Sermon for Advent 4, Year A, December 20, 2020 (Columba Salmony, Seminarian)
Updated: Aug 14, 2021
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God. Amen.
What a night this must have been for Gabriel. In my imagination, the Gospel reading plays out a little bit like a scene in a science-fiction movie. Gabriel disembarks from his shuttle in the absolute middle of nowhere and looks around, puzzled. He pages God on his intercom, “Are you sure these are the right coordinates? There’s nothing here.” God checks Gabriel’s location on the map and replies, “Looks like you’re in the right place to me. Go inside the house on your left.”
As Gabriel slowly moves toward the most run-down house he can see, he thinks to himself, this can’t be right… The house is empty except for a few sheep—and a child in the corner. She is combing out the kinks from her long, dark hair. Gabriel intercoms to God again, “There’s no one here!” God replies, “She’s right in front of you, Gabriel! Come on!” God turns the intercom to do-not-disturb and goes back to knitting.
As Gabriel moves into the house, a soft, warm radiance fills the room. The young girl turns toward the doorway, expecting to see her parents and the light of their lantern as they returned home from the synagogue. Instead, her eyes focus on the glowing image of something totally otherworldly.
Mary’s house has an intruder. Here she is, a young girl alone with a mysterious man who has appeared, seemingly, out of nowhere. She senses something—not necessarily a voice that speaks to her, but a feeling deep within her being, as if her very soul is speaking to her—as this stranger says, “Greetings, favored one.” Gabriel looks down at this girl: terrified, with the comb still stuck in her hair. And he pauses for a moment, frees the comb from its tangle, and says, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
I sense that Mary is still bewildered as the stranger speaks to her. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Her eyes widen. “He will be called the Son of the Most High.”
Hundreds of questions must race through her head—not even full questions, just small blips of questions… “How can…” “But I…” “Who…”—and eventually she manages to utter a small “okay?” and she sits a stunned silence for a moment. And as the pieces come together, she asks, “But I haven’t known a man; how can this happen?”
Gabriel explains the miraculous things that God can do. Mary ponders, completely still, and finally turns her face to Gabriel and says, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” She says “yes!” Now that Mary has agreed, the strange, glowing man disappears as quickly as he came.
“Do not be afraid,” her visitor’s voice echoes through her head, the whole night long. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” What a strange thing for a young girl to hear.
If we imagine ourselves as early Christians, we might hear this story a little differently. Before we even know who Jesus is, we meet Mary, the girl chosen to be his mother. We would know that Mary is a young girl—a position in society that gave her no worth, not until she’s married and can have children… And she’s from Nazareth…? The shantytown? In the middle of nowhere? A day’s walk from anywhere interesting? Ach! She’s a nobody. Living at the back-end of beyond… north, south, east, and west of nowhere. Remember Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” That’s where she grew up. There’s really nothing working to her advantage.
Her parents tried, but they are poorer than dirt. They could only do so much! They taught her some basic skills—cooking, weaving, caring for the sheep. They did arrange for her to marry Joseph—the local carpenter, who built every table and bed between Nazareth and Magdala. He’s a little bit older… And get this—he owns a donkey! He’s at least wealthier than Anna and Joachim… Maybe this marriage would work out for her. She’s seems set up to be the perfect wife… (except for the already-pregnant thing…)
Nothing will be impossible with God.
And so, Mary, the unimaginably ordinary, is (somehow) going to bear the Son of God. She probably thought to herself, That dude with the wings had the wrong address.
Despite all of these negative things about Mary’s life, the early Christians would see Mary as a true heroine. And this isn’t exclusive to the early Christians… There are Christians today who still venerate Mary and her position as the Theotokos—the God-bearer. There’s something a little more nuanced happening here, though. Something that the early Christians would have picked up on fairly easily:
Mary’s “yes” to Gabriel, to God, is a little bit subversive.
Let’s shake off all of our modern assumptions about Mary’s life for a moment. If we’re just presented with the details we have in Luke’s gospel narrative, as if we were living a hundred years after Jesus’ death, how do we see Mary?
ith this mindset, I see Mary as pretty provocative. Not only does she agree to something by her own will—without the permission of her betrothed or her parents—she’s agreeing to participate in God’s plan of salvation. She agrees to giving birth to the long-awaited Savior, the one who comes to set the captive free, restore sight to the blind, and to liberate the oppressed (Lk 4:18). After all, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
The early Christians saw that Mary was ordinary. Just another girl from a nowhere-town. And yet, God found her and asked her to bear the Son of God. We can imagine how unsettling this could have been for Mary. She would have known enough about the prophecies of the Messiah to know that this was not going to be easy. Imagine how inadequate she must have felt… how unprepared. But she said yes.
What we missed from today’s selection of readings is the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-56). Within Mary’s Song, there is a similar promise of liberation from captivity, from oppression:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
The early Christians understood the subtext of this message. This is about Egypt, and about Rome… It’s about any display of empire.
With Mary’s bold “yes”, the kings and emperors would no longer oppress the poor and downtrodden. The poor will overtake the rich, toppling their palaces and emptying their granaries. Her declaration is borderline seditious and volatile. And she says “yes” because she believes that this son of hers will someday rule the nations, as God has promised.
Nothing will be impossible with God.
I find that when God is leading me (and sometimes pushing me) into a situation where I have to pick between my self and God’s call for me, I channel Mary a little. I say to God, I think you’ve got the wrong guy. No matter how unprepared I feel, how inadequate I feel… How ordinary I feel, there’s a little “yes” somewhere hidden in all of that doubt. A tiny little Mary holding up a cardboard sign with “yes” scrawled across it.
Along the journey of our lives, there are so many little moments where God invites us to say “Yes.” God invites us to mirror Mary’s decision to welcome Jesus, to love Jesus, to love all of humanity by bringing Jesus into the world around us.
This story of Mary reminds us of one important thing: No matter who you are, or where you are, or where you’ve come from, God has a proposal for you. And if you believed, as Mary did, that “nothing will be impossible with God,” what could you say “Yes” to?