The holiday season is in many ways a season of choices: Which gifts to buy, which charities to give to, which cookies to make and what to serve for the feast, and — in a normal year, at least — which invitations to accept and which to politely decline. It’s a season when we all become increasingly aware that every “yes” we make is a “no” to something else. This is especially true this pandemic year when even basic decisions are weighed with considerations about exposure risks for ourselves and loved ones, isolation requirements, and public health measures insisting we all stay home as much as possible. And so we need to discern what we need to say yes to and what we need to say no to. And to make our “yes” count.
And so, while in some ways today’s Gospel reading, where the angel Gabriel lets Mary in on her role in God’s plan for her and the world, feels a bit out of place here at the end of Advent — either nine months late or three months early — in other ways it fits pretty perfectly. What better time to reflect on Mary’s decision to accept her unique vocation than right when we are about to see that decision bear fruit? And, what better time to reflect on choices in general than when we are just ten days away from the start of a new year? If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity for us to resist the gravity that is pulling us into the “Spirit of Christmas,” and pause today to let the “Spirit of Advent 4” speak to us.
At first glance, the Annunciation is a lovely scene: A young woman in a small town far from the seats of power in the world is going about her day as usual. Then an angel comes and announces to her good news: She has found such favor with God that she will be a mother and her son will save the world! She says “Here I am, the handmaiden of my Lord: May it be to me according to your word.” Peace and happiness abound. Joy to the World!
But of course this is a naive reading of the story. It’s actually quite a jarring scene. Even ignoring the fact that angelic visitations are by all accounts horrifying experiences, this angel is turning Mary’s entire world upside down and, truth be told, putting her life in great danger. While Gabriel’s message for Mary is certainly good news for us, its ‘goodness’ is far less certain for her. She is engaged to be married to Joseph, but she is not married yet. Saying “yes” to God’s plan will leave her an unwed, pregnant teenage girl, powerless in the world and without protections. The best outcome she could expect would have been shame and social rejection, and serious injury, if not death, at the hands of an angry mob, was certainly on the table.
And so Mary faces a real dilemma; God has put her in a very difficult spot. Accepting this news from Gabriel as Good News entails a lot of personal risk. The old saying, “If this is how God treats God’s friends, I’d hate to see how God treats God’s enemies,” comes to mind. It’s important not to lose sight of what was at stake for Mary. Saying “yes” to God meant saying “no” to another life — a life that offered a lot more security and safety, and even normalcy to it than this grand adventure Gabriel’s message sets off in her life.
Of course, Mary does say “yes.” Her “Here I am! May it be to me according to your word” has resonated for two thousand years in the hearts of women and men alike as a profound “yes” of the heart to whatever God has in store. She has become the icon, example and paradigm of the ideal human response to God.
Most of us don’t have the privilege, terrifying as it may be, of a visit from an angel, and so understanding what God’s will for us might be is a lot more complicated. We’re left sifting through all the conflicting and contradictory pieces of data about our lives trying to find the pattern, seeking the signal in the noise. It takes a lot of patience and humility.
But most of us have felt called or pulled by God at one time or another to something. A ministry in the church perhaps; a pull toward marriage or baptism; a new job; a return to education. Sometimes the sense of calling offers no real choice at all: a sick child or a loved one who needs a caregiver, for example. But the point is, there will come an unexpected call to make a decision that’s going to make a huge change in our life. We go over and over the possibilities, trying to figure out what the “right” choice is going to be or how to make the reality of what we are called to do work in our lives. And chances are, beyond the first step or two in that direction, things get awfully hazy and indistinct. It’s uncomfortable at best, most of the time it’s completely terrifying — just as terrifying as an angelic visitor.
So what, if anything, might we take from Mary’s example this morning? Who is this Mary who said “Here I am! May it be to me according to Your will”? And in what way might she be an example for us when faced with decisions, big and small?
The text of course doesn’t tell us much about what Mary was thinking in the moment. We can get a sense of her apprehension but that’s about it. But, a few months later, Mary travels to see her cousin Elizabeth, and Mary is overcome with joy and the Spirit and proclaims the song we call the Magnificat, which gives us a window into her heart and mind:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
As she goes on, it becomes clear that while she is aware of the impact of all this on her own life, she is also deeply aware of how her story connects with the story of her people. Her hymn finishes with the lines:
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.
One of the oldest traditions surrounding Mary suggests this isn’t an accident: that she grew up hearing the stories of God’s faithfulness to her parents Joachim and Anna, who like so many of Israel’s heroes, waited patiently into old age for the gift of a child. The tradition goes on that Mary was raised in and around the Temple grounds, surrounded by holy things and bathed in the stories and psalms of God’s faithfulness and that of the patriarchs and prophets. And so, when Gabriel appears, Mary knows she’s not the first person God has called to an impossible and risky decision, to a “yes” that means saying “no” to so much. She would have grown up hearing of Abraham’s bold and faithful decision to leave his tribe, homeland and gods, to say “yes” to God’s invitation and promise. She would have grown up hearing about the faith of Moses’ mother, who entrusted her child entirely to God, and the faith of Moses who grew up to say “yes” to God’s call to stand up against Pharaoh and the oppression of his people. She would have grown up hearing of Hannah’s faithful waiting on God for a child; and how when her son Samuel heard the Lord call to him he too responded “Yes: Speak for your servant hears.” She would have grown up hearing of Isaiah’s response to God’s prophetic call: “Here I am; send me.”
And here Mary’s response to God echoes theirs, down even to the level of the words she chose. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah all heard God call them by name, and all responded with the same words: “Here I am.” In contrast to Adam, who, when God called for him, “Where are you?,” in the Garden, answered, “I was afraid so I hid;” when God called these faithful souls, they each choose to present themselves before God: “Here I am.” They all chose to show up. And as we’ve seen time and time again the past few months, this is the very definition of faith.
Every one of these heroes of the faith — broken, sinful, problematic people as they were — humbly chose the hard way of faith. They all said “yes” to God, trusting God’s power and faithfulness. And so, Mary presents herself as one more faithful servant and she joins the ranks of those humble, faithful people. She might wish for more details or some assurance that her risk will pay off, but her faith is greater than her worry. “Here I am,” she says, with Abraham and Moses and Samuel and Isaiah. “May be it be to me according to Your will.”
Like Mary, we are part of this bigger story of faith. Like her, we can be intentional about using this story to shape our own. We can ask ourselves: What are the stories we remember and tell ourselves? What are the stories we allow to shape and form our attitudes about the world, about what is ‘normal’ and about what is good, true and beautiful? Who do we take as our examples? What are we doing in all of the little choices we make every day to prepare our hearts for that day when we will be faced with a big, life-altering choice?
In other words, we can use the examples of those women and men of faith who have gone before us — that constellation of bright stars I reflected on the other day — to prime and prepare our hearts so that in that moment, we will have the courage, conviction, and focus to follow through and say: “Here I am;” “Yes;” “Send me;” “May it be to me according to Your will.”
This is the movement of faith. And we make it trusting that God is faithful, that our “Here I am!” will be met, aided, and embraced by God, the one whose comfort is Presence — “Here is your God!” — whose identity is Presence — “I am what I am and will be what I will be” — and whose greatest revelation is Presence: “Immanuel: God is with us.”
And so, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, as we count down with expectation to the coming of our Lord, may we, like Mary and all the faithful who went before her, have the courage and faith to say yes to God’s call for our lives, in the big ways and in every moment.
May it be to us all according to God’s will. May the Spirit of Advent 4 be with us all.