I love children’s Christmas Pageants. I just love them. Last Sunday afternoon the children of our church presented a beautiful one. It marked the 65th year of the Children’s Christmas Pageant at Kenilworth Union Church, a tradition that is shared with many churches. You’ve all been to them. You know the story and you know exactly what is going to happen and in what order. Well come to think of it, with children, you can never be sure about how it will unfold – but you know what is supposed to happen. And, of course, you know all the characters.
There are the cherubic angels dressed in white with silver fringed wings and sparkle on their cheeks. There are the shepherds holding their staffs, dressed in striped robes with dark mustaches drawn above their lips and scraggly-looking beards drawn on their chins. There are the three kings dressed in their beautiful royal robes, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Joseph almost always has the least noticeable part. And then, of course, there’s Mary. She has a very important role. She is supposed to be presented as the peaceful looking mother of the baby Jesus lying in the manger. And year after year, our young fifth or sixth grade girls always seem to convey that feeling. They smile sweetly and look serene as they sit beside the manger beneath the star overhead surrounded by all the angels and shepherds.
Mary, mother of Jesus, has a very prominent place in Christmas Pageants. But for Protestants like us, she has a rather diminished place in our faith as compared with our Catholic cousins. Peter Gomes wryly comments, “We children of the Reformation simply do not know what to do with Mary.” Then to illustrate his point, he tells a story about when “Dean William Ralph Inge, the late ‘gloomy dean’ of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London died and was ushered into the presence of God. Jesus came down from God’s right hand and said, “Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you have met my Father, but I don’t believe you have met my mother.” (Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, pp. 9-10)
Well today, let’s get a little better acquainted with Jesus’ mother as we look at this passage from Luke that is commonly known as the “Annunciation.” The scene is a dramatic one as the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with the staggering news of her pregnancy by the Holy Spirit.
Mary is a young girl at the time – probably in her teens according to most biblical scholars. According to the custom of that time in history, her family would have arranged for her marriage. She was engaged to an older man named Joseph. Though the term “engagement” doesn’t quite do justice to the way things worked in Middle East society at that time. There would have been a public announcement of Mary and Joseph’s engagement, but it would have been a bit stronger than having the couple’s picture published in the society section of the paper. The wedding date would have been set for as much as a year in advance, and sexual relations between the betrothed couple were definitely out of bounds. Which was more than enough reason for Mary to react with puzzlement and uncertainty at Gabriel’s news of her pregnancy. “What can this mean,” she asks of the angel – and I would suppose of herself as well.
Theologian Walter Bruggemann says, “Everybody has a script. People live their lives by a script that is sometimes explicit but often implicit…The daily practice of our scripts…yields a sense of purpose and provides security.” (Christian Century, Nov. 29, 2005, p. 22)
Mary knew her script. She lived a simple life. Once her marriage was arranged, she may have dreamed about what her wedding would be like and imagined setting up her own household. She may even have picked out some names for the children she expected to have. But then the angel Gabriel shows up one day and says to her, “Greetings favored one! Do not be afraid because God has found favor with you. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Favored one? Mary’s life’s script was about to be suddenly changed. If what the angel Gabriel said were to be so, then there would be lots of difficulty for her to contend with ahead. A collision of questions must have run through her mind. “What will Joseph think when I tell him this? What will my parents think? What will the townspeople say when they find out I’m pregnant?” So many troubling questions. Mary’s sudden new circumstance in life can hardly be comprehended. The news the angel brought meant her life was going to be so very different than anything she could ever have imagined.
For centuries, artists have attempted to depict this annunciation moment. There are numerous Renaissance paintings by such artists as Botticelli, Fra Angelico, da Vinci, and Simone Marini- all of which show an elegant angel giving the annunciation to a beautifully dressed Mary in an anachronistic palace-like setting. It is an idealized moment in which Mary is pictured as carefully composed, a person very much at peace with her unlikely circumstance.
