What if this story is all about Mary’s brain?
The beats of today’s Gospel reading are familiar to most of us. Here at the Monastery, we recount them in the Angelus, which we pray before Morning and Evening Prayer. “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary . . .” pause, “and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
So much happens in that pause. And what if it’s all about Mary’s brain?
Of all the young women God could have chosen, God chose Mary. And what is the first thing we find out about her? That she hears the angel’s news, is perplexed, ponders over his words, and questions him. The first thing we find out about Mary is that she responds to God by using her own God-given faculties of reason and intelligence.
Byzantine writer Nicholas Mesarites provides a cognitive description of this episode: “The word comes to the hearing of the Virgin, and enters through it to the brain; the intelligence which is seated in the brain at once lays hold upon what comes to it, recognizes it by its perception, and then communicates to the heart itself what it had understood.” This then leads Mary to question the angel to determine the truth of the angel’s words. Only after she verifies the truth does Mary gives her yes to the angel, and to God.
This was not Mary’s first choice. I mean that in two ways. Firstly, Mary is old enough to have made many choices before this. She has obviously committed to the love of her life, Joseph. And she is old enough to have made endless smaller, daily choices like we all make as we navigate our way through the day: decisions about where we go and what we do, the people with whom we communicate, and how; decisions about the work of our hands, our rest, our diet, our dress; our thoughts, our prayer. Lots of choosing this or choosing that, each and every day. When the angel Gabriel calls on Mary with an invitation, this is not her first choice, not her first time of choosing something for her life. She has plenty of experience.
And secondly, this also is not Mary’s first choice, given the impossible plan the angel Gabriel is proposing: that Mary become pregnant in an unimaginable and culturally inadmissible way, prior to being married to Joseph. That is not Mary’s first choice. I infer this because her immediate reaction is fear, and her second reaction is incredulity: “How can this be?” Then, for reasons we are not explicitly told, she ultimately says “yes” to Gabriel’s announcement.[i]
For the feast of the Annunciation
It is a particular joy of mine to celebrate the various feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and especially today’s feast of the Annunciation. I grew up in a parish dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, and both parishes in which I served had small churches dedicated to her. The joy, however, is not about much loved buildings, as it is because of what we say, and believe about Mary, and her role in the mystery of the Incarnation. What we say, and believe about her, says a great deal about the mystery of God, and our vocation as Christians.
Feast of the Annunciation
God’s invitation and Mary’s “yes,” which we celebrate today, began a journey. Pregnancy and birth both wondrous and shameful. Surprising shepherds and sages. Simeon said amazing things about Jesus and then to Mary: “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”[i]
Jesus was born into, lived, and died in community: family, neighbors, friends, and through it all, his mother Mary. She and Joseph anxiously searched three days for 12-year-old Jesus when he went missing. At the wedding in Cana, Mary prompted about the wine running out. Perhaps a push and pull, the mother encouraging her son to live into his vocation.
At the cross, Mary and the beloved disciple stood before Jesus. “Woman, behold your son. … Behold, your mother.”[ii] Perhaps Jesus is focused on giving her into the care of his friend. But what if Jesus speaks first of himself? “Woman, behold your son.” Look at me.
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.’
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.
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.