The Gospel this Advent Sunday is one of the most beautiful stories in the Christian tradition: the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel brings Mary the startling news that she is to bear the Messiah. It has all the qualities of high drama—a young girl being called to take part in the salvation of the world.
At least in much of the Episcopal Church, you don’t hear a lot about Mary these days. For our Roman Catholic friends, though, Mary is essential; they refer to her as “Mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven.” And the Eastern Orthodox tradition calls her theotokos, the God-bearer. But there has been an uneasiness about Mary in the Protestant and Anglican traditions, a concern that all the focus on her as an object of devotion and veneration, expressed in prayers, shrines, and hymns, could be a distraction from focus on Christ. In an old story told by Harvard preacher Peter Gomes, when a former dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London arrives in heaven, Jesus comes down from God’s right hand and says: “Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you have met my Father, but I don’t believe you know my Mother.”
Increasingly, however, Mary is being embraced by all the traditions as the brave young woman who gave birth to Jesus, God Incarnate, who suckled and nurtured him, who taught him compassion and love. And it’s that Mary we meet in our lesson today.
Maybe because the scene is so dramatic, artists have for centuries done their best to capture the intensity of the Annunciation. Anyone who has strolled through galleries of Renaissance paintings has encountered countless versions of it. Mary is nearly always portrayed as an idealized image of youthful femininity, carefully composed and beautiful. While reading a book in her courtly Italian room, she is interrupted by the dazzling angel Gabriel. Often the presence of a dove hovering over the scene signifies that what is happening is the work of the Holy Spirit.
For years I have understood the Annunciation as a powerful invitation being offered to Mary. Out of all the people on earth, God chooses this insignificant peasant girl to give birth to the savior of the world. Mary is frightened and overwhelmed, and the question is, Will she agree to do it? The great reformer Martin Luther wrote that “all heaven and earth held its breath to see if Mary would say yes.” And finally she does, saying, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Lately, though, I’ve begun to think that I’ve been missing something crucial in this story all these years. God isn’t so much inviting Mary to consider taking on this role as informing her that something immense is about to happen through her. Gabriel doesn’t ask her if she would like to be the mother of Jesus, whether she would care to think about it, whether it fits in with her plans for her life. “Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,” he says, “…who will be called the Son of the Most High.” That’s what is about to happen!
All this was brought home to me this week when a friend showed me a remarkable painting of the Annunciation by the sixteenth-century artist Lorenzo Lotto. In it we don’t see a composed Mary listening to the angel’s announcement. Instead, an alarmed Mary is turned toward us, the viewers, and away from Gabriel; her eyes are wide with fear. Gabriel seems confused himself. Looming over his head, in the sky just beyond the room, is a fierce-looking, gray-bearded God, with his hands and arms outstretched and clamped together, pointing down toward Mary with a gesture you would never want to have aimed at you. God looks more than a little frightening. And at the center of the scene is a cat running across the middle of the floor with its back arched, its front paws in the air, as if it has been electrocuted. Every detail speaks of tension, terror, and alarm. And there is Mary, staring at us, as if to say, “Imagine this! What would you do if you were in my place?”
The Annunciation is the moment when Mary discovers that God is doing something through her. In fact the surprise of the Christmas stories of Joseph and Mary, of the shepherds and wise men, and of the entire Bible for that matter, is that God is the initiator. God intrudes into peoples’ lives, calling them, acting through them, giving them tasks to accomplish.
To Mary it seems not only ludicrous that she should be chosen to take a role in this mission, but also upsetting. First, we are told that she was “much perplexed” by Gabriel’s words to her. Then she responds incredulously, “How can this be?” How could God need her? And once she starts asking questions, she probably can’t stop. Will I be safe? Will Joseph really stick with me and endure the shame of marrying a woman who will bear a child that is not his? Will I be written off by my family and friends? Her worries must be endless, but it is clear that this is going to happen whether she gets satisfactory answers or not. Still, she will have a choice—whether to say yes to the life she is being handed, give herself over to it, and see what God wants to do with it, or to fight it and rebel against it.
