I’ll be honest. If I had been Mary, I would have run the other way. Mary should have known her Bible. Whenever an angel appears, look out! Things are going to change drastically. Take Abraham and Sarah. Sarah was past the age of bearing children. She had already gone through menopause. And Abraham was so old that the Bible says that he was good as dead. But an angel appeared and said, “Guess what? I have good news. Sarah, you will give birth to a son.” But you see, Sarah had given up on having children. She had worked herself into a gradual retirement with a little less cooking, a little more napping, a lot less noise. And now at the advanced age of 90 she has childbirth to look· forward to without the benefit of Lamaze. And then there would be the 2:00 a.m. feedings, the terrible twos, not to mention dreaded adolescence.
So Mary should have known better when the angel Gabriel appeared and said, “Guess what? I have good news.” She should have known that her life would never be the same again. Whenever angels appear, things are going to change–eventually for the better you hope, but in the meantime, look out! Expect everything nailed down to come up–expect a shaking of the foundations of your customary, status quo, predictable life. Yes, Mary should have known better.
And sure enough, the angel dropped a bombshell. “You are going to have a baby.” Now we hear this announcement as good news. But let’s try to appreciate the impact of Gabriel’s words on Mary. Mary was probably in her early teens, for that was when most Jewish girls married. She was betrothed which in that culture was taken far more seriously than our engagements. A girl who was betrothed and unfaithful to her intended was considered an adulteress and could be punished severely. And now Mary learns that she is to become pregnant. It would be an awkward wedding to say the least. Just think of all the village gossip. Her reputation would be tainted as long as she lived. And then there was Joseph, her beloved. How do you explain a thing like this to the man you love? How will he react? Mary had already planned her life. She would marry this carpenter, settle down like a good little Jewish housewife, raise a lot of children (conceived after her marriage, of course), enjoy her grandchildren, boss her sons- and daughters-in-law to her heart’s content, and die in the peace and security of her oldest son’s home. But now with this announcement, all her plans go out the window. Imagine, pregnant before marriage! Sure, God may know how she became pregnant. Gabriel may know. She may know. But how will this look to everyone else, especially Joseph?
I wonder how much time passed between verse 37 and verse 38–between Gabriel’s announcement and Mary’s response? What went through Mary’s mind? Perhaps she even thought of Abraham and Sarah. Sure, they were old–maybe as good as dead. But at least they were married! Abraham probably got a lot of ribbing around the campfires. “You ole dog, you!” But at least the birth of Isaac was respectable.
And I wonder what went through Gabriel’s mind? Frederick Buechner suggests that Gabriel wondered why God chose this young woman just out of childhood herself to bear this special child.
He told Mary, “You mustn’t be afraid.” But he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of this poor Palestinian girl.
I think it’s important to realize that Mary had a choice. This was not going to be an incident of spiritual, cosmic rape. She could have said “No.” But she said “Yes.” A peasant girl with no credentials of her own–with nothing to offer but her willingness to be used of God said “Yes” and entered into a unique partnership with eternity. She decided to trust the promises of God and put herself, her reputation, and her future on the line. When Gabriel said, “For God nothing is impossible,” Mary believed and responded, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be unto me according to your word.”
If you had been Mary, how would you have responded? What I want to suggest to you today is that in a very real way, you are Mary. You are Mary every day of your life. And so am I.
I would like for us to ponder some thoughts from one of the most profound Christian thinkers in the history of the church. His name is Meister Eckhart. He lived from 1260 to 1329 and was a great intellectual as well as a marvelous and compassionate preacher. He was denounced by the
Roman Catholic Church after his death because of his support of women in society, his progressive theology, and his backing of the peasant movements of his day. He is one of the greatest mystics in the Christian tradition. What I want us to ponder are these thoughts from Meister Eckhart:
“What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
We are all meant to be mothers of God, the means whereby God comes into our time and our culture. For reasons we can only begin to fathom, God came to this earth as a baby born to a peasant girl. I think we can guess that God chose that route out of respect for our freedom and out of the knowledge that the salvation we need can come only from the inside out. God will not force the divine self upon us. God will not intimidate us into love and obedience or play our games of pride and pretense. God understands that when it comes to redemption and transformation, means and ends are the same. And so, God chooses over and over again to become exposed and defenseless in our world – as vulnerable as a new born babe. We allow God to come into this world when we join Mary in saying, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord. I am your willing vessel.”
Can you imagine a world without people like Mary? Can you imagine a world without people like St. Francis, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr? Can you imagine a world without those persons who have revealed God to you through acts of love and compassion and words of truth and liberation? Would you want to live in a world without these people? And yet if we were to study the lives of such people, we would realize that at some point every one of them had to take a risk and some even had to put their lives on the line. Each of them had to say to God, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Use me as you will.” Each person could have said “No.”.
What has amazed me the most about goodness, love, compassion, justice, peace, and forgiveness is how fragile and vulnerable they are, especially when they are born afresh in the continuing human saga. Evil, hatred, prejudice, oppression, war, and vengeance seem to be like weeds growing in a flower garden. They will grow under any conditions with ruthless and choking speed. They need no tending. But goodness and love, compassion and justice, peace and forgiveness–these must be prepared for like the birth of a baby. They must be nurtured with tender hands. Like a new born baby, they are so vulnerable. There are always Herods out to destroy what is good and innocent. That’s the part of the Christmas story we would prefer to forget.
And yet God continues to be born in our world in such fragile and vulnerable ways. If God is love and compassion, mercy and truth, justice and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation, perhaps this is the only way God can be born into our world. These qualities cannot be forced or manipulated. They can only be born and nurtured in faithful, tender, and loving ways. It’s harder that way. It would be much easier for God to split the heavens and say, “Now world, this is the way it’s going to be. And here are my legions of angels to make sure you toe the line.” It would be easier that way. But that would not be God if God is love. I suppose that is what the cross is all about. And let us not forget that at that cross stood Mary, faithful to the end. Little did she realize all that this birth would mean that day Gabriel appeared. And little do we realize all that can happen when we become mothers of God and allow God to be born in our time and our culture.
The miracle of Christmas is staggering. The God who created this vast universe with its billions of galaxies came to earth as an exposed, defenseless, vulnerable baby and was totally dependent on the care given by a peasant couple. God seeks to be born in every time and every situation, but for reasons we can only begin to fathom, God needs us to give birth to those opportunities for transformation and salvation. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all meant to be mothers of God in our time and our culture. May we have the courage and the faith of that Jewish peasant girl two thousand years ago as we too say, “Behold, your handmaid. I am your willing vessel.” In this holy season and every day of our lives, may we all be expecting.
He grew in the womb of a common peasant girl. He suckled at her breast and was cradled in her arms. He labored by his earthly father learning the trade of a common laborer. Luke tells us that he was obedient to his parents. He was in their common hands. And he ended his life in the hands of others. Some of those hands struck him, beat him with whips, nailed spikes into his hands and feet, drove a spear into his side, and discarded him for decay. Other hands wiped tears, beat their breasts, and prepared his body tenderly for burial. God Incarnate was subject to the hands of common men and women, for good or for ill.
Today our common hands hold the bread and the wine, symbols of his body and blood, just as Mary’s hands held him as an infant. He is present in our midst. In a very real sense, he is in our hands. How will we receive him? What shall we do with him? Can we be trusted with God’s Son?
Mary spoke the words of faith and became the human vessel through which God entered history. Let her words be our own: “Let it be to me according to your word.”