The scene we just heard from Luke’s gospel is a familiar one to us here at the monastery. We remember it twice a day, six days a week as we pray the words of The Angelus. Our tower bell rings the Angelus daily at noon, three hundred and sixty three days a year, silenced only to mark the solemnity of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
I confess that as I sat with it these past days, I struggled with its familiarity. Centuries of representation have layered upon the narrative the assumptions and preoccupations of so many ages. These layers of meaning tend to pile up, and Mary—the woman herself—often ends up lost in the various coats of semiotic varnish.
Think, for example, of the domesticated angels that litter Marian scenes—those chubby, adorable, benign little putti of the Italian renaissance who minister to Mary, Queen of some distant, unattainable heaven. “Mary on the half-shell,” as my friend Steph Budwey often calls this trope.
Or consider the many ways a cultural preoccupation with feminine submission speaks through the various portrayals of this very scene from Luke, and the ways such a preoccupation overshadows the very bold agency of a Mary who lays her doubt and concern at the feet of the messenger. How can this be? I am not yet married. This could be devastatingly scandalous. No, really God, how can this be?
I think it is important to let this moment startle us anew every time we hear it. For Mary is not any of these cultural projections; not merely a type; not merely a model of an unattainable gentleness or meekness; not some kind of surrogate for figures Venus, Brigid, or Minerva; and certainly not queen of some distant heaven.
For Mary is a woman. A flesh, blood, and soul woman. A woman caught, as are we, within the same messy, ill-defined workings of a sin-sick world. Poor, maligned, and subject to the same dangers and failings as we are. Tempted as we are to despair over our circumstances, our fragility, our inadequacy. How can this be?
Yet at the same time, a woman whom we believe to have borne in her body the very being of God, flesh, blood and soul; a vocation that doubtless exposed her female body to ridicule, danger, and scandal. A woman who still invites us to rely on and cooperate with the agency of God’s grace—for with God, nothing will be impossible. We remember her not for her accomplishments, or successes, or refinements, but for the grace of which she was (and continues to be) full. Hail Mary, full of grace.
God’s free grace. Grace, which armed her with a humility that would disarm the powers and principalities of the world and crown her queen not of some remote heaven, but of God’s new heaven-and-earth creation breaking in on our present darkness, even now.
The Annunciation is a familiar scene for us here at the monastery. We remember it twice a day, six days a week. It recalls for us that moment when God’s New Creation began to break into our world. A New Creation revealed not in kingly courts or around respectable tables. But within the messy, turbulent, and confusing life of an ordinary, flesh, blood, and soul woman.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners.
 Luke 1:34
 Luke 1:37
Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Those of you who have joined us at one point or another for one of our meals, will know that most of the time, on most days, we listen to the reading of a book during the meal. It’s only on Sundays, Tuesdays and some feast days that we share in conversation. A number of years ago, our book of choice was a little denser than we normally read at meals, as we read Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin. Mother of God was a heavy read, and as we joked at the time, in the end we knew more about Mary than she knew about herself! One of the underlying themes of the book was that before she became known as the Mother of God, before she became known as the Queen of Heaven, she was simply Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus. In essence, underlying all the titles, and the various devotions, that is who she was, and that is who she remains, Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that young girl of Nazareth. It is a feast not spoken of in scripture but one deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church from ancient times, and one which says as much about us, and our life in God, as it does about Mary herself, and her life in God. So while the focus today is on Mary, we see in her the source, and ground, of our own life of faith. In looking at Mary we gaze not outwardly, or even upwardly, but inwardly to our own adoption as children of God because it is there that we find Mary’s true vocation, and ours as well, to be the adopted daughters and sons of God.
(sermon for March 25, Feast of the Annunciation)
Isaiah 7:10-14 and Luke 1:26-38
In our readings on this Feast of the Annunciation, we have the story of two visitations: one to Ahaz, King of Judah, and the other to Mary, mother of our Lord.
In the first of these visitations, God promises, through the prophet Isaiah, to rescue Ahaz and the people of Judah from the hands of their enemies. They have only to put their trust in God and God will deliver them. Furthermore, God invites Ahaz to ask for a sign so that he will have no doubt or fear about placing his whole trust in God’s promise. Ahaz declines the offer, saying he does not want to put the Lord to the test. But what seems at first glance to be a humble and appropriate response is revealed instead to be a sign of the king’s stubbornness and resistance. Ahaz actually resents God breaking into his life; he prefers to make his own decisions and to map out his own path, and this stubbornness and pride leads to his destruction.
