Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2019

The Confidence of Mary

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Merry Christmas. It is lovely being with you all this evening.

Tonight, we are going to sing Silent Night at the end of the service. It is our tradition, and this is a traditional place. We all kneel, as the lights are dimmed, all but the one that illuminates the rose window, up there, the window with Mary at the center.

That window is the dominant icon of Epiphany Parish…Mary, the mother of Jesus, Theotokos, as she is known in the Orthodox church, which means the God-bearer.

Our predecessors in this parish, for whatever reason, decided that Mary should preside over this congregation. This is a powerful parish, and you are powerful people… I know you; and our forebearers were like you, and yet, they chose a 13-year-old girl to teach us how to be in relationship with God. And so, I am curious… why Mary? Why Mary as the emblematic icon? Why a child to instruct adults? Why an innocent to guide the battle tested? Why Mary?

On this Christmas Eve, this quiet evening, this silent night, this holy night, I invite you to consider Mary and what it means to follow her. When the icon of Mary was designed, as with all icons, two equal circles were drawn, and where they overlap an ellipse forms that becomes the focal point, in which the subject of the icon is set; for us it was Mary.

And these two circles, in Mary’s case, represent her wisdom-two types: one is Gnosis; and one is Epinosis. These are Greek words for types of wisdom. Gnosis is the knowledge of stuff and how stuff works. Gnosis is what we learn at school or from watching YouTube videos. Mary, by age 13, had accrued a great amount of Gnosis, this practical, intellectual wisdom. I’ll say more about that in a bit.

But first I want to look at Epinosis as the wisdom from above, that comes from sources beyond, that is mystical and memorable and powerful…with messages you can’t miss. Epinosis is revelatory. And you don’t need to be book smart for this type of knowledge because capacity for divine knowledge is woven into our very souls by God. We all have inherent receptivity for Epinosis, for this divine wisdom.

But here is the problem we run into with Epinosis; it often fades as we grow up, and the entanglements of our life, our associations and allegiances and habits of thought, cause us to hedge in the face of divine wisdom; or take a relativistic approach; or be “pragmatic” about the situation; or adopt a “long-term” perspective which liberates us from having to do anything at all.

In other words, as adults, our Epinosis can become compromised, diluted, if you will. Children retain a cleaner conduit to God…and their clarity can be luminous; like the glow of Mary in the rose window, tucked between the circles of practical wisdom, Gnosis; and divine wisdom, Epinosis. Maybe that is why our forebearers set Mary at the center of the that window.

Maybe they were prescient, as if they knew we would soon be living in a world that is in real flux, if not outright revolution, culturally, politically, technologically. With Seattle at the center of some of that; maybe they thought we would need a 13-year-old girl to teach us; who had enough knowledge, yet was not so entangled as to miss the wisdom of God.

Mary was a child of revolution, born just after a period of civil war in the Roman Empire. Jerusalem, her home, was a mess.There was a power struggle over who controlled the Temple, which was a cash generating machine. Talk about entanglements! Herod, the king at the time, brought in a new high priest, Simeon, to clean things up in the Temple. To bolster his work-force Simeon allowed young girls to serve alongside young boys in the Temple. Their payment was being taught the Hebrew Bible. This was unprecedented and Mary was part of it. Her parents dedicated her to this service and she became a Biblical scholar at an early age.

Through a series of circumstances Mary, age 13, was married to her cousin in Nazareth, Joseph, as a partner to help him raise his children after his wife had died. So, Mary moved to Nazareth and there an angel, Gabriel, appeared to her and said: “You will bear in your womb the Son of God.” She pondered these things in her heart.

At the same time Joseph was visited in a dream by an angel who foretold of Mary’s pregnancy, and stated to Joseph that the child born was to be named Jesus. So, Mary and Joseph were aligned behind a common narrative that Jesus was to be the Messiah.

Then, Cesar Augustus called for a census. Now under normal circumstances, Mary would have stayed in Nazareth given how far along she was in her pregnancy; but she had knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, which taught her, in the Book of Micah (5:2): that “the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.” So, she went with Joseph for it was the baby’s destiny to be born a holy infant, on a silent night in the city of David, Bethlehem.

Mary was a scholar with knowledge of prophecy. Mary was a child unencumbered who heard in Joseph’s dream, and Gabriel’s words, and Augustus’ decree the wisdom of God from on high that she was Theotokos, the God-bearer.

In times of revolution, in tenuous times, in times of significant cultural shift, and politically uncertainty, and technological change; in time of division and corruption and dishonesty, in anxious times sometimes it is children that have the ellipse of wisdom that leads us back to our better selves.

Witness Malala {Tyousfzai}  (Pakistan – girls education);
Witness Greta {Thunberg} (Sweden – climate change);
Witness David {Hogg} and Alex {Wind} and Jaclyn {Corin}  (High School students in Parkland Florida- gun control);
Witness Sonita {Alizadeh} (Afghanistan – child brides);
Witness Bana {Alabed} (Syria – war, civilian casualties);
Witness Mari {Copeny} (Flint Michigan – lead in water).
Witness Melati and Isabel {Wijsen} (Bali – plastic bags);

These children are not the exemplars, they are the examples. They are not entangled, only present to the moment, and unencumbered enough to see the right decision, the moral decision, easily and clearly, not clouded by self-interest.They are authentically their God-bearing selves and speak accordingly…

It is not right to deny girls an education;
It is not right to pollute our environment;
It is not right to shoot up schools;
It is not right to marry off children;
It is not right to bomb innocents;
It is not right to pollute water;
It is not right to fill our oceans with plastic.

For children, the decisions are simple, based on the facts. Precedent is not the point, actually it is often what keeps us stuck. Children don’t see themselves as part of the thing they are deciding upon; no political or economic consideration taken; they are simply responding to what they see in front of them; what seems right and what seems wrong. Something in their souls is tweaked; something from outside the structures of power that usually manage their lives, whispers to them: Be brave, speak up, say what you see.

That is what it means to be like Mary, the God-bearer-our example, the one set before us by our forebearers, highlighted in our hearts on this silent night.

Malala, Greta, David, Alex, Jaclyn, Sonita, Bana, Mari, Melati and Isabel clearly have knowledge about their subjects of passion;like Mary had about the Hebrew Bible. They also respond to the divine wisdom grafted to their souls: knowledge of what is right, of how to give hope, of how to show love, of how to be care-givers, God-bearers, if you will, of this extraordinary creation bestowed upon us by God-they are beckons of hope and love; and you and I are no different. We have the practical Gnosis and we have the divine Epinosis; We too sit at the center of the ellipse of wisdom that God drew UNIQUELY around each one of us.

My question to you tonight is: Do we have the wisdom of Mary? Can you be like THIS 13-year-old girl?

I believe the Mary window is our forebearers’ prophecy upon our lives, to follow the children, to be like the children, to love the world like the children do; in clarity with courage and trust; personal power subserviated; personal interest subserviated; God is greater. With God, all things are possible. That is the point of the birth of Jesus…Immanuel, God with us…with God all things are possible. You were made to play a part in the possibility of God.

So tonight, as we kneel for Silent Night, gaze upon Mary and wonder what ellipse of wisdom you sit at the center of, and how, uniquely, lovingly, you have been called to be a God-bearer; and to illuminate God’s presence in the world.