Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Charles Mizelle, n/OHC
RCL - Annunciation - Thursday 25 March 2010
In our pantry we have a “gadget” called Holy Toast. It looks more like a cookie cutter. The idea is you press the mold into a piece of bread and as you toast it an image of Mary will appear. Well one day my curiosity got the better of me and I tried it. I pressed the mold into a slice of bread, put it into the toaster and waited. When my toast popped up no image of Mary had emerged. I shrugged my shoulders and thought...Mary does not make appearances to a Baptist.
When you grow up Southern Baptist you learn quickly that Mary is just a “B” actress in God’s theater. A bit player with only a small part to play. Jesus is what the show is all about and the only central character. All others simply have a small minority role.
When I was about 12 or 13 years old a Catholic family moved into our Baptist neighborhood. They went to church on Saturday afternoons, went to the beach on Sundays, had a house full of kids. They had many strange behaviors that made them all very suspect in our Baptist world. One of their sons was the same age as I and we became friends. I’ll never forget my Grandmothers reaction when she learned I had gone to church with him on a Saturday afternoon. I thought I would get extra credit for the additional time in church but she scolded “You didn’t pray to Mary did you? We don’t pray to Mary! We pray to Jesus!” The message was very clear--I had truly done something wrong by just being in a Catholic church.
So I must begin this morning by noting God’s great sense of humor in that the first sermon I am preaching in my monastic journey is about Mary. To this day, in fact as recently as last week, I still get questions of concern from my family about just where Mary fits into my faith, my worship, and my devotion. So I’ve learned to give a very evangelical response. In the God said it, I believe it, and that settles it philosophy of my upbringing I just say “God’s Word says Mary is the favored one and that settles it for me”.
Today is known as the Annunciation, the announcement of a divine birth by the archangel Gabriel. Gabriel is quite busy in this opening chapter to Luke’s gospel. He makes two visits to announce two different births; that of John the Baptist and that of Jesus. The stories hold both remarkable similarities and remarkable differences. But aren’t we in the middle of Lent? Isn’t Holy Week and our commemoration of Christ Passion quickly approaching? Shouldn’t the announcement of Christ’ birth come at the beginning of Advent? Here lies another conundrum for one who grew up Baptist and has embraced Liturgy late in his Christian formation. A little math will help us. Christ birth is celebrated on December 25th. Backing up 9 months from there we land squarely on March 25th.
I have always heard the Annunciation as a story about Jesus’ divine incarnation. To me it had always been a story about the miracle of a virgin birth, about God becoming man, and about God coming to live on earth among us. Today, I am no longer convinced that was Luke’s only agenda. The story Luke tells is very much a family story. It is a story of family scandal.
It is the story of a teenage girl, betrothed to be married. Not engaged in our sense of romantic love and weddings. Betrothal was a family arrangement where two families unite together. For Mary to turn up pregnant before the marriage takes place would be devastating news to both patriarchal families. It would result in great shame, humiliation and dishonor. This is the backdrop for Gabriel’s news for Mary.
This is the backdrop when Gabriel speaks to Mary saying “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” At that moment Mary had none of the status symbols required of her society to deem her a “favored one”. She had neither husband nor child to validate her existence. She was among the powerless people of her society. She was young in a world that values age. She was female in a world ruled by men. She was poor in a stratified economy. To say that Mary was perplexed by Gabriel’s greeting is one of the greatest understatements of all time. Not to mention that Mary also had to wrap her mind around the fact she was holding a conversation with an Angel.
Add it all up and you’ll see the facts conspire against Mary being a favored one.
Today, many assume and some erroneously preach that those who God favors will be blessed with social standing, wealth and good health. To be favored by God is equated with the good life. Yet Mary, God’s favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock. And next week we will follow that child as he is executed as a criminal. Status, comfort and prosperity have never been the trademarks of God’s blessing. This is a family story of scandal. The story has become so familiar to us that is familiarity masks the scandal.
If we read further in this first chapter of Luke we would see that Mary immediately goes to visit her Aunt, Elizabeth, who is six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Again our familiarity with the story masks the scandal. Is this the story of a divine encounter between two mothers-to-be carrying infants with a divine mission? Or is this the story of a family sending a young teenage girl off to stay with a distant relative because of an untimely pregnancy? Or is it a story about both?
Gabriel had a window into Mary’s mind and heart which is why he called her “favored one”. Under normal circumstances Gabriel’s announcement would have been devastating news. In calmness and composure Mary only asks one simple question; “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”. I wish we had time to set the annunciation story of John the Baptist, which occurs at the beginning of this chapter, side by side with Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary.
In a similar story Zechariah questions how Elizabeth, his wife, will be able to conceive a child. But Zechariah asks a very different question than that of Mary’s. He questions “How will I know that this is so?”. Both Zechariah and Mary want to know how God will overcome the obvious obstacles of the physical body; one of old age, another of virginity. But Zechariah’s question goes further. He asks for proof. He asks for a sign. He asks in disbelief. And the archangel Gabriel was not amused. Zechariah’s disbelief left him mute and unable to speak until after John’s birth.
We see into the mind and heart of Mary from her response to Gabriel’s reply to her. “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” If Mary embodies a family scandal she also exemplifies the obedience that should follow from blessing. In the Rule of Benedict, our model for obedience in the monastic life, it states that obedience itself is a blessing.
As I have prayed over these texts the past several weeks this is the passage that kept surfacing for me. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes” is unequivocal. It is an answer of profound faith. It is a statement of consent and of giving oneself fully to God. It is no-holds-barred obedience and the setting aside of her own fears and giving herself freely to God’s wishes. Her response was immediate. And in doing so Mary models for us detachment. She models for us the ultimate “letting go” of her concerns for herself and trusting God for the outcome.
The conundrum of this Advent story falling at the end of Lent is solved in seeing that the glory of Christmas and the glory of Easter are really about ordinary people saying “yes” to God. They are stories of what happens when we give our unequivocal consent. In doing so we are the ones scandalized as we allow God to lay full claim to our lives.
In Christ Name, Amen.