Year B – The 4th Sunday in Advent
December 21, 2014
“Cold and weary with a babe inside;
And I wonder what I’ve done…
Holy Father, You have come
And chosen me now to carry Your Son.
I am waiting in a silent prayer,
I am frightened by the load I bear;
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now, be with me now.”
The words of this hauntingly beautiful song written by Amy Grant give us another perspective on the account of the annunciation in Luke’s Gospel, one of the most well-known passages in Scripture.
There’s a lot we don’t know about what life was like in first century Nazareth where Mary lived when her life was changed forever, other than what the Bible tells us. The factual information we do have is found in archaeological accounts of this obscure little village where a couple hundred people lived under the tyrannical domination of the Romans. It was basically a farming community, spread around an area where most of the people lived elbow-to-elbow, in stone and mud-packed homes with their grains stored in caves under their houses. Life was hard and their existence was meager. Nazareth was not on a major trade route, and far from the public works commissioned by Herod that would have provided good wages for laborers. Fear was part of their daily reality, made more so by the overwhelming burden of the terrorist-like tactics of the Romans who routinely rampaged through the region of Galilee, demanding extortionate taxes from the citizens. When they were unable to pay, the soldiers were known to grab what they wanted, destroy their dwellings and sheds and abduct children and young women in lieu of payment owed to Caesar.
We are told that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph. Jewish tradition followed a two-stage wedding rite. At about the age of 13 or 14, a young woman would consent, among witnesses, to be married, but would continue to live with her own family for one year, until the second stage of the official marriage rite, the “home-taking ceremony,” when she would then go to live in her husband’s home. The culture of the time was steeped in religion and it has been suggested that Mary’s parents were devout Jews, so it is assumed that she was true to her upbringing and was still a virgin.
Now, had there been tabloid journalists around at that time, I can just see it now – the front page of The Galilee Inquirer screaming the headlines in bold 72-point font: “Nazareth virgin pregnant out of wedlock – claims immaculate conception by Holy Ghost!”
And though there were no paparazzi around to document the event, people would likely have been crowded around the well at the center of the city – the ancient version of the modern-day water cooler) – and rumors would have been flying. “Did you hear about Mary? She’s going to have a baby! She’s not even 15 yet. Joachim and Anne must be having a fit! What was she thinking? Her family’s going to be ruined! Her cousin’s a Levite, you know, married to that priest Zacharias. And get this – she made up this big story about an angel telling her she was going to be the mother of the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit! Can you imagine? Poor Joseph must be so embarrassed! He had such a good future, too. House of David, you know…”
Furthermore, personally, I can’t even imagine what Mary must have been feeling when this mysterious stranger shows up in her bedroom and says, “Do not be afraid.” Roman soldiers roaming the countryside, plundering and pillaging and she’s not going to be terrified? Yeah, right. Luke, speaking like a typical physician, tells us Mary was “much perplexed by his words.” I’m thinking that was the understatement of the century.
Now, even with life being as different as it was then, and girls growing up earlier than they do now and all that… still, some things don’t change through the millennia. I admit I’m probably projecting here, but I’m guessing what was going through Mary’s mind might have been something along the lines of, “Wait, What? Hold on just a minute. First of all, I’m nobody. My parents are poor. I’m poor. I’m just a peasant farm worker, who digs around in the dirt all day and lugs grain baskets to market and water jugs from the well to home. I’m not even smart. Yeah, I go to temple, everybody does, but I’m not any holier than anyone else. You’ve got the wrong person. You should be looking at one of those rich girls whose parents own lots of land. You’re talking about GOD here… why would God be born to a peasant and live in a house with mud walls and dirt floors? And what’s going to happen when people find out I’m pregnant? You want me to get stoned, for crying out loud? What about Joseph? I’m supposed to get married! I show up pregnant, that is SO not going to happen! Give me a break here!!”
Then follows, however, what I think is one of the most endearing examples of God’s grace in this story, when Luke recounts that the angel then tells Mary her older cousin, Elisabeth, is also pregnant, even though she and Zacharias were “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” but had never been able to have any children. Mary goes to visit Elisabeth, who knows nothing of Mary’s predicament. Yet the first thing she says to her cousin are words that validate and confirm everything Mary’s been told, and assure her that she is, indeed, worthy: “Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?”
And I envision Mary, despite her shaky self-esteem and feelings of not being good enough, falling back on what she knows to be true in her heart and articulating probably one of the most incredible expressions of faith ever uttered: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior… for he who is mighty has done great things for me… and his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
There are many commentaries and ecclesiastical suggestions about how one could interpret The Magnificat. There are probably just as many other ideas as there are folks sitting here. I don’t have a definitive answer, but because Fr. Brent offered me the opportunity to speak today, I get to share what I think. Grounding herself in her belief, Mary starts by announcing, “My soul magnifies the Lord!” and then goes on to list all the ways God has exalted those who are faithful throughout history: He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty…
As I consider all the people God has chosen to accomplish those things, I realize how often it has been men and women who are “fringe people” – those who are marginalized, outside the norm of the “acceptable,” those who have been deemed as failures, criminals, have made poor choices, who have been judged and found wanting, those who are “less than” – and my heart is splintered by the sharp awareness that it is the imperfections, the cracks, the flaws that leave space for divine wisdom, for the discernment of God’s will, for the expanse of God’s limitless love. Room, too, for the trust and vulnerability that allowed Mary to say, “Let it be according to your Word.”
So I wonder how I can do any less when my Lord, who has done so much for me, asks me to do something that might be outside my comfort zone – whether it’s serving the unhoused, feeding the hungry, spending time with ill-tempered neighbors, speaking in front of a bunch of people, giving up possessions I’m still attached to so others who have nothing can use them, being willing to be real and know it’s okay. My default response is usually, “No, wait; I’m too old, I don’t have any experience in that, I got a “C” in that class,I I don’t have enough training, someone else can do that way better than I can, nobody would want me, I’m not good enough or smart enough, or qualified enough …”
“Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of Your plan…
Help me be strong,
help me be,
Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven, Breath of Heaven…”
May the gift of this Advent be the faith and choice to answer as Mary did, “I am the Lord’s servant and I am willing to do whatever you want.” Amen.