A reflection on Luke 1:26-38 for Advent 4B by The Rev. Margaret Rose
As far as I recall, I never got to be Mary in the Christmas pageant at our church. I was a sheep when I was very small, a little angel with gold crepe wings, a shepherd, once even the Angel Gabriel, but never Mary. I suspect it was clear to the adults in charge that I did not fit the profile. And couldn’t pull off the look of an obedient passive teenager walking quietly to Bethlehem. Even at a young age I was outspoken about what seemed to me injustice: No room at the inn, taxation without representation. The leaders didn’t want to risk even more chaos at a pageant that had enough toddler sheep and goats crawling around the altar.
The picture we got of Mary was the one from Italian Renaissance paintings, receiving the angel’s news with beauty and acquiescence, light brown hair perfectly coiffed, falling softly on her symbolic blue shimmering robe, halo shining above. We sang the hymns that reinforced that idea: Mother mild in O Little Town of Bethlehem, Hail Mary, Gentle Woman, Sing of Mary Pure and Lowly. Mary was obedient, tender and passively ready to do God’s will.
But even then I suspected that Mary was not quite this. And the Mary I have come to
know since those childhood days of the Christmas pageant is the one portrayed in the only joke my own mother knew how to tell:
A construction worker is repairing the roof of a church early one morning when a woman comes in to pray. She kneels reverently and begins her silent prayers. Deciding that he will play a trick on the woman and give her a big scare, he conceals himself in the balcony and calls down loud enough for his voice to echo toward the woman alone at prayer. “Helloooo down there, this is Jesus.” No response from the faithful woman. A little louder, the worker calls again, “HELLO down there, this is Jesus!” Again, the woman does not move but continues her prayers as before. Wondering if she might be hard of hearing, the man calls out again, this time in a loud voice, ‘HELLO DOWN THERE THIS IS JESUS!’ Finally the woman responds, stands up tall, arms akimbo looking the direction from which the voice has come and exclaims, “WON’T YOU PLEASE BE QUIET,. CAN’T YOU SEE I AM TRYING TO TALK TO YOUR MOTHER!”
The Mary many of us have come to know over the centuries is the one whose world was as broken as our own, who knew a mother’s care, joys and suffering in her own life. That Mary is the one whose own suffering at the death of a child is shared by many a grieving parent. I will never forget, when own my father died suddenly of a heart attack at age 52, seeing my grandmother keening in a chair as she attempted to find meaning in this disorder. The parents are not supposed to outlive the children. She took comfort in Mary, whose own child had died a violent death, much too young. Mary, whose courage in bearing the child of God was only matched by her courage in seeing him die on the cross. She has been an image of solidarity and compassion for those who suffer throughout the ages. The joke above is only funny because it is so true. We can talk to Mary about our lives.
In my childhood pictures we never saw the terrified Mary, or the one whose hand was raised in protest as she pondered the angel’s words and decided whether she would be able to accept this announcement. Most of all we didn’t see the Mary whose response to the angel is more radical than anything the Wall Street Occupiers or others could imagine. The words of the Magnificat ring out from Luke’s Gospel in the voice of Mary. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord….He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and rich he has sent away empty.” What a vision for a new world she ( and Luke) offered us.
This Mary had something to say and is still saying it today.
If the theologians have it right, Mary’s obedient response came from a knowledge that the Messiah, long promised to faithful Jews, like her, was going to come to pass, yet with no assurance that this angel’s prediction was the one that mattered. There had been many predictions of Messiahs before. This Mary is one who was willing to face ridicule or shame for her yes—in a culture where a pregnant unmarried woman faced certain rejection, outcast from family and community. The Mary I have come to know was not one who answered “Whatever you say, God.” But who was perplexed and who pondered her response, took her time before replying.
And that is the astonishing thing, something unimagined, but which may have been true, is that God waited. God waited for Mary’s reply. God waited until she said yes.
During these weeks of Advent we speak often of our own yearning for the coming of the Christ Child, of our own annual expectation and desire that Christmas really will come again. I had never thought of God waiting for Mary, of not being so absolutely sure this will work out or that she will say yes. This is in some way God’s own Advent, God waiting for Mary to say yes to the Announcement of the terrifyingly wonderful news.
And could it be that God waits and desires an affirmative response not just from Mary but from us as well.
I wonder then, what announcement has come to us, to me, for which God is desiring an affirmative response. And I am grateful that as with Mary, God is waiting for me, for us to catch up. God is waiting for us to have the kind of courage that Mary had to say, “Be it done to me according to your word.”
Poet Denise Levertov in her poem, The Annunciation says it better than I.
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent. God waited.
She was free
to accept or refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren't there annunciations
of one sort or another in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes..
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child - but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, "How can this be?"
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel's reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power -
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love -
but who was God.
~Denise Levertov : The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes