ARE YOU READY? – Debbie Allen
The question I have for you this morning is, “Are you ready?” It’s a big question and I imagine your first response might be, “Ready for what?” The obvious answer is Christmas with all its traditions – decorating; gifts; cards; special meals; house cleaning to get ready for guests. Being ready implies that we have accomplished these acts of preparation by today, Christmas Eve. If this is our definition of being ready, I know I don’t qualify and my guess is that I have some company. There is always something we intended to do that doesn’t get done.
Advent helps us to focus our attention on a deeper sense of readiness, readiness for birth to take place, not only in a manger long ago, but in us – today. On this final Sunday of Advent, we focus our attention on LOVE, the greatest gift of all, according to the Apostle Paul. We are asked to be ready for the birth of love in us. What does this mean?
The story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary gives us some clues. The details of this story, like many biblical stories, are not complete. But it is the gaps as well as the extraordinary occurrences that invite us to enter into the meaning of the story and to experience it for ourselves. But before we do that, there is something I want to say about this story that applies to many biblical stories in which miracles take place.
I believe that we waste precious time and effort trying to prove that the virgin birth happened exactly as it is described. However, we waste just as much energy trying to disprove what happened or reframe it in modern scientific and historical terminology. Both the reframing and the literal translation reduce the meaning of the text to a message of little consequence.
What I’m inviting you to do this morning is to let the story of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary speak to you without worrying about whether or not a virgin birth can take place in the world as we know it. I realize that letting go of the factual is problematic in this age of ‘fake news,’ but facts are not the only vehicle for truth and the truth of this story lies on a level that is far deeper than what can be proven or disproven.
Our challenge is to discover and embrace the Good News of Jesus Christ that Gabriel announces to Mary. As it turns out, this Good News flies in the face of our assumptions about how reality is ordered and what we think the consequences of our actions should be. This Good News is unexpected and surprising; in fact, it is downright scandalous. At the same time, it is our greatest hope and the source of our deliverance.
Let’s begin our journey into the heart of this story with Mary at the time of Gabriel’s appearance. She was female in a world that values men. She was young – perhaps no more than 13, 14, or 15 years of age – in a world that values age and experience. She was poor in a world that disregards those of lowly birth. She was betrothed, but not yet married, in a world where a husband and child validated a woman’s existence.
In her world and in today’s world, we might think of her as the least likely person to be chosen by God for such an awesome calling. Scripture doesn’t specifically tell us why God chose Mary. We only know that she is engaged to Joseph who is a descendant of David’s house. In other words, she is linked to a lineage that reaches back to the very beginning of time. It is significant that Jesus will born into that lineage.
Mary is often seen as a model of faithfulness and obedience, and yet she had not yet demonstrated these characteristics when Gabriel made his appearance. Legend has it that Gabriel appeared to a number of other women before he came to Mary and that each of them said something like – “Are you out of your mind?” or “I’ve got other plans, not now.” Perhaps those women were more qualified to be the mother of Jesus, at least in the eyes of the world.
In a paradoxical way, it turns out that Mary’s powerlessness is her greatest strength. As we learn throughout the life of Jesus, it is the powerless, the disenfranchised, the poor in spirit who are most receptive to the truth.
We don’t know what Mary was doing when Gabriel appeared, although many artists have given us a variety of scenarios – Mary dressed in beautiful robes, spinning or knitting; Mary as a school girl reading a book. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth is said to have been built at the site where Mary was drawing water when she first saw Gabriel.
What we can be sure of is that Gabriel’s appearance was a surprise to Mary. His greeting catches her off guard. First, he tells her to rejoice. The implication is that, whatever the news, Mary will be the recipient of special privileges. Then, he calls her ‘favored one,’ emphasizing her status as blessed or beloved by God. Such a status, it turns out, is as much to be feared as it is to be embraced. In the final part of his greeting, Gabriel announces that the Lord is with her. This sounds like a source of comfort, but, it is also a reminder that the presence of God can turn lives upside down.
In fact, just about every person in scripture who was ever called by God knew that there was tremendous risk involved in being open to God’s presence. Much easier to go back to the known world and the familiar routines.
Mary senses this and reacts to Gabriel’s greeting with confusion, perplexity, a troubled spirit. She knows on some level that her life will change when she hears the message. It has already begun to change. In response, Gabriel speaks the words we have heard before – Do not be afraid. These words provide the context within which all of God’s messages are to be received.
Do not be afraid are the words Mary hears right before being told that she will conceive and give birth to a son named Jesus who will be called the Son of the Most High and whose kingdom will have no end. Such a message would overwhelm most of us and send us fleeing in the opposite direction. We so easily forget that we need not be afraid.
