Sermon, December 22: Mary’s Song

Luke 1: 26-55, selections:

In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy], God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.” …    “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her….[and Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist.] Mary said “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm. He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel…”

How do stories like this come to be? Last week we said that theologians who consider the Christmas stories start by being aware of the resurrection and working backwards. It’s crucial, they say, to understand that these stories are not remembered history but metaphorical narratives that express truth that’s bigger than words. The question so often asked today is “did it happen?” But biblical writers were attempting to answer a very different question, “what does it mean”?

If we take a look at  biblical traditions through the lens of what do they mean, we’ll find that stories of angelic announcements of special births go way back – back to the book of Genesis which says that angels came to tell ninety-nine year old Abraham that he and ninety year old Sarah would finally have that baby.

The stories continue with Hannah and Elizabeth – the angel makes the announcement, the mother expresses doubt first and then joy. But try as Luke did to fit the pattern, this angel’s message was more complex than the others. Gabriel began very traditionally, but before he could tell her his news, Mary was troubled, her “how can this be” question hanging in the air between them.

And his answer? Well, the angel’s answer to Mary’s practical question sounds ethereal. And since we are a species who crave down to earth answers, we’ve spent generations trying to make down to earth meanings of the answer. But however you understand it, what Gabriel’s answer amounts to is that this baby would be radically different –holy, the Son of God.

The reason the child will be called the holy, the angel said, is the power of the Holy Spirit overshadowing you. Here’s where words matter: the word translated as “overshadowing” is not a word that described any human activity. The word goes all the way back to Genesis, where it says that “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…and the Spirit of God [overshadowed] the waters.”

This will happen said Gabriel. Mary kept silence – a long deep silence, while Gabriel and all creation, and even Almighty God waited for her answer. God’s new creation will happen, but each of us must say yes, if it is to happen to us.

Now this is the moment few people notice in the story because everyone is so eager to run and be with the shepherds and angels: this is the moment when she might have said no. She might still have said “what I want for my baby is a comfortable, ordinary life. I am afraid – afraid to take this risk for him, and afraid for me. All things considered, thank you, but no. No to even the chance of any kind of Gethsemane for my son.

This was a moment when time and time-to-come hung in the balance. Absolutely nothing happened. God does not force. God gets through to us only if and when we say “yes.” After that long prayerful silence ,Mary who had been blessed by grace, who pondered everything in her heart, chose to take the incredible risk of faith: “Let it be,” she said, “according to your word.” Take my body. Take my blood.

Satisfied, Luke says, the angel departed and Mary – like other prophets before her – set out on a journey to bear the word of God to the world. Luke makes her words tantalizing similar to the words Hannah had spoken centuries before her, but Hannah’s song was a prayer of longing. Mary’s is prophetic, bold in its promise of history-changing life. That is the work of prophecy after all – bringing God to a weary and unwelcoming world.

So, what does it mean? Nothing less than a radical shift in how we know God. The inner meaning at Mary’s heart changed reality, once and for always. God became known – not as the distant, isolated one, but as the divine essence not separate from us and not identical, but incarnate within us. And so, Luke tells us, the child grew and flourished because the grace of Mary, the care of Joseph, and the love of God were with him. Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton

Leave a Reply