Mary also receives a visitation. God promises, through the angel Gabriel, to bless her with a son, who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” and through whom God’s people will be established forever. Mary’s response is the opposite of Ahaz’s. She accepts the intervention and the promise with openness and trust, and responds with those familiar words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
Two visitations. Two invitations to cooperate with God’s saving work and to reap the benefits of God’s promise. But two very different responses: one of resistance, the other of acceptance. One person says ‘No,’ while the other says ‘Yes.’
And the angel said, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Or, as another translation has it, “for no word from God will be without power.”These angelic words of assurance to Mary can sometimes pass our ears quickly. For my own part (depending on my state of mind), they not only pass my ears with haste, they manage to leave behind an echo that always seems to ring a little trite. Yet Luke begs us not to hear them with such haste or detachment.
The first chapter of Luke presents two annunciation scenes, one to Zechariah and one to Mary. Each angelic scene bears an almost identical, four-fold structure, the message with which Gabriel greets both Mary and Zechariah perplexes each of them, and it is my hunch that Luke places these two similarly constructed annunciations next to each other at the opening of his gospel for a reason.
Both Zechariah and Mary question Gabriel; yet the question asked by each is met with—we might be tempted to say—a somewhat disproportionate response. Mary receives a word of assurance, while the angel gives Zechariah not a word, but rather takes Zechariah’s words themselves from him.
In a fit of desperation, I asked God for a sign. A light, a feeling, a sound in the dead of one cold November night. I got nothing. But that nothing is the moment I have pointed to, for years, as the beginning of my conversion. Because, in retrospect, I don’t think I received nothing. I think I received silence.
1 Chronicles 15: 3-4, 15-15; 16: 1-2
Luke 1: 26-38
It is our custom here at the monastery to keep many Saturdays during the year as mini feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Lord. We do this, not because it is an ancient monastic tradition, although it is; rather it is an ancient monastic tradition because what we say and believe about Mary and her role in the mystery of the Incarnation says a great deal about the mystery of God and our vocation as Christians.
As you may know Mary has a variety of titles, and not just “blessed virgin” or “mother of God” or “mother of the Lord”. One of my favourite ones is “Ark of God”.
For the Israelites of the Old Testament, the Ark of God was a physical reminder of the presence of God it their midst. It was the Ark that rested in the very centre of the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies, and it was the Ark over which God’s glory hovered, for within the Ark was kept some manna from the wilderness; the two tablets of the Ten Commandments; and the staff of Aaron the High Priest.
Feast of the Annunciation
Isa. 7:10-14 and Luke 1:26-38
In our readings on this Feast of the Annunciation, we have the story of two visitations: one to Ahab, King of Judah, and the other to Mary, mother of our Lord.
In the first of these visitations, God promises, through the prophet Isaiah, to deliver Ahab and the people of Judah from the hands of their enemies. Furthermore, God invites Ahab to ask for a sign so that he will have no doubt or fear about placing his whole trust in God. Ahab declines the offer, saying he does not want to put the Lord to the test. But what seems at first glance to be a humble and appropriate response is revealed to be a sign of the king’s stubbornness and resistance instead. Ahab actually resents God breaking into his life; he prefers to make his own decisions and to map out his own path, and this stubbornness leads to his destruction.
Let’s imagine for a moment, that we live in a small village some 2,000 years ago. We’ve watched as days have grown shorter, the nights longer, and the weather colder. The last autumn harvest of olives and figs has come and gone, while the wheat and barley have been planted in hopes for a plentiful, fertile spring. But, this deepening darkness surrounding us seems to feed any shadows we may have in our hearts, planting seeds of fear, hopelessness and despair. The elders, the astrologers, they hold out hope. Now, they say, is the time to look for the signs of solstice, signs of the sun returning to lengthen the days and banish the darkness; to banish our fears, and renew our hopes that the wheat and barley weren’t planted in vain.
