Wednesday, December 9, 2015

calling all the fearful, doubting, and confused

The Annunciation. Image from
I have been reading Father James Martin's excellent book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, which is a meditation on the life of Jesus based on Martin's memoirs of visiting the Holy Land intertwined with historical background and spiritual insights. When I came across his chapter on the Annunciation, appropriately titled "Yes!" I was surprised at how much Mary's experience resonated with me (not usually the case with Catholic portrayals of Mary). The story can be found in Luke 1:26-38. Go ahead and read it again. Martin suggests that Mary's story is our story, a window into our journey with God. Below are some of Martin's points mixed with my own thoughts. See if you find yourself anywhere in the story.

1. God initiates a conversation. Our spiritual journeys begin because God makes the first move, and they continue on because God keeps on moving. Perhaps we see an angel, or perhaps something unexpected happens, or perhaps someone speaks to us words that pierce our hearts, or perhaps we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. In Mary's case, a messenger from God greets her with these words: "Dearly loved one, endowed with grace. God is with you." Martin explains that the tense indicates that she is already full of grace. The angel does not confer it on her; it is something God has done. "Though Mary holds no great position ... and though she is most likely poor, and though as an unmarried woman she occupies a lowly state in society, God loves her - lavishly. Mary is the forerunner of all those in the Christian life who will be judged by human standards as unworthy of God's grace. But God has other ideas." [Martin, 35]. A gracious God generously bestows grace on the unlikeliest of people, of which I am one.
2. We fear. Mary was much perplexed and thoroughly shaken by the words of the messenger and wondered what they might mean. An unexpected encounter with the divine can be scary, Fear is a natural response. We fear we might be exposed or condemned or perhaps something difficult or impossible might be required of us. Or we might just die on the spot because we are in contact with holiness. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." If we are fearful when God comes near, we just might be on our way to becoming wise. But we can't remain fearful.
3. God reassures us and tells us what will be required of us. After telling Mary not to be afraid, the angel outlines the plan in basic terms: she is to give birth to the promised Messiah. It is all a little overwhelming and Mary can't quite comprehend how any of it is possible. It sounds so far-fetched.
4. We doubt. Mary asks, "How can this be since I am a virgin?" What Mary is admitting is that she is not up for the task, she does not have what it takes, she is under-qualified. When we doubt, when we are confused, it is usually because we are focused on our inadequacies and have taken our eyes off God's adequacy.
5. God points us to past experiences and helps us to trust. The angel directs Mary's attention to her cousin Elizabeth's miraculous conception in her old age. This was probably not news to Mary, but a simple reminder that God had done the impossible before and he could certainly do it again. It is important to remember the times when God has been faithful, when God has provided, when God has transformed pain into love and hope. In times of doubt and fear and confusion, we need to be reminded that God has a track record of being trustworthy. This is why I read the stories in the Bible over and over again. This is why I listen to the testimonies of others. And this is why I recall the goodness of God in my own life. It helps me remember that "the impossible is possible with God." (Luke 1:37, The Voice).
6. We say Yes. And because of this, we are able to bring into the world, with God's grace, something new. Mary's words, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word," are powerful. They reveal that she had a choice in the matter. The Holy Spirit was not going to rape her (excuse my graphic language). And despite the fact that she was living in a patriarchal society, Mary made her decision without appealing to a man. She didn't ask anyone for permission or advice, but gave her consent on her own initiative. Before she knew exactly how everything would play out, she said Yes. She didn't know her child would be threatened with death, she didn't know they would have to flee their homeland, she didn't know Jesus would be viewed as a political and religious rebel, she didn't know he would die a violent death. She would be a witness to great sadness, but she would also be witness to great joy as Jesus grew into his calling of teacher, healer, miracle-worker, peacemaker, and the visible presence of God on earth. In saying Yes, Mary took on the role of a slave, one serving at the pleasure of another, and because of this daring decision, Life and Light came into the world. We can make the same choice every day, to bring the light and life of God into the world by saying Yes.
7. God is silent. The angel leaves Mary and there is no more opportunity for her to ask questions and receive answers, at least not in a direct manner. What do we do when God is silent? Sometimes we forget this part of the story, the part where we feel alone and confused and less sure about God's call.
8. Time for faith. Mary had to trust that God would keep the promises made to her, even in times of waiting, suffering, pain, and uncertainty. At times, the angel's visit must have seemed so long ago and the words he spoke so distant and faint. Mary had to trust that God would be true to himself and bring salvation to the world, even when things didn't look very promising.
9. Time for action. After the angel left, Mary packed her bags and went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary surrounded herself with people who also believed that God could do the impossible (remember Zechariah's encounter with an angel?), who were also recipients of God's grace, who were also living in a mixture of faith and uncertainty, and together they encouraged each other and pondered the mysteries of God's love in action.
10. Time for worship. Mary's song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) is a beautiful poem calling to mind God's gracious promises to her and to Israel. God is the one who reverses the order of a power-driven society and lifts up the humble, embraces the poor, feeds the hungry, and plucks the most unlikely out of obscurity. Lovingkindness is at the forefront of God's saving, liberating action, and Mary celebrates its presence in her life, even before Jesus is born, before she witnesses any of his miracles, before he dies and is raised from the dead. Worship brings together the past, the present, and the future promises of God.

All of us have times when we are fearful, when we doubt, when we are confused. I had a bout of that just this afternoon. I suspect that those of us who study theology and/or serve the church are quite susceptible to this. Let us not be afraid. It is all part of the pilgrimage of faith where we learn to take the next step even though the path seems unclear, where we learn to lean on our fellow travelers when we are weary, where we remind ourselves that the faithfulness of God is evident all around us, and where we practice trusting and worshiping and acting and being part of a loving community until we get better at it,

Thanks, Mary, for showing us what it means to say be a servant of God in order that the world may see the beauty of Jesus. We join you and say together, Yes!