On November 23rd I introduced the season of Advent (questioning Christmas) the start of the church year and a time for preparing our hearts and minds for the celebration of Jesus birth. As a change from the traditional advent themes (hope, peace, joy, love) I have selected the traditional Carmelite themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing (as suggested here) for a series of Advent reflections. This week I (and hopefully you will join me) reflect on accepting, inspired by Luke: 26-38.
Luke 1: 26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then 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.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. via (bible.oremus.org)
I wish Mary was alive today so that we could be friends. I suspect she and I would get on well from the peeks into her personality that Luke offers us. From what Luke does say we see a young girl who probably had introverted thinking tendencies, with a deep sense of calm that I find attractive. We are shown a girl who doesn’t just blindly accept things as they are, she is intellectually active and curious. We see this demonstrated in a verse that I have always liked, Luke 2:19 “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I think like me she was someone who has to chew things over in her mind, probe, figure things out, perhaps she was a thinker a ponderer, a wonderer.
Unfortunately so much myth and legend has been built up around Mary that we will never know what she was truly like. If only Luke had spent more time on her story so that we could know her better. She is often held up as a role model for acceptance and willingness, and often portrayed as passively submissive to God’s will. I am not sure that she was as submissive as the stereotype suggests, as I can see lots of hints in Luke 1 that challenge that assumption. When she is greeted by the angel Gabriel she is perplexed (or some translations have confused and disturbed).
How encouraging Mary is to those who of who spend lots of time being perplexed, confused and disturbed, by the things that God says.
She also seems quite courageous to me. There is a magnificent awe inspiring angel in front of her bringing messages from God and she is a young girl with a low status in society and she is actually brave enough to point out the problems with the plan. “You think I am going to have a baby but I am a virgin how does that work Gabriel?”
Luke has set this story up so that we immediately compare and contrast with the angel’s visit to Zechariah. On the surface both Mary and Zechariah respond with questions. But we can tell by the angel’s different response that they must have completely different attitudes. You can just hear poor Zechariah who had perhaps already accepted his childlessness, saying “But God? How is that going to work? What a relief it is to know that despite Zechariah’s response, God in his grace is still active in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives.
My responses are so much more like Zechariah’s than Mary’s my questions come demanding answers and with a tinge of doubt. My acceptance of God’s activity so often becomes dependent on my understanding. I need to understand the big picture, I need to understand how God is at work in the world today, I need to understand how I can use my gifts, I need to understand how I can use my questions. All summed up in that plaintiff cry that I have uttered so many times “But God, I need to understand”.
But Mary didn’t let her questions, doubts, and concerns get in the way of accepting God’s invitation. Mary didn’t need to put her questions aside or stop her investigations or find all the answers to accept God’s invitation. To any of you who have been told that you ask too many questions, or to stop asking questions, be comforted as you meet Mary here in the pages of the Bible. She held her questions, she kept them close and pondered them for YEARS, but she was able at the same time to accept this unexpected, complex mystery of God being at work in the world and at work in her. She had the ability to hold her willingness and her questions together, one did not cancel out the other.
Mary would have had limited understanding of what was to come and limited resources that she could offer. Yet she was still able to give the powerful response of “Here am I, the servant of the Lord”. She doesn't say (as perhaps I would) yes I will do it, what do you want me to do now, and already be halfway on the road to make it happen.
Her acceptance says here am I, full of questions and wondering but still willing. Her acceptance says here am I, with little resource beyond who I am. Her acceptance offers her own self just as she is, not the tasks that she can achieve.
Perhaps the most powerful thing we can say to God as we prepare for Advent is here am I, messy, depleted, full of questions and full of doubts, but still willing. For your thoughts over the next week:
What does it mean to accept that the best we have to offer God this Advent is not our resources, our training, our sense of vocation, it is not our gifts or the gifts we make to others, but is simply us?