Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B), December 18, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
|2 Samuel 7:4, 8-16||Romans 16:25-27|
|Psalm 132:8-15||Luke 1:26-38|
Here will I dwell, for I delight in you
How did the angel come to Mary? Did Gabriel come in a rush of wings, like a gust of wind suddenly blowing in through the window? Or did the angel come as gently as snow, quietly approaching from the garden or descending from above, drawing near so silently that Mary had to look up, she had to turn her head: someone else was in the room with her? Did the angel’s wings gleam like peacock feathers or were they as white as the wings of a swan? Did they flame out like fire? Or did Gabriel have no form at all? Did he come as a column of light, a golden field of energy blazing at the edge of the bedroom, throwing shadows against the wall?
What did Mary do, when she saw the angel? Did she stand up like a bride, dressed all in white? Did she kneel with her long blue robe spread out around her legs, her hands crossed calmly at her breast? Or was she so startled that she dropped her spindle in amazement and threw one hand up to her hair, her sleeve dropping open to show her bare arm? Did she recoil from the angel that was bending so urgently toward her, and pull her cloak up tight against her throat? Did she glare angrily at this intruder, as if everything in Mary wanted to say No, she wouldn’t do it, no, she wouldn’t go through with this, the cost would be too great?
How did the angel come to Mary? For centuries, artists have returned again and again to the Annunciation to explore this mysterious, numinous encounter between the holy and the human. As Luke tells the story, the angel Gabriel came twice to announce good news first, to Zechariah, to say that he and Elizabeth would have a child in their old age [bbllink]Luke 1:5-26[/bbllink], and then to Mary to announce that in her virginity she would conceive and bear the child Jesus, son of David and son of God [bbllink]Luke 1:28-35[/bbllink]. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, would prepare the way for God’s coming [bbllink]Luke 1:17[/bbllink], and God’s coming would be as Mary’s child, conceived of the Holy Spirit.1
The Annunciation of Jesus is a key moment in salvation history, the fulfillment of the promise of a coming messiah that God made to David through the prophet Nathan, as we heard this morning in the passage from 2 Samuel. But the Annunciation to Mary is not just over and done with, an event from the past that recedes further into the distance with every passing year. It is an event in which Christians participate through acts of empathy and imagination. Through the power of the Holy Spirit the same power that came upon Mary and that birthed the Christ within her we, too, are drawn through prayer into experiences that resonate with Mary’s. In some small way we share in Mary’s experience, for whether we are male or female, her story is our story, too.
Take, for instance, Mary’s sudden sense of being in the presence of something larger than herself. We know what that’s like, the awe-struck awareness that a Power beyond ourselves has suddenly drawn near. It can happen anywhere in some place of wild beauty like the ocean or a mountain, and in humbler places, too, like your own bedroom in the middle of the night, when something wakes you up and you feel drawn irresistibly to prayer, or in a hotel room in a strange city, or by the bedside of someone who is dying. Even right here in church! Suddenly we’re pulled out of our usual preoccupations and obsessions, that endless self-absorbed churning of thought, and caught up short.
Oh my goodness, we say to ourselves maybe with a certain degree of trepidation, even fright. Something’s happening. There’s mystery here.
Surprise is one thing I look for in prayer. Authentic religious experience is full of surprise, because for once our busy egos are not in control.
Then what happens? “Greetings, favored one,” the angel says to Mary. “The Lord is with you.” Or, to use another well-known translation of the passage, “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.”
Do these words sound too formal to our ears, and, after years of hearing them, almost too familiar? Then listen to a contemporary, very down to earth translation of what the angel says, and see what you think:
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.” 2
Whatever translation you prefer, that’s what happens when God’s messenger draws near: we are met with love. Imagine it! “You’re beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out!” That message may be difficult to swallow. We don’t feel worthy. We don’t feel beautiful. We’re hardly at home in our own skin. How can God address us so tenderly? Like Mary, we may be “much perplexed.” If an angel drew near, bearing the message of God’s love, we’d be tempted to brush it away. God must have the wrong number. This must be my own fantasy, just wish fulfillment. To quote the words of poet Macrina Wiederkehr, in such a moment we may need to pray:
the truth about myself
how beautiful it is!
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” And the angel goes on to announce the good news: Mary will conceive and bear a son, Jesus, and of his kingdom there would be no end.
“How can this be,” Mary replies, “since I am a virgin?” Of course there’s been all kinds of theological controversy over the years about the conflicting scriptural claims as to whether or not Mary was “really” a virgin, and whether or not it’s important to believe in the Virgin Birth. But whether you believe that Jesus had one human parent or two, the significance of the story is the same: Jesus came into the world not through purely human agency, but through a free, creative act of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that overshadowed Mary is the same Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation. With God, there is a new creation. With God, nothing is impossible.
And maybe that is how Christ continues to be born into the world: from out of our virginity. Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, speaks of what he calls the “point vierge,” the virgin point at the center of our being. This is the true identity that we seek in contemplative prayer, a point, he writes, that is “untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.”3
In our own humble way, you and I can participate in the virgin birth. You and I can share in the birthing of God. “Here will I dwell,” God says to Mary’s soul, and to our soul, too, as we read in today’s psalm. “This shall be my resting-place for ever; here will I dwell, for I delight in [you]” [bbllink]Psalm 132:15[/bbllink]
Will we consent to God’s birth within us? Like Mary, will we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”? The holy Presence came to Mary, and so it also comes to you and to us all. And sometimes our hearts leap for joy. Sometimes we say yes at once: “Ah!” we say gratefully. “You have come again! You are here!” But sometimes we feel too vulnerable and so we pull away, frightened or perplexed.
Sometimes we lean forward and open our arms to take in the love for which we have yearned for so long. And sometimes we pull back, afraid to trust that this love is real, afraid to lose control.
It is a dance that we play at the borders of our self, testing the edges, sometimes moving toward love, sometimes moving away, now opening to relatedness, now closing fearfully in. But God is always patient and never forces, never compels. The Spirit comes to us just as the Spirit came to Mary, and waits patiently and eagerly for our assent. Will we say yes this time? Will we let go?
And in grace-filled moments, we do. With Mary, we say yes. We offer ourselves totally. We give ourselves in love to Love, for the first time or for the hundredth time, and in these moments of the soul’s embrace, Christ is conceived within us. A new and wild life takes root. Surrender to God is not passivity. It is an awakening of power in the soul.
So we bless Mary for being the mother of God, but we also remember, as the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart once put it, that we are all called to be mothers of God, because God is always needing to be born.
How did the angel come to Mary? That’s a wonderful question, but even more wonderful is the question: how will the angel come to you? And how will you respond?
1. Fred Craddock et al., Preaching through the Christian Year B, p. 25.
2. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, 1993, p. 118.
3. Kathleen Norris, “Annunciation,” entry for November 30 in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2001, no page, quoting from Norris’ Amazing Grace (Riverhead Books, 1998).