Luke 1:26-38 – Advent 2
I was about 10 years old when I was asked to play Mary in my church Christmas pageant. I remember feeling quite grown‐up the first time I put on my costume — a light blue gown with delicate lace edging crafted by one of the women in the church. I remember practicing my lines for days beforehand: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I remember laughing when the Angel Gabriel, finding his cardboard wings bothersome, tore them off his shoulders during the dress rehearsal.
For all the chaos of those childhood performances, there was something straightforward to me back then about Mary. Kneeling at the front of the church with my head demurely covered and my eyes glued on Gabriel’s sparkling halo of garland, I didn’t think much about what the Annunciation must have cost her. Her decision to say yes to God seemed unremarkable to me, her obedience easy.
How times have changed. At this stage in my faith journey, nothing about Mary feels straightforward or easy. Despite my familiarity with her story, the mother of Jesus strikes me as a woman shrouded in mystery, a woman whose “yes” raises as many questions as it answers.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” This prayer, known as the Hail Mary, is inspired by the angel Gabriel’s conversation with the young and completely surprised Mary. While I didn’t grow up Catholic, I have always been intrigued by the Hail Mary, a devotional prayer that Catholics are taught to say using a string of prayer beads.
For us as seekers and progressive Christians to be intrigued by Mary or to be willing to ponder the saying of the rosary’s “Hail Mary, full of grace” may seem odd this morning. In the United Church, Mary is known to us primarily as the mother of Jesus and we do not talk much about her except at Christmas. Then we haul out the blue Mary outfit for the Pageant and for a moment, imagine her as she must have been so long ago, full of body and full of nervous anxiety as she made her way up the hill to that dusty town Bethlehem on the back of a weary donkey.
Part of the problem is that we’ve buried her under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, the Mother of God. For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. For still others, she is child prophet extraordinaire — a young girl who fearlessly announced the arrival of God’s realm to earth.
Our text reminds us that she was a very young woman, free and open, ready for life and perhaps newly in love with a guy who lived in her neighborhood. One afternoon, she has a vision of an angel who greets her with “Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you!” or as Eugene Peterson writes in The Message translation of the Bible: “Good Morning! You’re beautiful with God’s beauty—inside and out, God be with you.” It’s stunning to remember that at this moment in her life, she is actually full of possibility, alive with hope, but also unformed in terms of the meaning of her life. It is this Mary that we meet in our reading today and it is no wonder that, upon meeting her, the angel was drawn immediately to the beauty of her life and to the promise held in her. We can imagine that she was full of grace.
We can’t easily see grace. Grace is one of those invisible activities of God. To enter into a state of grace is to come into a relationship and a connection with something beyond ourselves, to come into a state of gratitude and wonder, forgiveness and hope. Imagine Mary—she faces disdain, despair, embarrassment and the possibility that she will be cast out because of her pregnancy. Instead of fear, she chooses acceptance, instead of self-doubt, she embraces hope and somehow, she knows that she can surrender to the unlikely and almost impossible vocation God has given her. She is full of hope when she ought to be filled with fear. The triumph of grace in Mary’s life is that for her, pregnancy is a call from God, while others might see it as a sign of disgrace and disfavor.
But there is another side to the text. We are not called to idealize the story, making Mary singularly holy and full of grace, without remembering the desperation of her situation and her life. Like many young women in that world and time, she was raised to become someone’s wife and her virginity was of prime value. Mary lived in a time of extreme poverty and her worth to her family would be as someone’s wife and the mother of many children. In that world, virginity was at a premium. The cultural, spiritual and economic pressures of the time are also a part of the story.
And they are a part of our story. As we Hail Mary, we must also remember that there are many other Marys in the world. Nicolas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn have written about the women of the world who are facing poverty, violence and oppression in their book, “Half the Sky”. What is most remarkable about their findings is that despite the challenges many women in poverty face, many refuse to be victims and they are resilient, hopeful and brave.
As was Mary in our gospel today. God’s call required her to be profoundly countercultural, to trust an inner vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her. As the years passed, and her son’s enemies multiplied, Mary’s “yes” demanded a degree of courage that makes me tremble as a mother. Let’s not deceive ourselves: it is no benign thing to be favoured of God.
The danger in idealizing Mary’s consent is that it distorts her humanity, and keeps her story at arm’s length from ours. For better or for worse, I can’t relate to a person who leaps headlong into obedience. I can relate, however, to the one who struggles, to the one whose “yes” is cautious and ambivalent. I hope the angel indeed waited compassionately for her answer, honouring all that was at stake in her freedom to accept or refuse.
As I reflected on this passage this week, I was struck by the final line: “Then the angel departed from her.” This is a space in my life with God that I both recognize and dread. It’s the moment when the prayer ends, the vision recedes, the certainty wavers. It’s the moment after the “yes,” the moment when the mountaintop experience fades into memory, and life in the valley begins.
How different Mary’s experience might have been if Gabriel had stuck around to erase her doubts and silence her critics. But no, the angel departed, leaving the ongoing work of discernment and discipleship to Mary alone. Her “yes” didn’t signal the end of mystery. Mystery had only begun.
A popular Christmas song addressed to Mary asks what she knew when she consented to Gabriel’s request: “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water? Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?” (lyrics from the song, “Mary, Did You Know”)
We have no way of knowing what Mary knew. My guess is that like us, she knew just enough to get started. My guess is that the work of bearing God into the world involved ceaseless discovery and ongoing consent, just as it does today. My guess is that each trembling “yes” Mary whispered into God’s heart, changed the world. As does ours.
When we tell the stories on the way to Christmas, we can sentimentalize them and make them cloyingly sweet and overly innocent. For me, Advent this year is all about the power of God’s grace coming in the midst of our human and ordinary lives. Difficult lives. Painful lives. Mundane, beautifully boring lives. The God who greeted Mary is a God of grace and glory.
In the midst of our ordinary lives, God comes. In the midst of the desperate struggles of the world, God comes. In the midst of some of the most difficult of human circumstances of earth, God still arrives. The story tells us what the angel knew from experience; “nothing is impossible with God.”
Where have you seen grace appear in your life this year? When has grace erupted in such a way as to change everything, the way you think about your life, the way you envision the work of the world, the way that you want to be going forward. How has this grace come to you? Through another’s life, or when you thought that there was no way forward or in the eruption of a movement that changed the way you want to live going forward.
Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian wrote, “What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and I am not also full of grace? What good it is to me for the Creator to give birth if I do not also give birth in my time and my culture? This is the fullness of grace, when God is begotten in us.”
Perhaps the Advent definition of grace is this: Nothing is impossible with God. For those who work for justice and peace in the world, who may be tired today, remember nothing is impossible with God. For those who are caught up in the anxieties of Christmas—especially in this pandemic time — and who wonder about the meaning of it all. Grace comes.
Hail beloved ones of God, full of grace. Do not be afraid. For nothing is impossible with God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.