ADVENT 4: Mary Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Angels come and go, impart their dread message of change and challenge, yet counsel us not to be afraid. They act as firestarters but don’t hang around to see the blaze.
What are left behind are human beings with their guts twisted, their minds expanded, their destinies revealed or revoked
and nothing is ever the same for them. When you meet an angel life does not roll merrily on as before.
So Mary, the faith-filled woman-child of Palestine, is gifted her own seraphic messenger moment. She gets a call – God is in the house – but she doesn’t stay quiet as a mouse. If Gabriel reckons he can steamroller this little lass into a blind acceptance of his message then he hasn’t taken into account some of the very qualities which made God choose her for the job in the first place.
Because this girl has got sass, she’s got poise and she’s got steel in her belly.
With a curving of the air and a curling of time Gabriel unfolds into her life with no warning. He tries the charm: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But Mary doesn’t fall for a honeyed-tongue: she’s perplexed, puzzled and ponders.
She steps back, holds the angelic host at bay, leaves God online but keeps that line tight and it is her decision whether to throw the silvered words back or reel them in.
So Gabriel changes tactics, goes for the tried and tested, the standard angel opening gambit: ‘Do not be afraid’ a show of force, a hint at dread power, yet he can’t resist sugaring the pill once more – ‘for you have found favour with God.’ and then his message gets away from him – his own line unreels before her: ‘And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
It is as if he has blinked first – he’s the one who is overawed. God’s favouring of Mary, his presence within her, has melted into her innocent vulnerability and she is almost more Godly than he can bear.
But once again she puts the brakes on: ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ Unsqueamishly practical, and ready to defend herself – if she cannot take in the cosmic significance of the angel’s message she knows the personal consequences are pretty extreme – teenage pregnancy, dishonour, outcast, any chance of a normal path of life, motherhood and safety
dashed into the darkness.
‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ She knows her Scriptures, she knows how way back at the beginning of her people Sarah laughed at the idea that a crone could conceive. Mary doesn’t laugh at God. But the challenge is there.
Gabriel’s answer is effusive, evasive, mystical but not practical: ‘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.’
That’s all very well, but where are the details? Where are the clauses in the contract that say that Mary won’t be stoned for infidelity, that guarantee that Joseph and her family won’t disown her and leave her to the insecurity of single-parenthood, shunned by society?
Gabriel seems to know that his reassurance is shaky. He ploughs on with the best he can offer: ‘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. For nothing will be impossible with God.’
Not quite the same scenario, but shades of Sarah again, and it seems to do the trick.
Mary replies: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
At which point Gabriel closes the veil between heaven and earth and gets himself out of there as fast as he can, job done. Angels don’t stick around, they might get their feet muddy.
Which leaves the hard work to those on the ground, the ones who have to pick up the pieces of normality, which have been shattered by an influx of divinity, and reshape them into a new life.
So why does Mary say ‘yes’? There are points in that conversation where it seemed quite possible that she would say ‘no’?
She is not intimidated, she isn’t forced. She sums up the situation for herself and makes her decision. A decision based on trust. She may not know quite what Gabriel was on about
but she gets the part about being chosen by God for a particular task, one that involves significant risk to herself, one which will change the whole course of her life and will impact on her plans for a family. She says ‘yes’ because she trusts in God. She has the experience of the Scriptures – of Sarah and Hannah – she knows that God works this way. She has the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – God is working this way again and perhaps, just perhaps, she is more open than any of her contemporaries to the possibility of mystery as an integral aspect of reality.
Mary’s ‘yes’ is not a demurely deferential surrender to overpowering force. It is the handshake of an agreement between partners.
In the great scheme of creation Mary is not equal to God in this partnership. But they are working together. She is much more than just the carrier for the delivery of God’s plan, alongside God she shapes and forms it.
The Magnificat is her song, it grows in her out of the Scriptures of her people just as God’s pre-existent Word grows in her. And when she sings the Magnificat she sings an agenda for change that tells out her soul, her true beliefs about God – a God who works to preserve, protect, heal and encourage the poor, the lame, the outcast and the unvoiced. It is a song she sings to her child, a song that forms a backdrop to his infancy, a song that forms one of the deep roots of his own ministry.
Trust is not easy: in her short exchanges with Gabriel Mary ponders, looks for biblical precedents, she questions and she finds contemporary resonances. Her ‘yes’ is both acceptance and agreement. She doesn’t know all the implications of her decision, but she is prepared to play her part.
Angels don’t suffer the consequences of saying ‘yes’ to God in the way that humans often do. Perhaps that’s why they are so quick to get away. Perhaps they are more afraid of us then we are of them – because they are only the messengers and we are the ones with the potential to be God’s agents of change in this world.