The Birth of Jesus Foretold
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 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 forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “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. 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.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
This week we light the fourth candle on the Advent Wreath, often referred to as the Angel’s Candle. This candle symbolizes peace and justice announced by the angels and the incarnation of Christ. Peace and justice are possibilities for our world even when it seems so unlikely.
We know this from brave Mary’s song and from the Angel Gabriel’s announcement of Mary’s pregnancy and role as “God-bearer” or “Theotokos.” He continues “For with God all things are possible.”
In this time of pandemic, unrest, anger, and suffering, Christians still see the possibilities for a different world, one where the way of Christ breaks in and illumines the shadows of despair, shatters the bonds of evil, and welcomes all to the table equally with divine love and mercy.
Martin Luther called the Bible “the swaddling clothes in which Jesus is laid.” To ponder Mary’s pregnancy, we ponder the Scriptures that were very much alive in her mind and heart during those days of anticipation, anxiety, discomfort, probably nausea, something going on inside her she could not entirely fathom—in a unique way, and yet like all mothers in waiting.
The Psalms resonated, with their dark cries for help and comfort. I wonder if she was deeply moved to reconsider the story of Hannah, barren and then surprised with a son? Once Samuel, her dream, her loveliest ever gift from God arrived, she didn’t cling to him but gave him back to the Lord, to serve with Eli in the temple. That boy in turn heard a voice in the night, and after some confusion responded, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9). Did that moment shape Mary’s reply to Gabriel?
Mary perceived the new life dawning in her belly as a call, as her divinely ordained vocation. Having a child wasn’t her pursuit of fulfillment or security in old age. She was responding to God’s calling. Or we could say, like many mother, the life in her became her calling.
How do mothers, when the news sinks in that, Yes, I am pregnant, begin with Mary to discern what God is asking of them, and how the nurturing of the child in the womb, and then after birth, can be the embodiment of a life of service to God?
Tradition suggests that Mary was about to draw water from a well when she was interrupted by the angel. A well in Nazareth supposedly marks the place, housed in a massive basilica that fields more visitors every day than the entire population of the Nazareth Mary knew. There is something mystical about water, our thirst for it, the beauty, the shimmering ripples eliciting a kind of simple awe.
Water will matter for her, and for all mothers. They need to stay hydrated. Their fetus needs the aquatic realm until the water breaks. And then the bath, a lifetime of drinking, and Baptism, and the delight in rivers, lakes, ocean waves and the gentle rain.
The appearance of the angel must have been terrifying. Gabriel was, in Jewish lore, the mighty warrior among God’s heavenly host. And yet, if God’s plan was to make God’s mind and heart accessible, and for people not to be terrified, perhaps Gabriel toned it down, or came in a more humble guise. Luther suggests that “Gabriel did not resent being used as an errand boy to carry word to a lowly maiden. His glory was laid aside, and he appeared to her simply in the guise of a comely youth.” Even if he showed up in the most inviting form imaginable, Mary still had good cause to shiver. Elie Wiesel was right: “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.”
Whose assignment was ever bigger than Mary’s? And yet, isn’t ours similar? God’s calling is always like hers: God asks to become real in us, to take on flesh in our lives.
In the Bible, those who are called have their reasons not to say Yes.
- Moses has his speech issues.
- Jeremiah’s too young.
- Isaiah is unholy.
And now Mary, who knew their stories: she has not been with any man. God always counters, and uses the unusable. We might ask, Why Mary, of all people? We presume she was of immense holiness.
- She calls to us out of her holiness; Richard Rohr suggests that “somehow she is calling all of us to our absolute best.”
- She was a virgin. But in those days, as a matter of both holiness and family honor, most newly betrothed women were — hence, not the shock this sadly would be today.
- Luther pinpoints her humility — a humility that did not even know it was being humble: “She gloried neither in her virginity nor in her humility, but solely in God’s gracious regard… True humility does not know that it is humble.”
