Today on the blog we have a special guest: the Rev’d Jean-Daniel Williams is the Anglican-United Christian Chaplain at McGill.
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, favoured 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 favour 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.
Today Christians honour the Annunciation, the time Gabriel came from heaven to announce to the Virgin Mary the upcoming birth of our Saviour. The liturgical calendar, by trying to commemorate more than 33 years of the life of Jesus, from conception to ascension, within one year, creates odd collisions. Even as we prepare for Holy Week, today we are invited to recognize that Christmas is coming, nine months from today. Clergy take a one day reprieve from the penitential violet robes of Lent and wear the festal white. Jesus, the Son of the Most High, is coming.
In imagining this sacred event, I have two contrasting images in my mind. On one hand, there is Mary as I see her through the lens of two thousand years of Christianity. The powerful holy matriarch, the saint of saints, the Mary Queen of the World, like Montréal’s Catholic Cathedral. Yet in the moment of this Biblical story, Mary was likely, by today’s standards, still a girl. A bright, a holy young woman, surely, but by worldly standards, meek and lowly.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to her, it is tempting to imagine radiant light shining round him. Indeed, sometimes that is how Biblical angels appear, as the angels to the shepherds when Jesus was born. But sometimes they appear ordinarily human. The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (13:2). It is unclear from this passage which sort of angelic visitation Mary experienced. But imagine a pure and innocent young woman when a man appears in her presence and says, “Greeting favoured one!” Of course she was perplexed. Of course she wondered what kind of greeting that was!
In the course of the narrative, Mary is described as favoured, perplexed, ponderous, afraid, and overshadowed. The profound sacredness of this moment did not mean it was a simple experience of something like “reverence.” It was complex and confusing. Those moments when God breaks into our ordinary lives and calls us to do His work will not necessarily be easy. I appreciate Mary’s holy example to us in this moment. Mary’s holiness did not come in what emotions Mary did or did not feel. A wide range of emotions are valid. God’s plans for our lives can be surprising. They can be terrifying. And we are allowed to be surprised. We are allowed to be terrified.
Mary was sinless even as she was perplexed, ponderous, and afraid. None of those feelings undermined her favour, because in the end, she said to the Lord, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”
The world depended upon Mary’s yes on the holy day of the Annunciation so long ago. And God’s world today still depends on those of us who follow Jesus, those of us who admire Mary, listening for what we are being called to do and similarly responding, “Here am I.”