Advent IV, 2017
When our children were small, Susan began a tradition of giving them matching pajama sets for Christmas. Early on the tops matched the bottoms, with colorful polar bears, moose or snowmen. Of course as they got older, it was more fashionable, and practical to get t-shirts and contrasting pants. We’ve had varying success as they got older. I think the desire for tradition sometimes conflicts with young adult apathy. In recent years it has become increasingly hard to track down something that would fit the bill for a couple of twenty-somethings.
Every year Susan stresses about whether they’ll like them, if they’ll wear them and is it time to drop the tradition. Since they’re here, I’m not telling if the tradition continues! But here’s a warning, if it does, you better like them! Susan hit a homerun a couple of years ago when she found shirts that proclaimed: “Mom likes me best.”
For any that have ever encountered sibling rivalry, that simple phrase defines what so many of us seek, at any age, the favor of a beloved parent.
As we continue to explore single words of faith and scripture, our word this week is Annunciation. As is obvious the word means “the act of announcing or being announced.” Frankly it is seldom used outside of its biblical context; Gabriel appearing before Mary to announce the incarnation.
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Sounds like Star Wars doesn’t it. Listen to it in the King James: “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee.” Impressive, no?
Either way do you hear it? Mary is greeted as ‘the favored one.” What a divine opening line. Oh, would we not long to hear the same every once in a while? Twice Gabriel tells Mary she is in God’s favor. No doubt it came to Mary, as it might come to us, out of the blue. She is perplexed, “how can it be?”
Indeed, how can a young, poor village girl be favored by God? Karl Rahner, the great German priest and theologian put it this way: “If God’s incomprehensibility does not grip us in a word, if it does not draw us into his superluminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of our homely, close-hugged truths…we have misunderstood the words of Christianity.”
On the surface we hear the annunciation and smile. It means Christmas, baby Jesus, lovely young mother Mary, the “joy” of the season. On a second look, however, the word should scare us, “grip us,” as Rahner notes. For the Annunciation to Mary calls into question most of our pleasant assumptions on life.
Gabriel’s annunciation upsets the proverbial applecart of the world. Gabriel tells Mary the baby she will carry and deliver to the world will be Son of the Most High, he will sit on David’s throne and he will rule forever.
That’s scary. Its scary because it means that God’s favored one, Mary, shows no outward signs of her favored status. She is not rich. She is not a princess. Mary is not the pinnacle of political power. She is not even in what we seek to so desperately cling to, the middle. In fact she is the opposite, she is the bottom. And she does not even have a “God likes me best” t-shirt.
In the world today, it is often assumed that God’s favor is earned by our good behavior. In this thinking, God shows favor to those who “give” something to God in either the political or moral arena. In effect, the ones blessed, favored by God, are the ones who have the power to bless God back. That type of quid pro quo works in economic theory and industry. It does not work in the gospel story.
In the Nativity narrative, Luke shows us Mary as thoughtful, obedient, believing, worshipful, pious and devoted to Jewish law. In Acts Luke names her as one of the company of believers at the foundation of the church. One scholar has even declared Luke’s Mary as the perfect Christian. Each of those qualities is an avenue for blessing God. However, not one of those qualities is cited as the reason God favored Mary.
Theologian Robert Tannehill suggests that God chose Mary because she has nothing. She is a young girl in a society that values men and maturity. In her magnificent song responding to the annunciation, Mary identifies herself as lowly and poor.
Mary is not favored in the human realm. Still God has shown favor with her. In her Magnificat, Mary will sing of the great reversal this Divine favor shows the world. God’s coming reign will be of justice and favor for all people. The reign of the Prince of peace and salvation is embodied in God’s choice to pour out the divine Spirit upon Mary to transform all the world.
Annuciation is scary to any of us that seek to live and believe on a pedestal above others. It should scare us when we start climbing the ladder of personal piety by charting our “good works.” It should scare us when we start equating our possessions as signs of God’s blessing. It should scare us when we slip into believing if we just prayed harder God will tilt the world as we wish to see it.
That Mary is the favored one, more often than not means that our gaze ought to be directed down, toward the least, the broken, the downtrodden; rather than up toward powerful princes. William Sloane Coffin noted: “To believe you can approach transcendence without drawing nearer in compassion to suffering humanity is to fool yourself. There can be no genuine personal religious conversion without a change in social attitude.”
The Gospel in Solentiname is a journal of reflections on the Gospel among the campesinos – the farmers and fisherfolk who live in the country around Lake Nicaragua. As they discuss Gabriel’s Annunciation of Mary’s favor, they hear the angel’s greeting extending to them as well. They hear the savior will be born among the poor, among them. “It’s not the rich but the poor who need liberation,” says one.
“The rich and the poor will be liberated,” answered another. “Us poor people are going to be liberated from the rich. The rich are going to be liberated from themselves, because they are slaves to their wealth.”
And this, ultimately, is what makes the word Annunciation Joy to the World. For it throws open the door of divine welcome for all, not simply those we, in our broken, flawed human accounting system, deem worthy. But instead, all, for God has sent the Son to all the world. The annunciation favors each of us with breaking the chains that imprison us: prisons of rivalry, of hatred, of politics, of wealth, of poverty, of gender inequality, of the past and of the future.
Such freedom comes with but one task, the same as Mary’s task, it is not to judge and account, to not keep score and record, but rather to be ready. Simply to be ready when annunciation comes into our lives. For surely it will, just as it has every year! Indeed, every day.
A poem by Ann Weems captures the posture for which we too must wait for the annunciation:
Mary, Nazareth Girl
What did you know of ethereal beings
with messages from God?
What did you know of men
when you found yourself with child?
What did you know of babies,
you, barley out of childhood yourself?
What did you know of God
that brought you to this stable
blessed among women?
Could it be that you had been ready
for the footsteps
of an angel?
Could it be there are messages for us
if we have the faith to listen?