Rev. Teri Peterson
Luke 1.26-38, 46-55
December 21 2008, Advent 4B
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 for ever, 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.
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor 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.’
Hail, Mary, full of grace—the Lord is with you! These words of the angel to Mary have been passed down through the ages in the story and in prayer. We Presbyterians have a hard time with Mary—the last line of the Hail Mary prayer, the one that asks Mary to pray for us, was added to Luke’s words in the year 1555 and has colored our vision of Mary. We don’t believe she’s better than anyone else, we don’t believe she was special, we don’t believe she prays for us. Those things would, actually, obscure the thing God has done.
Hail, Mary, full of grace—the Lord is with you. Hello, unmarried teenage girl. Hello, poor peasant girl. Hello, piece of property nearly ready to be transferred to another family. Hello, lowest of the low in your society. You are full of grace. The Lord is with you.
Mary wasn’t special, she wasn’t the winner of the Mother-of-God sweepstakes, she wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. She was a peasant teenager in a backwater village in an occupied land. And yet the angel comes and says “Hail, Mary, full of grace—the Lord is with you.”
Mary, at this point, is confused. She’s wondering what on earth this angel is talking about—full of grace? The Lord is with you? Found favor with God? What could this mean? Why is he talking to her? What kind of nonsense is he saying about having a baby?
So she asks what seems a simple question—after all, poor teenage girls in backwater villages still know some basics of biology. But the answer is anything but simple, anything but obvious, anything but good sounding. The angel doesn’t say “well, when you and Joseph are married, then your first son will be the child I’m talking about.” The angel says, in essence, “the fact that you are an unmarried virgin teenager is irrelevant—nothing is impossible for God.”
It’s hard to imagine what Mary was thinking at this moment. Was she imagining what it might be like to finally be someone important? Was she imagining what Joseph’s reaction would be when she turned up pregnant? Was she imagining the consequences that might come if she were discovered alone with a strange man—angel or not—in her room? Or did she somehow know, deep inside, what this would mean for her, for Joseph, for her baby, for her people?
Mary’s response to the angel is the classic prayer of the ages: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” We always imagine that she said it with joy and wonder, with anticipation and love. We never imagine that she says it like this, “here I am, the servant of the Lord,” complete with an eye-roll. We never imagine that Mary thought of this as a burden to bear, something she was forced to do. Even when we talk about the culture of her time, about how Mary could very easily have been stoned to death for this conversation, let alone the results, we don’t get any sense of burden. Hail, Mary, full of grace, the angel says. God-bearer, the Church calls her. “Yes,” Mary says, and it is done.
And then she goes to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, and one of the first things she does is sing a song about God’s goodness. She treats this whole experience as a blessing, not a burden. She borrows parts of her song from Hannah, who was so overjoyed to finally have a long-wanted child that she couldn’t help but burst into song. Mary and Hannah couldn’t be more different, and yet Mary sings, with her ancestors and her whole people, a people longing for freedom, for promise fulfilled: “the Mighty One has done great things for me,” and “surely all generations will call me blessed” and “he has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.” Good things? Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, the angel said.
“God has filled the hungry with good things,” Mary sings. This is so lovely and wonderful and Christmasy, isn’t it? The next line, though, brings us up short: “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The whole song is like this—pulling down the mighty and lifting up the lowly, looking with favor on the lowest of the lowest servant—a peasant woman in an occupied land. This is no gentle Mary, meek and mild, sweet Christmas carol. This is a song about what God is doing through Mary, the ordinary peasant girl Mary—keeping God’s promises, doing a new thing, a thing that people who have earthly power are not going to like. There have been times when this passage of scripture was outlawed by governments because it was considered too subversive—times as recent as 20 years ago in some places in Latin America. People with earthly power do not like Mary’s song, it does not sound like good news, especially coming from a poor village girl. And yet Mary sings it, in spite of the outlawing, in spite of the danger she’s in when people find out her shocking news, in spite of the cultural norms that make her even more of an outcast than she was before she met the angel. And thousands of years later, recognizing Mary’s ability to see the blessing in this burden, still we read and pray these words: Hail, Mary, full of grace.
But remember, Mary isn’t special, she isn’t perfect, she isn’t Miss Nazareth 4BC, she isn’t different from us. And here’s where the message of Mary gets hard. Mary was asked to do a very tangible thing, to bear God, to birth God’s love into the world, to proclaim that God’s promises are fulfilled and that is good news to the poor, to sing that being full of grace is a blessing, not a burden. Aren’t we all asked to do the same? Ann Legg shared a Meister Eckhart quote with us at Team Night, and I think it asks this same question. 700 years ago, Eckhart asked, “What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to the Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?” I would push us to ask not only “what good is it to me” but “what good are we to the world if we do not give birth to the Son in our time and culture?”
Bearing God is not, as Mary found, easy. It involves saying yes, first of all. Did you notice that the angel did nothing until Mary gave her consent? And then it involves nurturing and loving, sharing and letting go, pain and sadness, difficulty and wonder, burden and blessing. Mary was, in the most literal sense, full of grace—full of the wondrous gift of undeserved love, given from God to us. How can we too be bearers of God in the world? How can we too stop thinking of obligation and the things we “should” do as Christians, and start thinking of our calling as a blessing? Perhaps when we hear the angel say, “Hail, people of God, full of grace—the Lord is with you.” The Lord is with us, and we are full of grace—may we bear that grace into the world as a blessing.
Thanks be to God.