How Can this Be? Mary and Advent IV

The final Sunday of Advent, in the gospel we hear from St. Luke, we learn Farrelly brothers had it, at least partially, right: there IS Something about Mary.

I don’t know if you have heard about a billboard that was put up by St. Matthew’s Anglican Church this Advent in Auckland, New Zealand.  The billboard has received a lot of international attention.  In many ways the billboard portrait of Mary fits our traditional picture.  Mary is surrounded with just enough flowing green and red robe to evoke the Renaissance paintings.  She is blonde, and has that certain otherworldly glow.  In many ways the billboard is like all of the other images we have of Mary.  But this billboard is different.  Mary’s eyes are scared and she covers her mouth with one hand.  In the other hand, she holds a home pregnancy test, with two little blue lines.

The image had caused no small amount of ire from traditionalists, but the vicar of St. Matthew’s defends the work, as an invitation, an invitation to reconsider the story of Mary, the story we hear today.

From what we know, Mary was young: 12 to 14.  Mary was still unmarried, though things were going well with Joe, the carpenter.  Mary was poor.  This was an inopportune time to find out she was pregnant.  Luke’s version, written 90-100 years after the fact, probably, I am guessing, improves on the situation.  The Gospel writer wasn’t there, recording the conversation verbatim.  St. Luke was not writing history, the way we think of history.  Luke’s genre was Gospel, “Good News,” so we should not be surprised if he has cleaned the story up a bit.  It should surprise no one in Washington to hear that the news, even the Good News, always comes with a little bit of spin.

When you read the Bible, I really encourage you to take your time.  Any student of the Bible, like any student of literature, or history, or psychology knows that you have to listen as much for what is NOT said, as for what is said.  Today’s Gospel story, the story of Mary, is a great example.  If you want the full story, you have to pause and listen for what is being said between the lines:

And the angel came to her and said “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words, and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.

PAUSE

Remember, Mary is 12 or 13.  How many 12 or 13 year old girls do you know?  How seriously do they take greetings?  How seriously do they take ANYTHING?  I used to work summer camps largely with early teenagers.  Twelve and thirteen year old girls have a great deal of perplexity, a great deal of wonder, and they come with a great deal of eye-rolling.

But what the Angel tells her next is the frightening part.  The billboard has her fear right.  She will conceive and bear a son.  Mary’s question: “How Can this be?”

PAUSE

Don’t mistake it, this story in many ways is a story of loss.  The angel’s announcement, the awareness of her unplanned pregnancy, it changes the game.  Mary had it planned out.  She would marry Joseph.  They would by that condo in Nazareth; he made pretty good money after all.  Maybe in a couple of years they would have a couple of kids.  The schools were pretty good in the neighborhood.  I’m reading in between the lines here, but you have to a bit.  Mary would have had plans for her life.  She was a bride-to-be.  Mary, had some plans.  And Mary had to lay those plans down.  There was a moment, even if it was only a moment, recorded even by Luke, when the Incarnation did not seem like good news to Mary.

Mary’s question is so often our question when faced with loss: “How can this be?”

“How can this be?” is the question of parents who hear their child has been born with severe autism.

“How can this be?”  is the question of the worker who is “downsized” after twenty years service to a business.

“How can this be?” is the question of the high school senior who had always planned to go to her dream college, and receives a letter that begins “we regret to inform you.”

“How can this be?” is a very human question, the question so many of us ask when we face loss in our lives.

BUT the story does not end there.

The story does not end with loss.  In fact, the loss is only a moment, an important moment, a game-changing moment, but only a moment.  The words of the Angel ring true.  “Nothing is impossible with God.”  If you take anything home this Advent.  If you take anything home from church ever, let it be the words of the angel: “nothing is impossible with God.”

Still I wonder how long it took Mary to respond.  It only takes until the next sentence in Luke’s Gospel, but I doubt it was ACTUALLY that instantaneous.  The loss of a dream takes time to accept.  I wonder how many minutes, days, weeks, even months, it took Mary.  I wonder how long it took Mary to utter her line, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

The Good News, for us, is that Mary does utter her line.  Mary becomes a paradigm for Christians facing the loss of their dreams.  Mary is known, especially in the Eastern Church, as the God-bearer, the Theotokos.  Mary reminds us to bear with God, to bear with God even through the pain of loss.  Mary becomes the paradigm of looking for God’s good news, even when your own life is not going as planned.  The image of Mary on that billboard in New Zealand invites us to see this side of Mary, an important side for all of us who share the human condition, a condition that often comes with the frustration of our dreams, the perplexity of grief and loss.

Next week we will celebrate the birth of Christ, the one who comes into the world, but that celebration would be impossible without Mary’s acceptance, without Mary’s decision to bear with God through the confusing and frustrating.

I want to finish this sermon by reading a few lines from a poem by John of the Cross, who I think captures Mary and Advent so well:

If you want

the Virgin will come walking down the road

pregnant with the holy,

and say,

“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,

my time is so close.”

as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us

is the midwife of God, each of us.

as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is

His beloved servant

never far.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking

down the street pregnant

with Light and sing …

 If you want.

May God be with you as God was with Mary.  May God help you bear through the difficulties of life.  May God be with you as you prepare for God’s coming into your life.  Amen.

2 thoughts on “How Can this Be? Mary and Advent IV

  1. Leslie says:

    Mike,
    I have off and on read your blog for a couple years, at least I think it has been a couple years. Anyway, I have enjoyed your musings. This post in particular is great. I had not heard about the billboard and I had never thought about the loss Mary must have experienced. Last year I suffered several big losses in a short period of time. One alone was devastating, but the combination, irrevocably changed my life. You sermon speaks truth on many levels and highlights a part of the story that I for one have continually missed. Perhaps without my personal experience I would still miss it and yet in the midst of my loss and pain I’m not sure I could have heard this message last year. Thank you for your ministry and your writings.

  2. revmomangell says:

    Michael: I just read your ADVENT IV blog. Thank you. We missed Mary’s story because the Children’s Christmas took place on Advent IV. Now Mary’s story will never be the same….

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