In various apocryphal writings of the early church, this young Mary is presumed to be about fourteen years old when the angel Gabriel visits her with the astounding news we’ve just heard. Mary is betrothed, not yet married. Betrothals, which were legal and binding, were usually arranged between families when girls were still quite young, not accustomed to making decisions for themselves. (1) With the angel’s announcement to her, she is perplexed. She gives some resistance. How this can be, she to be the birthmother of the Son of God? She questions this, and she is afraid, as well she should.
2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 18; Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38
Every year at this time I am caught off guard, and it happened again yesterday. For the last several weeks we have been reading lessons, which frankly can terrify me:
But the bridegroom replied, “Truly I tell you, I do now know you.1
You that are accursed depart from me, into the eternal fire prepared
for the devil and his angels.2
… for you do not know when the master of the house will come … [and]
he may find you asleep…. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.3
And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John the Baptist], and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.4
These gospel lessons, beginning toward the end of the Pentecost cycle are not all that fun to ponder. After all, who among us wants to be reminded week after week that it is quite possible to be denied, especially if we have denied; to be left out, when we have left others out; to fall asleep when we have been charged to keep alert.
But suddenly everything has changed, and I am caught off guard. It happened once again yesterday.
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the
son of Abraham.5
For the last several weeks we have been pondering lessons which point us to the coming of Christ at the end of time to be judge and ruler of all. Suddenly, suddenly our focus shifts and we are invited to ponder the coming of Christ, not in glory at the end of time, but in lowliness in time as the babe of Bethlehem. We are invited to ponder Jesus, not as judge, but as messiah; not as ruler, but as savior and we do that today by pondering the familiar story of Mary’s strange encounter with Gabriel; a story which we remember here at the monastery three times each day.
The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary:
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you….6
We remember this encounter because it both fulfills and begins a whole sequence of events reaching back to one garden and forward to another, from one tree to another: from Eden to Gethsemane; from the tree of life to the wood of the cross and beyond. Mary’s ‘yes’ spans time and space and opened her to become the temple of the Lord that David longed to build. In spite of David’s desire to build, it was in Mary that God chose to dwell, for the building blocks of the temple are not wood and stone and gold, but flesh and blood and a heart full of love. And that is precisely what God found in Mary.
By saying ‘yes’ to God and becoming the Mother of the Saviour, Mary made room for God not only in her womb, but in her heart. Because of this act of great love she became, as Orthodox tradition calls her, More Spacious than the Heavens for “He whom not even the universe could contain was contained within the womb of a virgin, making her more spacious than the Heavens.”7
David longed to build a temple fit for God to reside and in the heart of an unwed teenager, God found that temple not because she was a master builder in wood and stone but because she was a master builder in love.
Like that day two thousand years ago, God longs for a temple in which to reside. He longs for a temple, not of stone and light, no matter how glorious, but of flesh and blood and a heart of full of love. Like Mary, you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you8 for when you say ‘yes’ to God you open yourself to God and God’s glory abides in you; when you say ‘yes’ to God, the Word is made flesh and dwells among us.9
Although everyone loves a baby, Christmas is not actually about babies. Christmas is about saying ‘yes’ to God. Christmas is about making space for God. Christmas is about becoming God’s temple. Christmas is about becoming, like Mary, ‘more spacious than the heavens.’ Christmas is about opening the temple of your heart to the love, and life and light of God.
We have just a week to get ready for Christmas and there is a lot to do: there are presents to buy; trees to decorate; puddings and cakes and cookies to make; gifts to wrap; parties to attend; cards to send. But the most important thing to do is that there is a ‘yes’ to say and a temple to build.
Only you can say ‘yes’ to God and only you can open your heart to God. Only you can build that temple in your heart where the one whom the heavens cannot contain may dwell.
Two thousand years ago, Gabriel appeared to Mary looking for a heart of love where God might dwell, and all creation waited with bated breath for her ‘yes’. Today the sound of angel wings stir the air and Gabriel is once again looking for someone whose heart is full of love. Won’t you this Christmas open your heart to God and say ‘yes’ so that the Word might once more become flesh and dwell among us? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God and offer him the temple of your heart? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God and make space in your heart so that like Mary’s heart yours too will be more spacious than the heavens? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to Gabriel so that God’s light and life and love might dwell in you?
Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God? Gabriel and all creation are waiting with bated breath for your answer.