Mary’s Rebirth

(From a sermon I gave at Mt Hollywood Congregational Church on 12/2, the first Sunday of Advent.)

On one seemingly ordinary day over 2000 years ago, a seemingly ordinary girl had an extraordinary rebirth.

Mary abruptly experienced the presence of an angel named Gabriel, who told her she would conceive and give birth to a son she was to name Jesus, who would be given the throne of David, king of Israel, forever.

Mary was born again. One moment she was a peasant girl. The next, she was royalty. After all, if you are going to give birth to a king, that makes you a queen! One minute, she was a double nobody in her culture: a peasant and a woman. The next, she was singing the Magnificat at the top of her voice, composing eloquent and powerful words of liberation and exaltation and uttering them with authority.

Has this ever happened to you? Ever seen it happen to others? A rebirth from a peasant to a royal, from a nobody to a somebody, instantaneously? No labor before this delivery, it would appear – and yet, there may well have been a gestation period that Mary didn’t consciously notice.

I’ve seen it, many times, in my career as a pastor, organizer, and educator. It never ceases to amaze me. It’s something to celebrate whenever it happens, but Advent and Christmas gives us a special excuse to pay attention. Because we aren’t celebrating the birth of just one child named Jesus at Christmas. We’re celebrating Mary’s birth and rebirth, too. We’re celebrating not just the first birth of one human being, but also the second and third and further births of countless other people. We’re celebrating the potential of our humanity being born into its actuality.

I worked at Stanford for many years as the liberal Protestant campus minister. One of my students was a young woman from New York City whose parents were immigrants from Asia. They ran a family retail business and they expected that when she graduated, she’d go back and work with them. She had volunteered with me in serving homeless people, and I had set her up with an internship in a low income housing corporation. She had been offered a job with the corporation after graduation. We talked a lot together as her graduation approached. She was a very quiet-spoken young woman, facing the toughest choice of her life. Could she do what she knew she was meant to do, and bitterly disappoint her parents? She cried, she agonized in front of me as she made up her mind. She stayed and took the job offer in low income housing development.

A few months later, I met her at her office to go to lunch. I could barely believe the transformation. She had been reborn. She spoke with confidence and authority. She was becoming who she was meant to be. She was doing what she was meant to do. Her potential had birthed into actuality. Call it a Virgin Mary moment!

The Christmas story belongs to Mary as much as to Jesus. It’s Mary’s nativity as much as it is that of her son. It’s about God incarnating in a young peasant woman and in a young Stanford student as much as it is about God manifesting in the little boy to whom Mary gave birth.

How can you prepare for your Virgin Mary moment?

I recently read a beautiful book called REVERENCE by Paul Woodruff, a philosopher at the University of Texas. My office co-hosted him for an event last week at USC. It was no surprise to find that he is a reverent, carefully-spoken, reflective person. He says reverence doesn’t belong to any particular religion, nor is it to be found only in religion. It is deep respect for that which is beyond the capacity of human beings to express or explain fully. Reverence is a vaccination against arrogance, tyranny, and violence of word or action. Reverence is a virtue – it’s not a rule or an ethic. Virtues are rooted in feelings. If you cultivate feelings of awe and respect, the power of those feelings will urge you to do ethical deeds. These positive feelings are more compelling toward doing the right thing than is the fear of punishment for doing the wrong thing. At its best, says Woodruff, religion develops our capacity for reverence through acts of service and ritual.

At its best, the church is a school for reverence – where we practice worshipful awe without containing God in some neat and tidy theological box. In church we are called to cultivate the positive feelings of wonderment and humility.

Reverence is what led to Mary’s rebirth. She was in awe of the angel Gabriel. She was in awe of God. She did not claim her regal nature with arrogance, but rather with humility. But once she had this second birth, she lived into her new being with gusto! Suddenly, she spoke Magnificat-ly, amazing all around her. She didn’t say “My soul magnifies myself!” She said “My soul magnifies the Lord.” But in the very manner of her expression of reverence, she was ennobled. She was more than she had been. Her humanity more closely approached divinity. Her humility wasn’t the false sort that downplayed her true excellence as a person. Her humility was the true kind that recognizes that no matter how magnificent a person might be, she or he still falls far short of the magnificence of God, who always remains beyond our comprehension.

