Poet Denise Levertov, recalling countless paintings of Mary and Gabriel, interprets the Annunciation in this way:
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
In today’s Gospel scene, Mary is so utterly normal. She’s just a poor, giddy young girl from Galilee, preparing for her upcoming marriage. And yet, to her out of all people throughout all history, God’s angel makes the visit.
And that angel, if we are to believe centuries of Christian art and Levertov’s poem itself, is as impressive as Mary is mundane. Like some mythic creature from Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’ Narnia, the winged angel enters into Mary’s abode, filling the space with light and promise.
If we were watching a Hollywood version of this scene, we’d expect Mary to stand transfixed and mesmerized, compelled to accept God’s offer of a Son. Yet to our astonishment, exactly the opposite occurs.
Two things are of stunning note in this story. First for whatever reason, God needs Mary. God relies upon her for his plan of salvation to move forward. And second, as Denise Levertov reminds us in her poem, God waits on an answer.
The angel offers, and then God waits. Gabriel’s master waits upon the decision of this poor, teenage child. The angel will not insist. God will not coerce.
Mary has her whole life ahead of her, a wedding and new household and all the unglamorous yet predictable and comforting years in Galilee. What the angel proposes is definitely not how Mary would have written the script. This is most definitely not the time to let the Spirit of God enter into her life and grow beyond her ability to control.
The Irish tell the story that the one night in all of history in which the stars stood still in the sky was when they held their very breath on the night of the Annunciation to see what Mary would say![i] (I love that image.)
At the moment of decision, with the angel, and God himself, waiting anxiously for her response, Mary breathes the last predictable breath of her life and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
As a result, in Mary’s life she will know sorrows deeper than words. But she will also know God and play her part in his salvation of the world. And she will be blessed.
Lest we forget, Mary’s is the second annunciation in Luke’s story. The first happens earlier in the first chapter of the Gospel, when Gabriel appears to Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth. (He was a busy angel in those days!)
Elizabeth is barren. She has never been able to have children, and now she is well past her child-bearing years. She is at that point in her life when she expects—and perhaps hopes—that surprises are over. She has weathered many storms and endured many things, and she is ready for predictability, if not ease. And yet, by the intervention of God she and her husband suddenly discover that they, in their mature years, are pregnant.
When Mary herself becomes pregnant, she visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is in the latter stage of her own pregnancy. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice approaching, Luke tells us, “The child [John the Baptist] leapt in her womb.”
Why does Luke emphasize Jesus’ virginal conception? The first and easiest answer is that it fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, cited by Matthew, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
But Luke’s Gospel, which we read today, doesn’t explicitly make this connection; only Matthew does. More likely, the parallelism for Luke is between Jesus’ conception and John the Baptist’s conception.
How are these two miraculous conceptions parallel? Elizabeth is old and barren. Mary is a youth and a virgin. And yet there the both of them sat, recipients of the impossible, given by God, with the world of their expectations shattered by the new lives tossing and turning in their wombs! The God of the Annunciation is nothing if not world-shattering.
What do these stories mean for us? Well, perhaps not unexpected pregnancies in the literal sense, but more generally it is all a matter of where God meets us in our mundane lives. If we are younger, closer to Mary, we have a lifetime of plans ahead of us, expectations for the way we want things to be and how we want things to turn out. If we are older, like Elizabeth, we may be at a point where we look back at a wealth of experiences, and perhaps struggles, and are ready for some predictability, if not ease.
But annunciations happen! Sometimes, God shows up with a message, and we have no control when. At sixteen, twenty-six, forty-six, or seventy-six, we may hear the rhythmic beat of angels’ wings just outside the window. No matter where we are in our lives, God can meet us, overturn our expectations, and do something miraculous.
To what might God be calling you? To what new place? To do what new thing? To serve in what capacity? To offer what word of grace?
Remember, there are two things of crucial note in this story. First, God needs us. It may be inexplicable to us, but God has created a world in which we are a necessary part of God’s plan for salvation. Without us, the preparation for the kingdom doesn’t happen. That should be sobering. Heck, it should be terrifying. But it should also remind us of the immense favor and value God bestows on us. On us—us—God chooses to rely. There is a role—perhaps a unique role fillable by no one else—for you, and for me. And when we respond, though we may experience pain and challenge, we will also know God and be blessed.
And second, though God’s need for our participation is real, God waits on our answer. We can—and often do, moment by moment—say no to God. The angel does not insist. God will not coerce. It is our decision.
We are at the end of Advent. In just four days, God will be born anew into our world. Light will shine in darkness. Angels will sing. Even now, as we prepare, Gabriel may be hovering just outside, waiting to fill our souls with the beckoning of God. There is anticipation in the air. The stars themselves hold their breath, hoping we will be willing to give up predictability and control, to give ourselves over to our part in God’s great story, and to say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”
[i] Herbert O’Driscoll shared this story with me. It was first told to him by his father’s farmhand, when Herb was a boy in Ireland.