Some scholars have suggested that Mary’s response to the annunciation is actually unhealthy. It’s a woman’s act of submission and obedience in a male dominated culture, they say, and it has long been used to encourage passivity in women. But Mary’s is a deeper sort of yes. It is for her a profound affirmation of who she is and of her willingness to be an instrument of God, and it calls forth tremendous courage and strength. Our culture is fixated on our expressing ourselves, whatever superficial version of the self we happen to be absorbed with at the moment. Doing your own thing seems to be our creed. But God’s annunciations are always calls to a deeper, larger self. They draw out not our passivity but our strength.
Mary stands alone in history as the receiver of this particular Annunciation to be the God-bearer. But we too receive annunciations. Isn’t it true that many of the most important events in our lives actually choose us? We build elaborate plans, we think about our goals. And then an unexpected job offer comes, or a sudden illness hits, or we fall in love, or we feel called to change our lives and make a difference somewhere else, or aging parents need us, or a troubled child turns our lives upside down. And it seems as if we are being asked to do something, to change something, to endure something, for someone else’s sake, maybe even for God’s.
None of it we planned. We find ourselves, like Mary in the Lotto painting, anxious and disturbed, wondering what to do next. And when that happens, we have two choices: to say yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me; or no, I will resist it.
Psychiatrist and spiritual writer Gerald May says there are two fundamental life-orientations: one of willfulness, an attitude of constantly seeking to force our will on our lives and those around us; and one of willingness, which entails our desire to move with the deepest, truest currents of our lives. The former is about control; the latter is about acknowledging that there is a deeper life moving through us. When our moments of annunciation come, will our response be willfulness, or willingness?
The stakes are high. We can of course say no. We can ignore this new call, get back to our busy lives, pretend the moment never came. Or we can be willing, we can say yes. We can say, “Here am I; let it be me with me according to your word.”
A few years ago there was a week-long, front-page series in the Boston Globe about a young couple who learned that the child they were about to have would be born with Downs Syndrome and would need heart surgery almost immediately after birth. The story described the couple’s devastation at learning of their child’s condition. It recounted their struggle to decide whether to have the child or terminate the pregnancy. Then it described their ultimately bringing the child they named Naia to birth, caring for her in the dangerous early weeks, helping her through surgery, watching her grow stronger. The final installment showed a radiant one-year-old and a happy couple preparing for a different sort of life with their handicapped child.
It was a beautiful story of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinarily difficult crisis. The most critical decision of all, of course, was whether to proceed with the pregnancy. They received all sorts of advice from friends, family, and doctors. One piece sticks out, the words that Greg, Naia’s father, hears from his own father: “Gregory … this is not a tragedy. This is not the end of the world. All of us are born with defects. If you and Tierney give this child the love you have for each other, this child will be all right.”
The couple was terrified by what they faced—how painful would the surgery be for Naia, how many more medical problems would there be, what would happen if raising Naia proved to be just too much for them? They asked every question they could think of, but when there were no more words the Globe described the moment this way: “They look at each other and know they have decided: They will have this baby.”
The depth of the story rested in honoring all the ambiguities, in showing a couple’s agonizing struggle with questions only they could answer, in the portrayal of two courageous young people who were in over their heads. They listened deeply, heard what they believed they were being called to do, and said a courageous Yes.
God’s annunciations always come in the concrete circumstances of our lives. And they are often hidden in situations that God would never choose to happen—a loss, the end of a job or marriage, hard times for us or for those we care about. They come as doors that open, as new work to be done, new relationships to begin, new burdens to carry. They come in glimpses we get of the need of the world around us. A friend of mine whose home in Mississippi barely survived Hurricane Katrina told me recently that this year her family had seen too much loss to waste money giving a lot of gifts no one really needs. This year, she says, they may give each other a book or two, or a sweater, but otherwise they are sending checks to relief agencies.
But the question is, what new life is stirring in you this year? What are you pregnant with? A yearning for a deeper, more connected life at home with family and friends? A longing for a deeper relationship with God in the new year? A deeper call to a generous life that makes a difference in the world around you?
These annunciations when they come say quietly, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” and they invite us to let our lives be disrupted by this intrusive God. And then God waits with bated breath for our response.
And the hope of this season is that we will have the courage to answer with Mary’s own words: “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”