A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
[2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38]
Mary said, “Yes.” Mary said, “Yes;” and as a result nothing has been the same.
I did not grow up in a religious tradition that took Mary very seriously. Part of that stemmed from how frequently the Blessed Virgin was cast into a plastic statue and painted in safe, pastel colors. The less reactive alternative to this was simply to acknowledge that she was the mother of Jesus. So, between the two extremes so typical of a generic Protestant and Catholic outlooks, I have over the years come to recognize and appreciate the fact that the Christian tradition needs to honor Mary with the highest respect and admiration. Yet, more than this obligatory nod in her direction (especially at this time of the year), I realize more clearly that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the model for the church; and you and I are the church.
So, what can we take from Mary as our model and our guiding partner, as we strive to be faithful members of Christ’s Body?
On this 4th Sunday of Advent, in a liturgical year when in six hours we will reconvene to celebrate Christmas, we make time to pay attention to Mary. It is, I believe, important and necessary time.
As with so many of the Bible’s foundational figures, we don’t know very much about Mary’s life. Tradition claims that her parents were named Anne and Joachim, but the story behind this rendering suspiciously echoes the Old Testament’s account of the barren Hannah’s conception of the prophet Samuel [1 Samuel 1:2-2:12]. Added to this, Roman Catholic tradition has surrounded Mary with several unbiblical dogmas that may originally have been intended to protect her true and exceptional example but (in fact) have made her more of a rarified image. No matter: Mary said, “Yes.” This is the essential quality that we find in God’s “highly favored” one. Mary, in her humanity, said, “Yes” –yes to God; and that has made all the difference.
In St. Luke’s account of the “Annunciation” (the gospel for this year’s ironically overshadowed, if not hidden, Advent 4), we encounter Mary’s experience of her special ministry. The angel Gabriel appeared to her and greeted Mary: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Mary immediately recognizes that she is encountering holiness, that this angel Gabriel brings to her the reality of God; and to prove the point her response is cast with startled and wondering fear. In this, I do love the old, formal translation from the King James Version of Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s message. I love it because its formal cadences reveal where Mary is. The Authorized Version expresses this scene this way: And when she saw [the angel], she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. [Luke 1:29] Indeed she did!
Fear is Mary’s immediate response. I trust that you remember that I have posed to you many times before that fear is the opposite of faith; and it is, except that fear as that which drives us to run away is not the kind of fear that the Bible regularly speaks about as an appropriate response to God. Yes, in the presence of the Maker of heaven and earth, our knees understandably shake. No matter how tender we may feel about God, being in the presence of the Creator of all that is appropriately brings about a deep sense of awe, reverence. It is from this sense of profound reverence (with knees shaking, perhaps) that this faithful expression of fear stems.
So it is that the angel Gabriel eases Mary’s mind with the most important words all of us need to hear, when confronted by the awesome presence of God: Do not be afraid ... for you have found favor with God. [1:30]
Reverence for God and for the things of God: It can seem so old fashioned now to us in our digital age. But reverence allows us to be open to that which is larger than ourselves so that, as our baptismal vows put it, we may “respect the dignity of every human being”, including ourselves.
What does it take to respect and revere and to be open to the dignity of God in our midst? What are the consequences of this disposition?
Acknowledging her faithful fear, the angel informs Mary of the details for his appearance. She will conceive in her womb and bear the Son of God. As a result, in the Orthodox Christian tradition, Mary is called the “Theotokis,” the “God-bearer.” And it is in this Mary vocation that Mary embodies the ministry and spiritual life we all are called to. This is to say that in our own way, in our own lives – male and female, we are to carry God’s Son into the world, bringing God’s life into this world. We in our own way are to bear the Christ in our own time and place. And with this purpose, we echo Mary’s own question: “How can this be …?”
To the “how can this be?” question, the question that is on Mary’s lips and any and all lips that dare to enter into this sacred conversation, the answer comes in this form: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you …” [1:35]
The terms “come upon” and “overshadow” are intimately related. They create beautiful images of a presence that yearns to fill us, complete us. (Do note that the term “come upon” is the same used in the Acts of the Apostles, when the Holy Spirit “comes upon” the huddled and fearful disciples and transforms them, fills them with the God-life and makes them into vibrant representatives of Jesus’ resurrection.)
And consider the transforming experience of being overshadowed, not by a competitor, not by a predator, not by an enemy but by God. What does it mean and what is it like to be living in God’s shadow, rather than someone else’s shadow or by the shadow of death? It means new and surprising life.
This is “how” we become carriers of God and bearers of the God-life. We make room for God in our souls and welcome being overshadowed by the Maker of heaven and earth. And we take strength and comfort in living new life “under the [transcendent] shadow of his wings.” [cf., Compline, “Versicles and Responses”, BCP., p. 132]
Reverent openness, even as we tremble; A willingness to have God’s shadow cast over us so that we may, indeed, bear the God-life physically, emotionally, and spiritually within us: These are two of the qualities that the Blessed Virgin Mary holds up for us in her own life of faith and service. Yet, there is one more element.
When Gabriel explains that the product of her willingness to be “overshadowed” by God means that she will bear God’s Son and carry the God-life in human form, Mary seals the deal with these simple words: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. [1:38]
“Let it be …” This simple phrase holds a double meaning both for Mary and for us, too. On the one hand, “Let it be” are Mary’s words of confirmation and trust. She said, “Yes: Nothing is impossible for God – even this. I don’t understand, but I consent to the faithfulness of God.”
We would like to think and believe that Mary’s life, being so blessed, was “happy, ever after;” but a careful reading of the Bible quickly dashes such clap-trap. Mary’s “Yes” and her confirming “Let it be” represented her partnership with God in presenting the God-life; but that partnership suffered many tests along the way. No other indication of her steadfastness rises above her presence at the cross. Sometimes, the only thing any of us can do as God-bearers is to show up, be present, and share in labor’s birth pangs and the steadfast tending of new life. “Let it be according to your word” received its final and ultimate testing at the foot of the cross: a mother watching her son die. And even then and there, Mary did not run away.
Do not be afraid …
The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you… Let it be to me according to your word.
Mary said, “Yes” to God. May we, by God’s grace, do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.