December 18, 2011
William G. Carter
Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
If an angel appears and announces you are pregnant, what are your options? You can question the announcement, but there is no assurance that you will receive a satisfying answer. You can say, “You’ve got the wrong person,” but it sounds as if God’s mind is already made up.
You are free to disagree and declare, “No thanks, I don’t want any part of this.” But the angel knows the pregnancy is already a done deal. The decision has been made. All you can do is come to terms with what has already been decided.
The first announcement of Christmas is given to a young girl in the northern hills. She has never been pregnant before. She has no first-hand knowledge of what this will demand of her. There is no evidence that she wanted a baby, or that she had any plans other than to marry Joseph someday.
The angel says God has a mission to the world and that her womb is central to the plan. Mary is going to have a baby. It will happen without Joseph’s assistance. God has decided to make it so. The Holy Occupation Plan begins with Mary, and just now she is notified. She’s going to have a baby because God has decided it. Doesn’t sound like she has a lot of options.
It is hard for us to sand away the varnish of traditional piety. If we can, what we discover is a story of how God gets his way. At least, that’s what strikes me this time through the Annunciation story. Everything the angel says is in the character of an announcement. Gabriel is God’s press agent. “Here is what God is going to do,” he says. “This is who the child shall become.” When she stammers out the question, “How can this be,” Gabriel declares, “This is the kind of God we have, with whom nothing is impossible.” That is, if God wants something to happen, it is going to happen.
Many of the poets and hymn writers have construed this text as a conversation with some give and take. But the angel Gabriel does not knock on the door and wait to be permitted inside; he goes right in. When he talks with Mary, Gabriel gives no wiggle room. The announcement is made and the angel does not ask how she feels about it. No, the statement is brief: you will conceive in your womb and bear a son. God says so. And by the way, don’t bother to send Mary one of those pink and blue books that list possible names for the child; God has already named the boy before he is born.
The annunciation is a story of how God gets his way. God wants to send Jesus into the world. God doesn’t ask permission, because it is God’s world. Mary is made in God’s image. How can she resist the announcement? How could she ever say no?
We pray on a regular basis for God's will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” From the sounds of today’s text, the will of God is inevitable. That seems to be the lesson. Christmas is something God wants to do in the world. It begins in a small town, in the little town of Nazareth. That’s up north, off the beaten path. It was not a place where the important people lived or passed through. God chooses to work off the map, so to speak.
The word is given to young Mary. Assuming she was a child of her times, we know something about her life. She was not educated. A young Jewish girl had no career options. She had no public voice in a men-only culture. If she went to the synagogue to keep Sabbath, she sat in the hidden balcony with the other females, offering her prayers out of sight. Her whole life was off the map, until God shines the spotlight upon her for a dozen or so Bible verses. Her obscurity seems to be an important factor in God’s selection. Her world would never notice her – except that God sends the angel to declare, “Hello, favored one. The Lord is with you.” Nobody told God to do that; even in Mary’s obscurity, she was already noticed by the angels.
I think of this every year when we wade this far into December. A lot of people who celebrate Christmas know very little about Christmas. It is possible to observe a completely secular Christmas – celebrate fat meals that are not available to the hungry, sing songs about reindeer and cold winter nights, push the piles of mammon in a wobbly cart around Walmart, and generally wear ourselves out. Holy Day is downgraded to mere holiday. We can grumble about the godlessness of all this, even if it’s the same godlessness that has infected our bloodstreams.
What we are missing is that God’s work is inevitable. Christ comes to the world whether anybody wants him or not. Mary will have her baby even though, as far as we know, she never actually asked for a baby. Gabriel sings of the significance of a Child who comes to rule forever, even in a world that is not particularly asking Jesus to rule over it. Still he comes – the Christ Child comes. He comes whether we are ready or not.
Now, I know. It is awkward to talk this way. Some people talk as if God has had everything planned out. If they have any faith, it’s boiled down to a kind of fatalism. Like the old Scot Presbyterian who fell down the steps, brushed himself off, and said, “Glad that is over with.”
It is a great comfort to think God has a plan for every situation and every moment. Then, when something happens, you can lean back and say, “It must have been God’s will.” Hurricanes, for instance. Or severe illness. Some people acquiesce and say, “Those things must be God’s will.”
It bothers me to have some things described as “acts of God,” when they simply look like acts of destruction. I remember a man who could only make sense of 9-11 if he declared, “It was an act of God.” Privately I thought he should leave God out of it and go talk to a grief counselor. There were people hijacking those planes who wanted to kill and destroy; the God and Father of Jesus Christ was not behind their plan.
Whatever else we can say, whether well-intentioned or casual, we have to leave some room in our thinking for people who trip over their own feet, or for people so tormented by life that they hijack planes, or even for the irrational power of storms and cancer cells. This is a busy and complicated world.
And yet, this is the same world where the angel Gabriel comes to announce there will be a baby boy. His birth will not be a random occurrence. His life will not be a haphazard mistake. There will not be a destructive urge within his heart. Jesus comes to rule without overpowering. He comes to make a constructive difference in a world that largely ignores him, among people who don’t often notice him.
And even if the powers and complications of this world should swell up to squelch him, he comes back with wounded hands to keep ruling and repairing, doing whatever it takes to win over one person at a time, providing quietly for those who need him most. This is why God sends Jesus into a world like this.
The first heart to win over will be that of his mother. It will not be enough for her to simply say, “Let it be.” God may be doing the hard work of reconciliation, but Mary will have the bloody work of labor. Will she have a choice in that? Not really.
But she does have a choice in how she will receive him. She can regard him as the unwanted child who disrupted her life. Or I suppose she could consider him as another extraordinary angel who should be protected from the world and all its pain. She does neither. She regards him as a gift from God, a gift to her and a gift to the world. And in complete obedience, she wants God’s will to be done on earth, her patch of earth, just as it is in heaven.
In a Bible study one time, somebody pointed out what Mary says to the angel – she does not say, “Let this be to me, according to your word.” If she says “to” that signifies passivity. As if to say, “I have no choice. I have no power in the matter.”
She also does not say, “Let this be for me, according to your word.” That would highlight the benefit of the baby, or at least the benefit of who he will become. That would be like saying, “OK, I will going through the pregnancy if I can get something out of it.”
Rather Mary says, “Let it be with me, according to your word.” With is a participatory word. It declares that Mary is going to take part in the pregnancy. She will be more than a mere vessel for the Christ child to come into the world. She chooses to be a partner in the process. God’s initiative in sending the baby will join with her willingness to welcome him. This birth is going to happen with her agreement, with her support, and with her trust. “Let it be,” she says.
With this in mind, let me suggest something for you to think about. In a deep spiritual sense, all of us are pregnant. God has planted within each of us a small seed of the Gospel. God wants to do something for the world through each one of us. God wants to birth the Good News, to birth an entire New Creation in Christ.
Yet it can only happen if God does this work with us. Saving the world is God’s good work. God has the whole thing planned out. For our part, it will be enough to say yes. To say, “Let it be -- with us -- according to your word.”
(c) William G. Carter
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