Mary Answers the Angel
Preached at First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
Rev. Julie Jensen
Hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a painting of a teenage girl being visited by angels. She leans against a tree, looking resigned, worried, stoic, and resolved to do what she is being called to do. In her face is a mix of determination and fear. Behind her are 2 angelic figures, looking very ephemeral and blending into the background. The painting is large -almost 8 feet by 9 feet – and the girl seems lifelike – looking as if she will walk off the canvas and into her future. The painting is called Joan of Arc, painted in 1879 by French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage. In it I see what I imagine was also in Mary’s face the day she was visited by the Angel Gabriel. Resolution, fear, wonder, awe, and determination.
Most of the artistic depictions of the annunciation have a few things in common. Mary is dressed in blue, obviously pregnant, with a book in hand, and is looking over at the angel quite calmly. In the depiction I like the best by a Netherlands painter, Mary has her hands raised and an expression of “what will be will be”. The painter has not given her a look of resignation or excitement or joy but of bemused acceptance.
Whether she looked like the painting of Joan of Arc or the way the painter from the Netherlands portrayed her, one thing is evident – -Mary certainly was caught off guard, and no artist can capture that exact moment. Here was a young teenage girl, engaged to be married, which is the happy way to say she was property ready to be transferred to her husband, trying to figure out her future. She probably could not read and write, and was certainly not expecting the news she was about to receive on this day. So imagine her surprise when one day Gabriel appears, and says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Surprise may be putting it mildly. How about shock, fear, or confusion? We may have responded with the words “who are you and why are you in my house? I’m calling the police.” But there was no 911 for Mary, and so she ponders the greeting. Gabriel must have figured out she was more than a little nervous, for he gets to the heart of the matter quite quickly.
Have you ever noticed that Angels do not enter quietly, they usually cause a fuss, and they always have to tell people not to be afraid? They know their arrival is going to change things, going to toss the world upside down a little bit, and so they begin by reminding the person they are visiting that God is with them. The angels come to make announcements from God that topple kingdoms and make us open tombs looking for those who are not there. They come and deliver news that we did not expect, and often are not excited to hear. These are not the cherubs from Greeting cards – they are forces to be reckoned with. Gabriel has been busy. Before he visited Mary, he visited Elizabeth to tell her the good news that she would bear a son, even though she was past the age of this being possible. Gabriel has already begun to deliver the news of God that will shake up the world. His presence announces that God is bringing salvation and redemption, and not in the way we most expect it. Angels come and things change.
Mary is still recovering from the shock of Gabriel telling her God is with her, when he tells her the big news, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And then everything changed. For you see, it can be argued that Mary had a choice. She was not pregnant yet – -the reading says “ in the sixth month” referring to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not hers. Mary can still say no, theoretically. How you say no to the angel Gabriel is a question I can’t answer. How you say “no” to God, – well, usually when we say “No”, God gets God’s way someway or another. I know lots of second career pastors who can tell that story better than I can. When she asks her question “how can that be, for I am a virgin” we hear her begin to make up her mind. Gabriel explains to her about Elizabeth becoming pregnant and tells her that nothing is impossible with God, and Mary gives her answer. “”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
When the movie Doubt premiered, lead actresses Meryl Streep and Amy Adams were interviewed by the ABC News film critic. One of the questions he asked was “what are you sure of, and what are you not sure of?” He was asking them what they were certain of in themselves, and what they doubted about themselves. The tension was palpable, as neither actress was going to admit her insecurities about herself on national television. But Meryl Streep said something interesting. She said actors live with constant uncertainty, about themselves and about when they will next work again; or where their next job is coming from. She still wonders when one project finishes, what the next one will be and who will offer it to her. This woman that seems so secure, has doubts. I wonder if we asked Mary the same question, what she would have said. Mary, of what are you certain, and what do you doubt?
Mary was certain of one thing – -that nothing is impossible with God. She would have clung to that certainty as she dealt with the aftermath of Gabriel’s visit. In her time, unwed mothers were stuff of stonings and complete exile from the community and all that you knew. You were outcast and disowned, if you were lucky, dead if you weren’t. Mary knew all of this. I imagine her trekking to see Elizabeth, the only one who might possibly understand, muttering to herself over and over again “nothing is impossible with God.” I imagine that as the days drew near for her to deliver that she had doubts that many first time parents have – doubts about her readiness, her ability to deliver, in her case, doubts about where she would be physically. But instead of focusing on them, she praises God, using some of the words Miriam used. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Mary’s response to the angel shattering her world as she knew it was to say yes and praise God.
Anne Lawson, in the Iona Community Book Hay and Stardust has some different questions for Mary, questions that I imagine many of us ask. Listen to the beginning of her poem:
Is this what you had in mind Mary?
Is this what you dreamed of,
idly planned and chattered of with the girls in Nazareth?
Did you dream that your first child would be
born out of wedlock
of an unknown father?
Born miles from home
in a place fit only for animals?
Is this the birth you dreamed of for your first child?
Did you dream your firstborn son would be
greeted by strangers?
Greeted by shepherds,
Outcasts of society?
Greeted by wise men
from strange far-off countries?
Greeted by the host of angels?
Is this the welcome you dreamed of for your son?
Did you dream of this life for your firstborn son?
A birth in a stable?
A desperate flight for safety?
A life as a refugee?
A peripatetic life?
A life in which other women cared for him?
A life with no wife, no family?
A life lived in the shadow of hostility?
A life ending in a criminal’s death?
A horrific death?
Is this the life you dreamed of for your son?
Did you dream of your own life?
A happy marriage?
A growing family?
Sons and daughters to care for you in your old age?
Did you dream of this for your own life?
And if you had known, in those days of idle teenage chatter,
as a girl in Nazareth,
what you know now,
would you have said “yes” to God’s angel so quickly?
I am not sure Mary knew what all was in store for her son. I am not sure she knew he was going to have the life he did, the death he did. She knew that she was favored by God, and she was chosen to bear the son of God into this world. Mary knew that through her God would come and be Emmanuel – -God with us. Mary knew nothing was impossible with God, and that with God she would bear this child. Mary knew that the appearance of the Angel Gabriel had changed her life, and changed the world.
I am sure though that God has not finished, not even close. God continues to break into our world, to make annunciations and proclamations, and to be with us. There may not be appearances of Gabriel or virgin births, but God did not stop working with the birth of our savior and redeemer. God did not stop working when we reached the cross, and God did not stop working at the tomb. I am sure that one of the messages of Advent is for us to continue to look for God at work in the world, to continue to be alert for the Kingdom of God that will come, to continue to watch for opportunities to say, “here am I, servant of the Lord” and to hear that “nothing is impossible with God.” This advent is quickly coming to a close – -I can hear the bells and see the angels waiting to deliver the news, just on the horizon. The cattle are getting restless and Mary and Joseph approach Bethlehem, wondering what will happen next, wondering what this birth will look like, and if they are ready. Do they know the angels will appear again proclaiming the birth of their son, and that the world will never, ever be the same? Do they know what this all means? A teenage mother and her husband are getting ready to witness the birth of our salvation – -do they know? How could they truly grasp what is about to happen? They probably are not certain about much but this – God is with them, and with God all things are possible. And for now, that is more than enough.