearts. This song is not only symbolic; it is practical. It heals. It forgives. It loves. It advocates and serves. It reconciles; makes peace; and practices harmony with all beings. It’s the kind of beauty that makes us more authentically ourselves.
Today we stand right where we are. And we turn toward Christmas, ready with the words of angels, singing into the night sky, reversing everything, “Glory to God in the Highest, and Peace to God’s people on earth.” It’s the sweet spot.