The plan was basically to turn the world upside down with a little innocent baby. Luke’s picture of God begins by lifting up the lowly, choosing a maiden as mother of our LORD, naming her, ‘most highly favored lady.’ She was engaged to a great guy, they hadn’t even lived together yet, and still she was to give birth, because the “Most High” God would provide the seed. It was to happen quietly, in the little town of Bethlehem, the city of David, in the shadows of Jerusalem. The royal greeting party would be poor disdainful shepherds, not princes, but perhaps ancestors of David, who himself had roamed those same Shepherds Field’s centuries earlier. The holy couple barely made it in time, traveling a long distance from Nazareth – there should have been a sign there, “Emergency Parking Only,” for the last available spot the pulled into. Mary would lay the new-born king in a manger, a rough hewn feeding trough for barnyard animals, so that, in addition to the coarse and cursing shepherds, even the donkeys, camels and sheep would testify to creations’ redemption by the Prince of Peace.
This, is the gospel good news – and, a story no publisher would touch for decades! This was a crazy mixed-up, upside-down story! It took a community of faith, not the usual chosen ones, to get it.
Mary herself was unconvinced at first, confused really, since she was a virgin. The why, the how, the where and when, none of it, could really be explained. But then neither could the pregnancy of cousin Elizabeth, who, well past menopause now, was 6 months pregnant. And the angel Gabriel would only tell Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy, he will be called Son of God. …For nothing will be impossible with God.”
So why did God choose to come into the world in this way? Was God some kind of rabble rouser? Did God want to change things up just for the sake of change? Why not come as a real King, like Emperor Augustus? Or be born in the Temple or in Rome, instead of in a manger, surrounded by the livestock of poor laborers? Why come to a virgin not yet married, and to her guy no one knew, living far from the house of David, who himself was trying to make it as a carpenter? Why?
Last week, as I passed by the “Our Lady of the Underpass” shrine driving home in the steady rain, I could see a woman kissing the concrete wall. Her two teenaged sons stood on either side of her. She must have been very devout, or perhaps there was a service of some kind? I haven’t seen that many flowers in a while! Maybe there had been a Los Posadas gathering? I go by from time to time, but not usually so late, or after dark. But the lights, twinkling from many Guadalupe candles that grey December evening, were attractive and warmed the spot of much devotion amidst the cold concrete of its surroundings.
The apparition of Mary first appeared in 2005 at this Fullerton Avenue underpass of the Kennedy expressway, a perfect image of the praying icon of the Mother of Our Lord! Though others saw the Virgin of Guadalupe, or thought it was connected with the election of the new pope at that time. A sign next to the image reads: “Emergency Parking Only!” It’s a site reserved for crash investigations – and, now also for appearances of the holy family! Except for those bouquets of flowers and twinkling lights, it is not a pretty place, by any standard. It’s also a regular corner for panhandlers, as cars coming off the freeway wait forever for the stop light to change. And homeless beds, made of sleeping bags or blankets, regularly come and go.
“Our Lady of the Underpass” describes both a well revered shrine for the ardent faithful, and a tongue-in-cheek moniker for a pointless dripping on a public industrial wall, created, most likely, by an abundant use of salt one snowy winter. Perhaps just another reminder of the polarized society we live in?
Yet, like the church itself, it’s not the permanent shrine that we worship. The church is the gathered assembly of the people who understand that God can and does take human form, and by the Spirit, calls us to common purpose. God lives and breathes through faithful believers. It is the people who are the church, the shrines come and go.
Why would God choose to come into the world in this way? Why would God send an angel to announce the birth of the Messiah to Mary, or draw a salty image of her on the Fullerton underpass? Why would God choose a virgin, an unwed mother, in an out the way village, to be the God-bearer? And why would God choose to appear in a dirty, noisy accident investigation site with the panhandlers and homeless, next to a sign, “Emergency Parking Only?”
Perhaps there is a little bit of the rabble rouser in God! Not to promote change just for the sake of change, of course, but in order to announce restoration to the poor, to bring healing to the sick, to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and lift up the lowly and disdained. To make ordinary and lowly people into favored and royal people, and to empower us to be God’s hands and feet, and souls, in the world.
The urge to build shrines goes at least as far back as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who built altars to the living sovereign God upon first entering the Holy Land at Shechem, Hebron, Jerusalem and many other locations still revered today. Who knows how long “Our Lady of the Underpass” will endure, but it is not surprising that God would choose to appear there or that thousands would flock there to pray, give thanks, and hope for God to act in their own lives, to be lifted up and raised to new life.
I suppose in a way that is our prayer in Advent, that God would come and rescue us – our lives, our lost society, our greed and entitlement, our sorrows which seem out of control and un-listened too – that our prayer is that sign, Come into our world and into our lives, Lord Jesus, right here next to us! Here, we have put up a sign, “Emergency Parking Only” reserved for you, the God for whom “nothing is impossible.”