I wonder what happened between Mary asking, “How can this be?” and later declaring: “Here I am. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, after weeks of Advent waiting, right before the birth of Jesus, we focus in on this woman who is pivotal in the story of the coming of God into our midst as a human being.
This morning, let us for a few minutes let go of the last things on our to-do list, and tend instead to this glorious evocative story in the gospel of Luke, the story of Mary’s call, the “Annunciation”, the “Announcement” to Mary.
Was it an announcement already accomplished or were Gabriel and all the host of heaven holding their breath to hear Mary’s response to a question?
Here we are just before the birth, but we return to a story that happened months ago.
Very specific time and place… “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth.”
This was not a vision Mary had. The angel came to her, where she was. Even here I think there is a foreshadowing of the Incarnation, of God coming to us in the midst of everyday life.
An angel, a holy messenger of God, who greets her as “favoured one”. "Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you." Again, foreshadowing Jesus being named Emmanuel, God-with us. “The Lord is with you”. The whole good news of God in one phrase: “The Lord is with you.”
“But,” the story says, “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (this is an understated translation – the Greek is more like “greatly troubled.”)
The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” The angel says fear not. Then announces, “You shall bear a son”.
I always figure that the common angelic greeting, “Do not be afraid” is because there is actually something here any person would be legitimately afraid of. And again with the phrase “found Favour with God.” As Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran writer has said, “this is dubious favour.”
Mary might already guess at the announcement of pregnancy, facing the scorn and scandal of a pregnancy before marriage, but she can’t see yet:
- Giving Birth in a stable,
- Fleeing to Egypt to escape the tyranny of Herod killing babies
- Watching her son be arrested, beaten, crucified,
- Holding the body of her son, the one to whom she gave birth.
We are well aware that within two weeks of Jesus’ birth, Simeon will prophesy to Mary “and a sword will pierce your heart also”. All pregnancies, all love, all new projects born out of love, are a risk.
All parenting, All community life, All service to God is a covenant relationship that we enter into not fully knowing the cost, only going knowing God is with us.
And we fear for Mary, the favoured one.
Teresa of Avila, the seventeenth century Spanish founder of the Carmelite nuns who served plague victims, wrote,
“God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.”
And yet, also, there is grace and rejoicing in being chosen, to know God’s presence with us, to know God’s call in our lives, to know ourselves as servants of God’s greater vision, that gives us meaning and purpose in life – a blessing. Worth pondering in Advent, that God addresses each of us as favoured, loved beyond measure.
How do we hear that in our lives? That this baby Jesus we greet tonight, Christmas Eve, comes with a blessing and favour that will make a costly and glorious claim on our lives.
The angel, after saying she will bear a son goes on with many grand pronouncements: he will be Great, the Son of the Most High, will have the Throne of David. I imagine she doesn’t hear all of these grand things because she is still processing that she will have a child.
Because her question is, “How can this be, seeing as I am a virgin?”
“The power of the Most High will overshadow you, and the child to be born will be holy. He will be Son of God”. Mary has to process this.
And then the angel tells her cousin Elizabeth, in her old age, has conceived and will bear a child. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
It is here, here now, after her pondering, that Mary says Yes to all this. Is it because, as New Testament scholar Raj Nadella suggests, the grand pronouncements of favour and titles for her child are not what reassures her, but the fact that with the miraculous pregnancy of her cousin, she knows she has a companion on this unknown and scary journey?
God will be with her in the down-to-earth person of her cousin Elizabeth.
I think it is important to ponder what happens between her first troubled response of perplexity, and her first words, “How can this be?” (which we could paraphrase “You’ve got to be kidding!”) and the moment when she says Yes, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.”
This is important because Mary had a choice – this isn’t just an announcement, a fait accompli; she has to say Yes to God.
God always values our freedom and agency. Who knows if God asked others and they said “No way!”
Mary is not a passive recipient any more than we are with God’s call. She is feisty, questions it as do all prophets called in scripture, and of her free will says Yes. Her “Yes” to God is crucial to God’s unfolding salvation, for the wholeness of all creation.
Mary is, I think, for us the example of the ideal disciple.
Yes, her place in the history of salvation is unique, but she also stands as a pattern and precedent for all who follow Jesus. All of us who Said Yes in baptism and who continue to Say Yes in the unfolding of our lives, we Say Yes in our calls to participate in God’s liberation and wholeness, God’s mending of the world.
These are the marks of discipleship: ponder, ask, listen, discern and then say “Here am I. Let it be it to me according to your word”. To Say Yes to God!
Annunciation is in everyone’s lives.
All of us are called, by virtue of our Baptism, to give birth to Christ in our time and situation. The Eastern Church calls Mary the ”Theotokos” which means God-bearer. I think we are all called to be God-bearers. How do we bear Christ into this world, into today’s overwhelming complexity?
Meister Eckhart, the 14th German mystic says we are each called to be mother of Christ.
Our own calls, like Mary’s, are both personal and communal, the visit to Elizabeth and singing of the Magnificat, our canticle today, indicate that Mary and Elizabeth know, it’s not about me, it’s about God’s plan for salvation for all. They and we recite a summary of scripture of what God is up to and how we fit in to that grand purpose. Sing and rejoice! See how your story fits in with the whole Story of God’s people.
The Whole church right now is in discernment of our call to continue God’s mission in new times and situations. In a time of anxiety and fear, we are still to be agents of love and peace, in practical ways of caring for each other and those on the margins, and the Earth itself.
This takes extra courage and patience, grace, and openness to God being in the midst of this fearful present. This means taking a deep breath after saying, “Are you kidding me?” and in the silence of that space hearing once again the angel’s reminder:
“For nothing will be impossible with God."
May that reminder give us the courage we need for this time. May we hear again the angel’s promise to Mary, “God is with you”. May we find again in the miraculous birth of Jesus the astounding truth of God with us.
Then may we, like Mary, say, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
May we, like Mary, say Yes.