12.20.2005

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18th

Aside from the iconic portraits of Mary holding the baby Jesus that grace the walls of countless art museums, the scene in which the angel Gabriel announces the conception of Jesus through the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit is among the most well-known of all scriptural stories. Our gospel lesson today is one that has been visited and revisited abundantly, as preachers and painters alike delight in the mystery of the incarnation.

The particulars of this scene are almost dangerously familiar to us, familiar enough that we could forget that something really odd is going on. Mary, the painfully young girl betrothed to a man named Joseph, receives a visitation from a very special guest—an angel of the Lord. Only Gabriel isn’t some touchy-feely angel who would be at home on a TV movie. Gabriel scares the living daylights out of Mary, though it isn’t his arrival or appearance that sets Mary shivering with fear, but his words. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!”

What’s so fearsome about being favored? What’s so perplexing about an assurance of the Lord’s presence? If you’re an ordinary girl like Mary, with ordinary hopes and ordinary dreams, a girl who never expected to receive a visit from an angel, Gabriel’s words are more than a little nerve-racking. Mary was bright enough to figure out that this angel wasn’t simply out for an evening stroll. His visit had an intimate and ominous purpose, and she sensibly pondered what on earth it might be.

The kind of greeting Gabriel brings is a troublesome one indeed. Even though he encourages Mary not to fear, the content of his revelation is enough to terrify kings, let alone an unmarried peasant girl. Mary is not only going to have a Son. She is going to conceive and bear the Son of the Most High. It goes without saying that Mary’s perplexity must have reached a fever pitch at this point.

Many artistic depictions of the annunciation fail to capture Mary’s fear and confusion during her encounter with the angel Gabriel. Rather, an expression of serene acceptance is painted on Mary’s face. I don’t understand this impulse to erase Mary’s perplexity from the picture. After all, many of us are perplexed by this scene, and by the miraculous birth it reveals.

This angel, appearing out of nowhere with sweet talk about her favored stature with God, presented her with the impossible. A girl doesn’t need a comprehensive grasp on biology to know where babies come from. Mary asks the most rational, logical, obvious question when faced with this divine mystery: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Gabriel’s answer is anything but rational, logical, or obvious. He draws Mary—and perhaps even us—into God’s mysterious and miraculous ways. “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.” And as if it weren’t enough to wrap our minds around one miracle, Gabriel continues, “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” The punchline of the angel’s revelation appeals not to reason but to faith: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And with that, Mary delivers her big line, her humble assent to participate in God’s radical plan to change history. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Gabriel’s words are one part explanation and two parts gentle reminder of what Mary was already supposed to know. Mary has lived her life within the Jewish community, a people whose fundamental identity is related to their covenantal relationship with God. She knew the stories of the great deeds God had done for her ancestors. But there is a big difference between believing that God has done something astounding a long time ago and believing that God is doing something astounding right here and right now.

Perhaps Mary had joined her people in hoping for a new king to sit in the throne of David and to reign over the house of Jacob forever. But hoping for a Messiah and conceiving a Messiah are altogether different things. Trusting in God’s power and being overshadowed by that power are worlds apart. Yet Gabriel’s reminder of God’s unshakable power enabled Mary to move from “How can this be?” to “let it be.”

The angel’s words to Mary are the same words God whispers to all of us. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” We have a hard time believing this. We think God’s favor is reserved for those who are more faithful, more knowledgeable, more holy. No matter that God has a long history of showing up on the doorsteps of ordinary folk. We think our part in God’s work is marginal— and in a lot of ways, we want to keep it that way. Few people wholeheartedly welcome the intrusion of angels in their lives. We are creatures of habit, and nothing disrupts our plans like an announcement from God.

Little annunciations are happening every hour, every moment. Our persistent and loving God continues to tap on our shoulders, reminding us that our lives are intended to be part of a greater plan. God is present, greeting us as favored ones through the bread and the cup of communion. God is present, calming our fears through the gift of prayer. God is present, inviting us to join Mary in the work of incarnation. God is doing something new, here and now, and we are called to be participants – makers of peace, bearers of hope, witnesses to justice, and vessels of love.

Mary was presented with an impossibility, an impossibility made possible not only by God’s glory, but also by her willingness to let the miracle pierce her perplexity and find its way to her womb. She pondered, she questioned, she let the troublesome message sink in, and then she surrendered her whole being to God’s scandalous plan. Her resounding “yes” to God’s plan set the impossible in motion.

We, too, are presented with an impossibility. We, too, are invited to allow the Christ-child to be born in us, to surrender ourselves to the power of the Most High God for whom nothing is impossible. We don’t have the luxury of thinking this God only did fancy tricks in the past. God is right here among us, asking us to dance. “In this divine dance we are all dancing,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “God may lead but it is entirely up to us whether we will follow. Just because God sends an angel to invite one girl onto the dance floor is no guarantee she will say yes. Just because God sends us a prophet to tell us how life on earth can be more like life in heaven does not mean any of us will quit our day job to make it so. God acts. Then it is our turn. God responds to us. Then it is our turn again.”

God has called you. Listen. Ponder. Ask, “how can this be?” as you contemplate what on earth God could want with little old you. Let the miracle of the incarnation peel away the edges of your fiercest defenses. And then join in the great dance of Christmas, welcoming Christ into the deepest and most hidden parts of your soul, the part that is already singing, “Let it be. Let it be. Let it be with me, according to your word.”

1 comment:

Liz said...

What a beautiful nudge to remember that Our God invites us also to Incarnational living out of his Kingdom here on earth...
I've never heard this passage from this perspective and I am grateful.