Really? Don’t you think that maybe Mary’s question to Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” may well indicate a far different reaction? The Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd of the National Cathedral had a similar take in writing about a painting of the Annunciation by the 16th century artist Lorenzo Lotto. He describes the painting vividly saying, “In it we don’t see a composed Mary listening to the angel’s announcement. Instead, an alarmed Mary is turned toward us, and away from Gabriel; her eyes are wide with fear. Gabriel seems confused himself. Looming over his head, in the sky just beyond the room, is a fierce-looking, gray-bearded God, with his hands and arms outstretched and clamped together, pointing down at Mary with a gesture you would never want to have aimed at you. God looks more than a little frightening. And at the center of the scene is a cat running across the middle of the floor with its back arched, its front paws in the air, as if it has been electrocuted. Every detail speaks of tension, terror, and alarm. And there is Mary, staring at us, as if to say, “Imagine this! What would you do if you were in my place?”
Lotto’s interpretation of Mary’s reaction to the annunciation strikes me as quite realistic. For while we may be able to empathize with the difficult aspects of Mary’s predicament, I doubt we could hardly imagine ourselves in such a situation without some sort of shocking reaction – after having a messenger from God tell us our whole life was about to be turned upside down. That’s some kind of unsettling good news.
According to Luke’s narrative, after Mary raises some reasonable questions, she finally responds to Gabriel’s announcement saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” This response is, it would seem at first blush, a bright, shining example of obedience to God’s will. Mary accepts the news that she will bear a son who “will be holy and be called Son of God,” and she willingly says “yes.”
But I believe that to simply see Mary’s “yes” as meek obedience, does not do justice to what is behind her choice. What about courage? Surely there was courage as well as acceptance at work in her brave “yes” to God’s call in her life.
Think of it this way. Mary was free to accept -or refuse – Gabriel’s proposition. Remember his announcement was in the future tense of what was going to be. Mary could have said to the angel, “No thanks good sir, I am quite happy with the way my life is and I don’t want to have it changed this way.”
Mary had a choice. From the very beginning in the garden, God made choice integral to humanness. God does not coerce. Mary had the freedom to say “yes,” or to say “no,” to the mystery of God’s incarnation, to consent to the impossible possibility that would form in her womb and change the world.
Kathleen Norris reflected on how Mary’s decision to say “yes” relates to her own life. “[Mary] does not lose her voice, but finds it…‘Here am I.’ she says to God…Mary proceeds – as we must do in life- making her commitments without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.” Norris continues, “I treasure this story [of the annunciation] because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what I cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés,…Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “yes” that will change me forever?” (The Book of Women’s Sermons, “Annunciation: On Mystery,” p. 186)
The word “Yes” plays a significant role in our lives…if we have the courage to let it. Annunciations of one sort or another sometimes come along in our own lives. Maybe not quite as life- changing as Mary’s annunciation, but involving choice and courage nevertheless. Some are the big ones that jump out at us: like deciding to make a change in your life that will involve sacrifice and means giving up living as comfortabling; or like accepting a leadership role in your child’s school or being asked to serve on a non-profit board, which entails working many hours and the attendant stress. Such choices as these to allow your life to be caught up in something much larger require a brave “yes.” In addition, there are those other kinds of callings or annunciations that come to us in our ordinary days and weeks: to help a friend, to be part of a project at church, to make the choice of family over work.
Like Mary, we are free to choose, to say “yes” to these annunciations, or to say “no.” And when we choose to let them go by, the gate to what-might-have-been closes. That’s just life. Mary’s response to the annunciation, her “yes” to God, is a deep affirmation of faith and of herself. Gomes writes, “[Mary] became what she was meant to be…She affirms the promise that is within her, and that is no more submissive…than it was for Bach to write the music that he had been given to write, for Rembrandt to paint with the gift given to him, or for Mother Theresa to do the work she was called to do.” (Ibid, p.14)
What is it that you are called to do that asks you to have the courage to say “yes?” It is a great gift to have your life caught up in something more significant than just your own. “It is the grace of God…the wonderful gift of knowing your place in the universe, and of fulfilling it.” (Ibid, p.14)
A friend of mine used to say often at the end of some of his sermons, “What have I been trying to say?” Well I guess I would summarize what I have been trying to say as this: Mary said, “Yes” and God entered the world in the flesh of Jesus. We say “Yes” and once again God enters the world through us. Lives are changed. New futures are opened. God blesses us and finds a way through our love and our service, to bless others.
Hail Mary, full of grace…and courage. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.