The Rev'd A.K.M. Adam
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 24, 2017
But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— Amen.
This time of year can be hard on lecturers in New Testament studies. Chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Advent Prose being sung by the choir, and nobody really wants to hear about how there were either shepherds or magi at the Nativity, but not both, or about the number of magi there were, or about the lexicography of the Greek and Hebrew words for ‘virgin’. This season welcomes warm fireplaces, candlelight services, and a shared sense that everyone knows the story that begins this morning, and unfolds tonight at Midnight Mass. Even many otherwise-grouchy secularists succumb to the glamour of Nativitytide, and in many respects it is a good thing that these days offer the world a sense that this annunciation, this birth belong to the common knowledge of so many of the people around us: the common knowledge that the birth of Jesus, for which we wait with eager longing, was described in advance by prophets, and that this specific birth occurred among us in such detailed congruence with those prophecies that any semiliterate observer could tell that ALL THIS WAS ABOUT JESUS THEREFORE YOU MUST BELIEVE. Such a reading of Luke’s story — not even a ‘reading’ so much as a general perception — makes it more difficult to read how baffling the Annunciation’s message was to Mary, and more difficult to grasp her response of faith to Gabriel’s greeting.
We can easily enough imagine a Common Knowledge Mary responding to the archangel as if she had won the theological equivalent of the National Lottery. ‘Oh my goodness,’ she might say with a scrupulously minced oath, ‘can it be that I’m the one about whom Isaiah prophesied?’ ‘It’s about time to crush that ancient serpent’s head!’ She might pull from the folds of her robe a printed tract with a checklist of anticipatory signs, the better to know What To Expect When You’re Expecting The Messiah.
Luke doesn’t tell us that story. Mary, in our readings this morning,. doesn’t already know what Gabriel is talking about. Later tonight, she won’t say ‘Well, of course there are choirs of angels and a crowd of reverential agricultural labourers, duh!’ She won’t in a few years, scold Joseph, saying ‘Why were you searching for him? Did you not know that he must be in his Father’s house? Our Lady, recipient of an angelic revelation and explanation, treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart remains almost as uncertain as all the other characters who populate Luke’s Gospel.
In other words, in Luke’s words, ‘she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.’ And we, and the world, could enter more fully into Luke’s gospel were we to allow ourselves a higher degree of puzzlement as we observe more closely the unfolding of God’s ways walking through these closing hours of Advent with Mary.
For instance, if we were a little more perplexed by Gabriel’s message, we might show more patience to our Jewish neighbours and colleagues, to Abraham and his descendants forever, and to most of the rest of the world, who see no convincing reason to suppose that this bleak midwinter night differs from any other evening you picked out of a hat. Our Lady’s perplexity testifies to us that the meaning of Jesus’s advent is not simply transparent, to be read directly off the pages of familiar prophecies. With a greater appreciation for perplexity, we might be readier to recognise in tonight’s holy goings-on more of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, to which the Apostle refers in our Epistle reading. Made more aware of our own proclivity to self-deception and misapprehension, we might be slower to scold sceptics and swifter to show sympathy to neighbours who find our devotion to Jesus as bewildering as Mary found the greeting from Gabriel.
Even more, though, we might find in perplexity an entryway, a permission to let our faith STEEP IN WONDER without jumping prematurely to dogmatic conclusions. In this morning’s reading from II Kings, Nathan receives God’s promise to David that David’s name will be made great, that he will be made the eponymous head of an everlasting dynasty — and the church affirms that these promises have been realised in Jesus. But God also promises David that Israel would be disturbed no more, that no evildoers would afflict them, that they would at long last have rest from their enemies — promises that sound more distant today than they might have even a few decades ago, and that look no closer to fulfilment now than in David’s own day.
And a short while ago we sang ‘Tell Out, My Soul’, Mary’s hymn of thanksgiving that she had been uniquely blessed by this extraordinary conception, that God had wrought a great wonder with her, and that generation after generation would remember her with reverent devotion. At the same time, though, she saw the proud scattered, the mighty dethroned, and the rich deprived; and she saw the humble and meek in power, the hungry amply fed. The daily news, though, suggests that wealth and privilege and surfeit have only been amplified, often at direct cost to the health and well-being of the muscles that build, the backs that bend, the bones that break, the bodies that burn out in burden-bearing. We misread Luke’s Gospel if we see in this morning’s lessons a message of prophecies gloriously fulfilled, without at the same time sharing Mary’s bewilderment when we see promises unfulfilled, dreams deferred so long that we need prophets to remind us that the promise of Jesus’s incarnation came along with promises of righteousness, healing, and nourishment.
This, too, we may hear from today’s lessons, for when Mary rejoiced at the greatness of the LORD, she did not simply congratulate herself for having been chosen as Miss Theotokos of 4 BCE; she did not tick off one from her pocket florilegium of messianic proof-texts. Mary’s response to Gabriel — her explicitly stated consent, her faith — expressed itself bodily, incarnationally, in LIVED TRUST that God would support her through the challenges to come.
Now, I’m a great one for words. I write with them; I exchange them with Margaret; I compose them into lectures and sermons. And the way that words help us navigate a complex world with exactitude can tempt us to think that if something doesn’t have words attached to it, then maybe it doesn’t count as much, and to think that maybe strictly verbal formulations of events and circumstances matter most of all, standing in pure ideal abstraction, purged of the messy details of intoxicating feelings, of awkward contingencies, fallible flesh. And yes indeed, Mary said, ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ Yet had she offered only abstract agreement to Gabriel without actually, you know, bearing this holy child in her womb, something essential would have been missing from the Incarnation — something such as ‘incarnation’ itself.
In a similar way, the promise that righteousness pour down from the heavens, that the mighty be relegated to the margins and the humble raised to authority depends not solely on our approval, saying ‘Yes, God, good policy decision there,’ but also on our living that way, bearing in our flesh the beginnings of a new way in the world without any certainty that we control what will happen next, that we will enjoy seeing how the story comes out, that we can shape our lives to sing Magnificat truthfully without it costing us anything. One of the consequences of Mary’s Yes, after all, was the sword that pierced her heart at the crucifixion; the promise to Mary comes to its fulfilment in ways that perplex us, that escape our expectations, that serve a purpose higher and holier than the devices and desires of our own hearts.
If that gospel lesson were common knowledge, if we said Yes bodily to the angels who call us daily to join in their adoration and obedience, we might sooner show the world a fulfilment of Mary’s vision in cleaer, more radiant light. We can bear in our flesh — indistinctly at first, haltingly, uncertainly — we can embody the birth an uncommon knowledge, holier and more glorious ways in life, offering to God our selves, our souls and bodies, fulfilling faith with our own words:
‘Here are we, the servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.’