The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Advent 4B): December 21, 2014
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 15 (“The Magnificat”); Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Friday night Don and I went to Lincoln Center Theater to see a new play by Sarah Ruhl titled The Oldest Boy. “An American woman married to a Tibetan émigré welcomes visiting Tibetan monks who come to believe that her three-year-old son is the reincarnation of an important lama and ask to take the child to India for spiritual training.”[i] The story reminded me very much of today’s gospel. Like Mary’s story, the uninvited and mysterious guests bring more questions than answers. And both mothers are faced with an almost impossible choice, delivered in the name of God.
For today’s gospel story of the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary of the coming birth of Jesus, we find ourselves at an unexpected place in the birth narrative. Although we are only a few days from Christmas, we travel back nine months. Luke is the only one of the gospel writers that tells of the visit of an angel to Mary. The images painted here are so rich that artists and musicians and other storytellers have used it as fuel for their creative efforts for centuries.
And different artists emphasize different aspects of the story. The hymn we just sang, Gabriel’s Message[ii], a Basque carol, repeats “Most highly favored lady” at the end of each verse to focus on the “chosenness” of Mary. God has picked this young girl who, according to that society’s standards, is nothing and has nothing to be the Godbearer. She receives God’s favor, a sure sign that this God focuses on the poor and oppressed.
Still others focus on the in-breaking part of the story—the idea of God breaking into ordinary human life in an extraordinary way. Painters have often emphasized this aspect of the story with fantastic images of the angel Gabriel. Not long ago, on St. Michael’s Day, I talked about seeing Fra Angelico’s remarkable fresco of the Annunciation[iii] in Florence—the Angel is depicted in pink robes with rainbow-striped wings. He is unquestionably “other.” Another remarkable painting that has recently come to my attention is by Henry Ossawa Tanner, a Pittsburgh-born African-American painter of the late nineteenth century. In his painting of The Annunciation[iv], the Angel is presented as a bright column of light, providing the only illumination in the room. While many painters fill their canvases with symbols (like lilies or prayer books) to emphasize some particular aspect of the story, Tanner puts Mary in a simple, bare room. The awkward teenage girl, her face lit by the yellow glow of the angel, looks timid, but also focused.
Still other artists emphasize Mary’s reaction to the announcement. Lorenzo Lotto’s painting from the mid-sixteenth century[v] shows Mary reacting to the Angel’s appearance and announcement with surprise, perhaps even fear—her hands are up in a gesture almost of surrender, and she does not even look at the angel. And Jan Van Eyck’s painting from the mid-fifteenth century[vi] shows Mary submitting to the Angel’s announcement, in fact with the words, “Ecce ancilla domine,” or “Behold I am the Handmaid of the Lord,” streaming from her mouth.
I am most intrigued by Mary’s reaction. And I have to tell you I find it hard to believe that Mary responded so calmly, and with such assurance. I feel quite certain that in a painting of me upon the appearance of an angel I’d either be on the floor, having fainted, or perhaps absent, with only a ball of dust illustrating that I had exited the frame! Now, admittedly Mary is alternately characterized here as favored, perplexed, thoughtful, and afraid. But in the end, after only one question (“How can this be?”), she agrees. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
Did Mary even have a choice? The Angel announces that she has been chosen—she is “it.” Gabriel does not ask if she would like to take on this role. He doesn’t suggest she petition God to become the mother of the Messiah. Instead he declares what is going to happen. He proclaims the good news of the coming birth of Jesus, and announces that she will be the key player!
And this scared teenager replies with an amazing amount of grace and clarity. She asks God to use her in this way—to make her part of this remarkable promise. One theologian says, “As the story unfolds, Mary acts as a creative partner and agent with God in the coming of the Christ child.”[vii]
Now that really intrigues me—Mary chooses to be God’s creative partner. How might we emulate Mary in becoming an agent with God? I’d like to suggest a few ways we can do exactly that.
First, I think we act with God when we open our eyes to the world around us. You and I both know that life is tough; often it is all we can do just to get through our to do lists—to get the kids from A to B and back again, to keep the house reasonably clean and to make sure everyone’s eating right, to keep pleasing the boss in order to ensure job security, and—well, you can add your own tasks to that list. With all of that weighing us down, it’s easy to see how we keep our heads down and don’t engage with the people and things around us that are unpredictable.
But God calls us to stand with those who are marginalized—to be one with those whom God favors. One way we do that is to actually see those who walk the streets with us. To dare to look into the eyes of those we encounter every day in this city and not only acknowledge their humanity but also see God in them. We must see the ways that God has favored them. And then we have to be open to the ways that God may call us to act on God’s behalf for others.
Second, we act with God when we examine our priorities in light of the example of Christ. I spoke a few weeks ago about how our checkbooks reveal what matters to us. So too do our calendars. How do you spend your time? Does that allocation of time truly reflect what matters to you? Is there time on your calendar for others, or is it all focused on yourself and your job? And is there time on your calendar to sit with God?
We can only act in partnership with God if we are connected to God. We all know that open, honest communication is the key to any healthy relationship, right? That means that we must open ourselves to dialogue with God. For most that means prayer. But know that prayer can take many, many forms. If you haven’t found a form of prayer that works for you, don’t give up—God opens up many avenues of communication. For me, contemplative prayer (that is, prayer without words) is the place where I feel most connected to God. There is a way for you to connect to God, too. If you are unsure, let’s talk about it.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must be willing to say yes to God. I am afraid this is where I usually fall short. My intentions are good, but somehow, when it comes right down to it, I find the way to hedge my bets—I come up with some good reason not to follow through.
I am certain that Mary could have come up with many very good reasons why God should choose someone else—but she didn’t. Once she got over her fear and puzzlement, she simply said yes.
What might it mean for us to say yes to God? And how might that yes require us to change our regular patterns of life? These are not easy questions, and the answers are perhaps even more difficult. So why would we even bother?
Of course, the reason why lies in the season itself: The enormity of God’s love for us demands a yes. God comes down to earth as one of us, for our salvation. God gives us the gift of eternal life, delivered by a tiny, helpless babe. In thanksgiving, and in hope for the world, we dare to say yes.
This week I ran across a beautiful poem titled “The Annunciation,” by Denise Levertov. It sums all of this up so well:
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lecturn, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whome 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, spelt
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.[viii]
[i] Lincoln Center Theater Review, Fall 2014, Issue No. 64. P. 3.
[ii] “The angel Gabriel from heaven came,” The Hymnal 1982, #265. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated.
[v] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recanati_Annunciation#mediaviewer/File:Lorenzo_Lotto_066.jpg, accessed 12/18/2014.
[vii] Rigby, Cynthia L., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 96.
[viii] http://www.davidlose.net/2012/12/the-annunciation/, accesssed 12/20/2014.