Mary does not flee. She stays present to receive this astounding message, but, understandably, she is bewildered. She is a virgin and can’t make sense of Gabriel’s news that she will conceive. The angel replies by telling her that the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High, will overshadow her. This overshadowing is not an explanation so much as it is a reference to something beyond our comprehension, the mystery of God’s love taking human form and sharing in the joys and sorrows of humanity.
Mary is being called to undertake a journey that will take her to places that defy reason, a journey without a clear destination, a journey that will change her life forever. Again Gabriel responds to her concerns with reassurance. Elizabeth, a woman labeled as too old to conceive, is now six months pregnant, he says. Nothing is impossible for God.
It is not until this moment that Mary is ready to embrace her calling. The angel does not depart until she has spoken the words that confirm her trust in God’s will for her – I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said. If we put Mary on a pedestal and forget her struggle leading up to this affirmation, we do her a great disservice and we miss an opportunity to see our own struggle in hers.
The four weeks of Advent give us time to recognize how Mary’s calling is also our calling. The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, reminds us that we are all meant to be the mothers of God. “What good is it to me,” he says, “if this eternal birth of the divine son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within me? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace, if I am not also full of grace?”
God’s love that was embodied in Jesus is seeking to be born in us all the time, but we often deny it, push it aside until later, discount the importance of it, and let it slip through our fingers. In the first half of his poem, The Annunciation, Malcolm Guite writes:
We see so little, stayed on surfaces.
We calculate the outsides of all things.
Preoccupied with our own purposes,
We miss the shimmer of angels’ wings.
They coruscate around us in their joy,
A swirl of wheels & eyes & wings unfurled;
They guard the good
we purpose to destroy,
A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.
It is sad to think that we are often content with our small way of seeing things and that the birth that is seeking to take place in us is put on hold. The poem continues:
But on this day [the day of the annunciation] a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart.
She heard the voice—
The promise of his glory yet to be
As time stood still for her to make a choice.
Gabriel knelt & not a feather stirred.
The Word himself was waiting on her word.
Our encounters with the divine are sometimes as dramatic as Mary’s, but often they occur in the ordinary, everyday experiences of life. They are holy moments when our hearts are unexpectedly opened and we see something new in ourselves and in others. They may occur in the depths of darkness and difficulty or in moments of peace and fulfillment. In those moments, we are called liked Mary to make a choice, without knowing where that choice will lead.
In my chaplaincy work at Cayuga Medical Center, I often need to recall the angel’s words, Do not be afraid, before I cross the threshold into a patient’s room because I never know what I will encounter. It may be a fairly routine visit or my presence may be unwelcome. Those who represent religion are not always seen in a positive light.
Sometimes I leave the room of a patient feeling overwhelmed or helpless in the face of suffering. But then there are those encounters when the shimmering of angels’ wings is palpable and I leave in awe, wondering what miracle just happened. The patient was not cured of illness, but a heart connection has lifted the weight of suffering and allowed love to do its healing work. The presence of God’s love catches me off guard as much as it does the person I have come to visit. Both of us are changed by it.
We do not orchestrate these moments of divine encounter. They come to us unbidden, often at unexpected and inconvenient times. They intrude on our plans and disrupt the comfortable notions we have about ourselves. Like Mary, we are asked to allow these encounters to change us, to change the way we are in the world and the way we interact with everything and everyone around us.
Mary’s call was a momentous change in the course of her life. My guess is that, after Gabriel left, she faced many ongoing challenges to her faith. Her acceptance of her calling had to grow over time, especially in a culture where she would have received little encouragement. It was a great blessing that she was able to share her joy with Elizabeth. We too need people in our lives who will listen and understand as we give voice to the ways in which we have experienced God’s presence.
The Angelus is a traditional prayer that takes its name from the story of the annunciation. Perhaps you recall the French artist, Millet’s, famous painting of a man and a woman in the fields, stopping to pray the Angelus as the sun sets. It is usually spoken at the end of the day and begins with the words, The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary/ And she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This prayer poses a question: How have we responded this day to God’s call?
Like Mary, our response will cause some perplexity, some questioning, some confusion and resistance. But the angel is patient, assuring us that we need not be afraid and that, with God, nothing is impossible. God’s power, we are told, can overcome our human sense of incapacity.
Are we ready to trust these promises and to say yes to the Word made flesh in us, in our church, in our world? The Divine Word waits on our word. Amen.
[December 24, 2017]