Her ordinariness, and in such an ordinary place, makes her the sort of person God would choose for this extraordinary mission. Ultimately, what we realize about Mary is not that she had this or that ability; what she had was simply an availability. “Let it be to me.” As with all of us, God is looking for a readiness, an availability, or what Maggie Ross called “a willingness for whatever.” She heard the angel speak of what was impossible. With considerable courage, naivete, and trust, she went with it, she let it be in her.
One time I was at a Roman Catholic church getting ready to walk thru a friend’s wedding. I remember 2 outstanding things about that walk thru. The first was when we were about to begin and the priest who was presiding with me says “Let’s try not to set back Catholic/Lutheran relations another 500 years” (No Pressure).
The second was before that when I walked into the church, after all it had been a few year since I had attended regularly. The high ceilings, stone walls and balcony and stained-glass windows. The was a soloist practicing Ava Maria and it sounds angelic. But then she began to sing the words of The Magnificat in the open air against the backdrop of the stained-glass allowed me to hear them as if for the first time.
I suddenly understood how powerful her unquestioning faith and immediate acceptance of God’s call on her life was. As an admitted worrywart and sarcastic person I fear that if confronted by an angelic messenger I would still do as I tend to do in my everyday American life. I would likely have doubt like Elizabeth, I would hesitate and question and need to work through no small amount of fear. Mary’s bravery, boldness, willingness, and immediate acceptance of God’s call on her life is inspiring…and challenging.
In this time of preparation in Advent, watching and listening for signs and symbols of God’s call on our life, I have been reflecting on where the “bright stars” are in my daily experience.
- God came to Nazareth, a town on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ that few believed a king could come from. Who am I still underestimating or dismissing because of origin, background, or culture?
- God chose a woman to be the mother of God not because of her accomplishments, education, privilege, or network, but because of her faith. Where have I seen the most powerful and trusting faith, faith in the face of hardship and seemingly impossible obstacles?
- God told Mary, through a messenger, that the kingdom of Jesus would have no end, not just in time, but in reach and space. What limits am I placing on what God can do in my life or the life of others? How am I allowing fear and hesitation to limit my obedience?
God is calling us, with a voice louder and more noticeable than any time in recent memory. The needs of people living with homelessness, hunger, and other effects of poverty are stark and immediate. The request to help has quite literally arrived in our email and mailboxes in recent weeks via end-of-year appeals from ELCA World Hunger and ELCA Good Gifts.
- Will we doubt our ability to make a difference?
- Will we question the worth of the work?
- Will we weigh our priorities and look for a suitable ranking at which to place caring for God’s most precious people?
Or will we, with even a fraction of Mary’s generous faith, rise to the occasion of God’s summons? I have faith that we will follow the star.
Here’s the thing that really gets me that I want to end with today. I don’t think Mary is the only one who struggles to believe she is favored and that God is with her. Particularly after the year we have had, a whole lot of people would scoff in disbelief or shake their heads in doubt, and be perplexed by this greeting. Which may make this a particularly important time to remmeber that at the heart of the carols and celebrations and prayers and readings of Christmas is precisely the promise that God comes to us in love to tell us that we are loved and to send us out to love others always equipped by the life-giving power of God’s love. We are, in fact, both favored and accompanied by God. Always.
In this most different, and in some ways dismal Christmas’, any of us can remember.
Economic hardship, political strife, attempts to undermine the very foundation of our democracy, a new and sharper awareness of longstanding racial injustice, the promise of a vaccine even as hospitalizations and deaths surge to new and devastating highs…. The list goes on and all of it contributes to having a hard time believing the announcement of the angel and the promise of Christmas.
But like Mary we must believe. We can trust that God comes to us for a reason that we may not be able to see or understand, but that makes the truth that God is taping us on the shoulder any less real. So as we continue to prepare for Jesus’ birth, let us do it with open hearts and trust.