So here is this teenage girl, recently engaged, who is greeted
by an angel with baffling and terrifying news. She, Mary, was selected
to birth the Messiah foretold by prophets. Gabriel assured her,
“God is with you; you have found favor with God; do not be
afraid; nothing is impossible with God.” How could anyone
take all this in at once? The idea of pregnancy had frightening
consequences to a young engaged woman. It baffles me to understand
how she could say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let
it be with me according to your word.”
The story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is beautiful.
There is something about Mary’s real emotion and yet obedience
that tugs at our hearts. Hearing that cousin Elizabeth, old in years,
was also pregnant, Mary ran to her for help to untangle this mystery.
Meanwhile, Joseph received a visit from the angel telling him to
take Mary as his wife. So here we have three people called to take
part in a mystery with real consequences. Yet, why is it we read
nothing in scripture of such consequences taking place?
The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible says it was common among Greek-speaking
Jews (Luke was Greek) to believe in miraculous events surrounding
the birth of prominent persons. The Jews had a saying that in the
birth of every child there are three partners -- the father, the
mother and the Spirit of God. They believed that no child could
ever be born without the Spirit. Psalm 139 describes the mystery
of our embryonic life with these wonderful words: “you created
my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
While biological science may explain these processes, there is still
an awesomeness and mystery to be embraced in the miracle of life.”
Ask any parent who has had a baby.
Peter Lockhart reminds us that when Luke wrote down the story 60
years after the event, he “portrayed this intimate scene between
Mary and an angel called Gabriel. No one else was present and no
one else wrote the story down in the same way,” including
Matthew. This has been the source of controversy for centuries.
So how do we understand this story? All we need to know is that
Mary had a baby who grew up to change the world.
Peter Lockhart suggests, “The purpose of Luke’s story
is neither to claim the historicity of the encounter between the
angel and Mary . . . nor to provide a scientific explanation concerning
the virginal conception. Luke’s task is theology: to explain
who God is and how this God relates to human beings and human beings
relate to God. This is where the authority of the scriptures lies.”
Lockhart continues, “It is fascinating to me that Mary moves
from a place of questioning and fear, into obedience and acceptance,
and then, when she visits Elizabeth, [she is moved] to give praise
and thanksgiving to God.” It was in the sharing of her story
with Elizabeth that Mary responded in the song known as the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God
my Saviour, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his
servant.” “Even as Mary found it difficult to comprehend
and accept what God might be doing, the reality is that any encounter
with God” can lead us to ask, “How can this be?”
Paintings of the annunciation and birth of Jesus
I spent some time looking at paintings of the Annunciation and birth
of Jesus on the internet. Most of those from past centuries are
posed and artificial, void of any feeling, portraying Mary with
a halo or holding a book we take to be the scriptures. Few of them
capture Mary as a teenager. Most of these paintings do nothing for
me, but I saved several that show Mary as an ordinary girl. It was
in Mary’s quiet, non-remarkable, day-to-day life that she
found favor with God. I also included Tom Clark’s paintings
that show an ordinary disheveled mother exhausted from childbirth,
but face transformed with joy and love as she snuggles the baby
against her, rubbing his back. It is the ordinary father standing
nearby with a goofy grin of pride on his face, the appearance of
a curious innkeeper come to see what was going on, and the wise
men come from far to honor this special baby.
From hardcopy to F2F
One writer shows the progression of God’s longing for relationship
with us. From the beginning of time, God has been actively seeking
a way to say, “I love you.” First it was hardcopy. Then
it was voice mail. And finally it was face-to-face. The hardcopy
-- literally hard -- were the Ten Commandments etched on stone that
stated, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt,
out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before
me.” “It wasn’t a rusty set of rules, but a powerful
and passionate love letter from the one true God. But the people
went their own way and the stones became cracked.
So God sent the prophets -- Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and eventually
John the Baptist, but they were ignored, berated, beaten or killed.
Finally God came to us face-to-face in the birth of Jesus. Gabriel
announced his coming, Mary accepted the challenge, and John the
Baptist identified him as the Messiah. Jesus was conceived in a
particular time and place, to a particular mother. The baby was
given a particular name and mission. In the coming of Jesus, God
and humans met face-to-face. We are also called to birth and cradle
Christ in our own lives.
The New Interpreter’s Bible says, “God has not abandoned
us to the consequences of our own sinfulness. [Jesus] enters human
life with all its depravity, violence and corruption, and demonstrates
that he is determined to deliver us. His very existence -- as a
living breathing person -- is a message of hope for humankind.”
There are some powerful Latin words in Mozart’s “Requiem”
which translated say, “Remember, merciful Jesus/I am the cause
of your journey.”
During this Advent season we have been emphasizing the theme, “God
with us for the ages.” As The Message states it in John 1:14,
“The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”
Emmanuel is “God with us” in the flesh, with open arms
There’s a story I know you have heard before, but it fits
so well it is worth repeating and pondering.
“There was a Benedictine community to whom nobody came. As
the monks grew old, they became more and more disheartened because
their community was not attracting other people.
Now in the woods outside the monastery there lived an old rabbi.
People came from all over to talk to him about the presence of Yahweh
in creation. Years went by and finally the abbot himself went into
the woods, leaving word with his monks, "I have gone out to
speak to the rabbi.” In truth, the abbot considered it humiliating
that a Christian community had to go back to the synagogue to find
out what was wrong with them."
When the abbot finally found the rabbi's hut in the woods, the
rabbi welcomed him with open arms as if he had known that he was
coming. They put their arms around each other and had a good cry.
The abbot told the rabbi that his monks were good men but they had
lost their fire, and the community was dying. He asked the rabbi
if he had any insight into the work of Yahweh in their lives. The
rabbi replied, "I have the secret and I will tell you once.
You may tell the monks and then none of you is ever to repeat it
to another." The abbot declared that if they could have the
secret, he was sure his monks would grow.
The rabbi looked at him long and hard, then said, "The secret
is that among you, in one of you is the Messiah!" The abbot
went back to his community and shared the secret with his monks.
And lo! as they began to search for the Messiah in one another they
grew, they loved, they became strong and very prophetic. And the
story ends: "From that day on, the community saw [the Messiah]
in one another and flourished!"
It’s true that in our time and space we no longer see Jesus
in human form, face-to-face. But “the Good News is that God
has given us one another, the body of Christ, and made us . . .
family in the Spirit of God.” As the monks discovered, when
we observe the Messiah in each other, relationships will flourish,
and others will be attracted to the likeness of God in us. So, brothers
and sisters, let us continue the work of Jesus, looking for God
in each other, sharing the news that “God with us,”
and building the kingdom of God, peacefully, simply, together. Amen.