Saturday, December 17, 2011

Let it be with me according to your word.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

I love this story because it illustrates Mary's humanity. An amazing thing is announced to her-- by an angel, no less-- and Mary reacts in a completely understandable way.

She's confused, and can't understand what is happening. Now, she doesn't scream, or run away, nor does it say that she doubts her sanity. But she does wonder what kind of greeting this is. What does it mean to be marked out by an angel as "favored?" Until this point, Mary was undoubtedly living a normal life, and suddenly is confronted with an apparition promising that God is with her and her life is going to change the world irrevocably.

The life she expected is no longer the life that is being predicted for her. Although a simple peasant girl, she is told that she will be the mother of One who will "restore the fortunes of Zion," one who will inherit the throne of the greatest of Israel's kings, and rule an unending kingdom.

How does Mary know that she can trust these promises? She doesn't really. "How can this be?" she asks. Oh, the angel points out the miraculous birth that is anticipated in her kinswoman Elizabeth's family. And yet, the announcements of miraculous births is certainly not limited in scripture to Mary. As the Angel Gabriel reminds her, Elizabeth's child is the result of a miracle. Isaac's birth to Sarah was certainly a miracle. My mother insists that my birth was a miracle, after 16 years of marriage and being told that she would never have children.

Mary is just like us. We like to think that today, believing in miracles is impossible. Even as Christians, many of us discount miracles as being allegorical in Scripture, or being descriptive of processes that today could be explained by science that was unavailable to those living in Biblical times. What was demonic possession in the year 25 of the common era we now describe as mental illness, for example.

We pride ourselves on being modern people immersed in a modern era. We think we live in a world circumscribed by natural laws that are immutable. And yet, miracles-- real miracles, not Tim Tebow's-leading-the Broncos-from-the-jaws-of-defeat-miracles, but-life-changing,glory-be-to-God miracles!-- happen even today. I mean, it probably COULD be called a miracle that I was not stopped for speeding this morning while trying to get my son to an appointment, and it probably COULD be called a miracle that it was only later I saw not one but FOUR police cars along that same deserted route, but once again the modern tendency toward hyperbole begs me to remind myself that we should be careful about diluting the meaning of important words, like love, or evil or miracle, through applying them where they do not belong. Miracles are rare. Miracles change the world.

Some miracles are incredible-- there's a Dutch parathlete named Monique van der Vorst who was an Olympic competitor in handcycling. She was involved in an accident with a bicycle last year, and afterwards, the feeling began to return to her feet and legs. Although she had been paralyzed from the hips down for 14 years, since she was 13 years old, she is now not only walking but is attempting to transition to being an athlete on the Rabobank women's professional bicycling team. No one can explain how she regained the full use of her legs. Then there's the story of Gabrielle Giffords. Although shot in the head from close range, she survived and is continuing her recovery. Her own doctors referred to her survival and recovery as "miraculous."

But miracles can be the dawning of a new day after a time of trial,the laughter of a longed-for baby or the clasp of the hand of a loved one in times of loneliness or fear, an incredible sunset over the Rockies that burnishes everything it lights in tones of scarlet and gold. Seeing a student who was struggling academically or emotionally suddenly not just survive but thrive has always been a miracle for me. The sound of our choir singing carols next week has always been a miracle for me.

The miracle in this story, to me, is Mary's acceptance and willingness to do as she is being asked by the unknown power that confronts her. True, we watching this narrative unfold know that this miraculous "yes" of Mary's will not mean that there is no heartbreak. Although Mary is confused, and has to try to puzzle out what originally is meant by what the angel says to her, in the end she makes herself the servant of the Lord. She gives the control over to God, and through her the entire universe is shifted and re-ordered. The miracle is the trust she has in God. The miracle is the faith she manifests. These are miracles especially to our modern eyes.

Nothing is impossible with God. NOTHING is impossible with God. Especially if we let God work through us, as Mary allows God to work through her. We can answer the call of God in our lives by being brave enough to trust in the promises God makes to us. In all times, not just now, being willing to let God move the world through us is how miracles happen. But first, we have to let go of our need to control everything in our lives, as Mary was and is. The miracle in this story is the softly murmured "yes" of Mary. Let it be with me according to your word. This is the ultimate example of faith. This is the ultimate example of God's love for us working THROUGH us. This is the love that frees us, that magnifies God's love and makes it present in a world that so needs it, now more than ever. Love that turns the powers of the world to dust, that establishes justice for the oppressed and comfort for the sorrowful. Love that inspires Mary to sing, as we hear in the Canticle of Mary later in the account from Luke:

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’


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