So with the good feelings that flow from the virtue of reverence, let us enjoy the pregnancy of Christmas. Let us prepare for rebirth into the lives we are meant to live, the deeds of love and creativity we are meant to do.

Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

Topics: Devotional and Worship & Liturgy. 8 Points: Point 2: Pluralism and Point 8: Compassion and Selfless Love. Seasons & Special Events: Advent. Ages: Adult, Teen, and Young Adult. Texts: Luke. Resource Types: Adult Curriculum, Meditations, Practice, and Sermons.

Review & Commentary

  • Judith Berry

    If I would have heard your sermon or read your story ten years ago, I probably would have taken it to heart. However, in that time period of ten years, I have grown to look at Christianity altogether different. Your words about Mary are only speculation because you weren’t there and have you really seen an angel like the ones that are portrayed by the Christian church? I’m not denying that there are “angels” because to me they are fellow human beings. I’m not denying that there aren’t changes in people’s lives when they come in contact with one of these angels, but to me this is where the problems begins. The church continues to propagate false teachings and stories, when I feel that people today are not so apt to believe some of them. There are many stories by other cultures that are older than Christianity that tell some of the same stories – it is almost like the writers of the Bible heard these stories and wrote them down in their own way. I’m not saying that the stories don’t show us a better way to live, but what I am saying is that most of them are like the fairy tales that I grew up with. They were always a story about good verses evil and there was always a hero to make things right. I’m still a firm believer in a God/Creator, that is an extension of us all, but as far as your story, like I said before, you weren’t there, so don’t pass it on like you were.

    • Joe

      I didn’t read his article in that light at all. I do not believe in literal angels any more than I believe in literal fairies or unicorns. Nor do I believe that 2000 years ago a peasant Jewish girl in Palestine saw a winged creature from another realm. Having said this, I loved this article. I don’t want to speak for Burklo, but I didn’t take that he was saying “this is the way it actually happened as literal, historical fact.” It is a story and should be taken as such. What truths for your own life can be found in the telling of the story? That, for me, is the essence pf great story telling, even if it comes (and maybe even more so ) from a religious source.

  • James Anderson

    What really happened at Xmas time? As Judith points out, the event is so clouded by mythology that we may never know. I recently came across some “channeled” material from Charles Wise (The Magian Gospel of Brother Yeshua) that presents a much more realistic account of the actual event and the factors leading up to it. It dispels the notion of a miraculous (read supernatural) birth and corrects the bad rap given to the innkeeper which comes from a lack of understanding of what Inns were like in those days. It explains what Joseph was doing in Bethlehem which had nothing to do with any “so called” census which scholars have never been able to verify. However you may feel about “channeled” material, the bottom line to any story is DOES IT MAKE SENSE? The current version contained in the Bible does not.

  • Eva McDonnell

    It isn’t necessary to believe the stories in the gospels literally to benefit from this tale of Mary. It is a beautiful story. I can still enjoy the Christmas pageants as stories told by earlier Christians. Eva

  • Christopher Bobo

    I really liked this sermon because it resonated with me and where I am on my faith journey. This morning as I was reading Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John and reflecting upon its questionable historicity, the thought occurred to me that perhaps being Christian isn’t really about the historical facts of the life of Jesus, rather Christian faith is about the story of Jesus’ followers. Being Christian is about appreciating and being inspired by the affect Jesus has had on the world. Being Christian is not about affirming the historical truth of the stories told about him; it’s about about believing that the life and religion that arose in response to him and in his wake is divine and worthy. So, for me, one aspect of being a faithful Christian is affirming participation in a religion that tells these beautiful stories about Jesus and Mary and his followers, and finding inspiration and wonder in them, even if we question their historical truth. In fact, that for me has become an aspect of the mystery of faith, accepting that there are mysteries and yet being faithful in the religion. This epiphany has liberated me to experience a new birth in Christ this year and has made me excited about the upcoming year of faith. On Christmas day this year, I will celebrate the birth story in wonderment at the faith and works it inspires in our world.

  • Jim Burklo

    Friends — I love the biblical Christmas story with all my heart. But I don’t take it literally. Reading it as fact robs it of its richness. With child-like wonder, let us allow this story rest in our hearts as the Christ-child lay in the manger on the first Christmas. May the power of this myth inspire us to higher consciousness and greater kindness.