Sunday, December 21, 2014
The Annunciation Or, How Do You Solve a problem Like Maria?
(A Sermon on Luke 1:26-38, 4 Advent, Dec. 20, 2014)
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Let’s hear it in the King James:
34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.
38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
Have you ever been to a Novena? No?
It’s a Roman Catholic thing, and even though I was raised Catholic, I only ever went to one—long after I became an Episcopalian.
The Novena I went to was called a Perpetual Novena in Honor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. It’s a series of prayers, some of which are repeated, to the Virgin Mary, who is addressed as “Queen of Angels and of men.” Mary is asked to “not despise our petitions, but in [her] clemency” to “hear and answer” the prayers.
It is very Catholic, and savors of an entirely different world than the world of Rite II Anglicanism. It can feel like a voyage back in time, back to the Middle Ages.
And yet it’s very modern, too. Pope John Paul II, as well as Mother Theresa, could refer to Mary as “co-Redemptrix” with Christ. And some Anglo-Catholic devotional books include the traditional Marian devotions, before we Anglicans get up on our high horses about the Catholics.
What is this phenomenon of Mary, and why on earth do so many Christians feel called upon to have such powerful reverence for Jesus’s mother?
After all, Mary only appears a handful of times in scripture. Here, at the Annunciation, in her visit to her elderly cousin Elizabeth, at Christmas, and finding the young Jesus in the Temple when they feared he was lost. All of these appearances are in Luke’s Gospel, some recur in the synoptic gospels. Mary also appears briefly in Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s sequel, as one of those in the upper room praising God after the apostles return from the Ascension. Oh, and she appears twice in the Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to Jesus’s disciple, John, the son of Zebedee. She appears at the foot of the cross, and she pesters Jesus into starting his ministry ahead of time.
Really; according to John, Mary basically drafts her son into performing his first miracle. He is not, shall we say, thrilled. Here he is, attending a wedding, enjoying himself with his disciples. For once he’s enjoying a nice slice of normality—he’s a guest; his friends are there, his mother—he’s relaxing.
And then along comes Mom: “They have no wine,” she says in full-on Mom-voice. She doesn’t have to add the unspoken: Fix it. He knows. Oh, how he knows.
So his reply isn’t exactly getting put on a Hallmark card any day soon: “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”
In one of my own really very annoying teen phases, I once tried using that response to my own mother, when she wanted me to do something for her. Let’s just say it didn’t work any better for me than it did for Jesus.
Mary ignores her son—which was more polite than my mother’s reaction, by the way—and tells the servants “Do whatever he tells you to.”
And so the wedding feast at Cana gets the best wine last, and Jesus’s career as a miracle worker gets a premature start.
And that is, pretty much, it for Mary’s appearances in the scriptures. And yet—co-Redemptrix. Queen of Heaven. Of Angels and of men.
What in Mary’s scriptural appearances could explain the level of devotion she inspires? How, if you’ll forgive me, do we solve a problem like Maria?
I think that a part of the answer is that Mary isn’t the Son of God; she isn’t a hero, she isn’t a prophet, or a sage.
She’s a woman who says yes to God.
She’s a woman, first of all—a young woman, in a time and culture that did not rank women highly. She is not yet married but engaged to be—emerging from the protection of her father, but not yet under that of her husband, in the eyes of society.
She is vulnerable, and what is asked of her is no little thing—she’s asked to be the mother of the Son of God, and in a pretty hard to understand way—the power of the Highest shall overshadow her, and that’s pretty much all she is told.
And to be a mother under these circumstances—as Matthew’s Gospel tells us, Joseph decides to not disgrace her, even before his own angelic visitor tells him to go through the wedding—but Mary had no way of knowing this. She’s agreeing, as far as she knows, to potential disgrace, probable exile from her family and home, and possibly even death.
All of which is to say that Mary’s saying “yes” to God is a bigger deal than we might take it to be nowadays. It’s an act of absolute trust, a leap of faith over a chasm that could, if anything goes wrong, be quite fatal to her.
Imagine if she had said no. What then?
But Mary says simply: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” There’s a courage, a serenity, in her words that we can’t help but envy little bit as we admire it.
But envy is the wrong word, isn’t it? We want to be like her, I think. We see in Mary a model for Christian discipleship, for how we could, if our faith was like hers, respond to God’s call.
After all, we are not living in a time and place as unforgiving as she did. And we are not being asked to risk as much as she did. Finally, we aren’t being asked to lose as much as she lost.
If this poor Jewish girl in an occupied country could love so much, and risk so much, perhaps we can love a little bit more than we do.
As we move into the final days of Advent, we look back on that confident, serene love, that willingness to answer the call without counting the cost. The initial “yes” that was the necessary first step.
The problem, my sisters and my brothers, is not Maria; it’s that we see a problem. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.