Our perception of this saving moment in human history is bound to be coloured by countless artists re-invention of the Annunciation- but if we turn back once more to Luke’s account of Christ’s conception, and birth, and childhood, we uncover a rich background and tradition which puts the meeting of Gabriel and Our Lady in a much more inclusive context.
Luke reminds us that Mary is not alone in longing for the coming of the reign of God. Luke’s opening stories are peopled with what Jewish tradition called the anawim, (roughly translated as ‘the poor’) The anawim were the vulnerable and the marginalized, the disempowered; those who are bowed down. With no hope of privilege or power they put their trust in the scriptures where God constantly promises to raise them up. In the Psalms we often hear how King David’s rightful successor, once he is raised to the throne, will establish justice for the alien, the refugee, the orphan and the widow. Mary celebrates this promise. “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away,” she sings.
It is this simple openness and trust in God’s promises that we encounter at Nazareth in today’s Gospel. In an unaffected, direct, honest, and humble way Mary asks how on earth she could possibly be involved in the coming of Messiah. “How can these things be?”
The risk is that we overlook Luke’s rich sub-plot to the event; fail to see that Mary has been nurtured in a devout culture of prayer and obedience, which enables her to answer God’s call so readily-“Behold the servant of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.” Luke introduces to other anawim; Joseph, Anna the prophetess, Simeon, Zechariah and Elizabeth- all living obscure lives of prayer, faith, and service to their neighbours. Joseph of Nazareth is one of the anawim, a humble workman, but a man of prayer. He experiences his own annunciation, responding to God’s call, furthering God’s plan. (Mt1:18-25). Like Mary he trusts in God’s providential care.
Martin Buber the great 20th C Jewish philosopher reaffirms this mystical tradition. He underlines the ongoing significance of the company of the humble poor, continuing to do the work of God. He writes,” In the prophetic books we find mysterious references to the succession of the Servants of God, who arising in generation after generation will carry, and purify the defilement of the world, though condemned and held in low esteem by their fellow men. In this age the servants of God will be solitary, involved in the places of suffering, of no account to a hurrying and unheeding world. But in them, the Messiahship belonging to the end of time is realized- each of them is the promised one…”
This is the vocation of the people of God, the bringing in of the reign of Christ, that kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace, that his Father wills. And a vital part of our energy at the moment here must be to rebuild our community of prayer and expectancy.
The great 18th C Jesuit writer on this same tradition of contemplative and trusting prayer, Pere de Caussade, reminds us that Mary’s ‘Yes’ comes in what St Paul calls-”the fullness of time.” “4 When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, ( Galatians 4:4) By his sacrificial living and dying, his resurrection and his outpouring of his Spirit on us the Kingdom is patiently built up, often unheeded and dismissed.
De Caussade says, “Mary’s answer to the angel contained all the mystical theology of her ancestors, to whom everything was reduced, as it is now, to the present and simplest submission to the will of God, under whatever from it presents itself.” He calls us to emulate Mary in living in the moment- what he calls ‘the sacrament of the present moment,’ the only place where we can encounter God. (I even found one entry on the website for de Caussade which describes how to eat a chunk of chocolate prayerfully, savouring the experience!! – the advice- “Don’t gobble it!!!” ( As a badly behaved diabetic I have learnt to do just that, and to savour each last delicious lick!) Mary learnt from her spiritual tradition to live openly and trustfully before God, ready to answer whatever his will was for her. As we shall remember next week- this readiness will break her heart, but it will also be her glory.
It is the maintenance of this faithful community of prayer and expectancy that time, a self-seeking culture, and of course the present pandemic, have eroded. Those pioneering Anglicans, the friends George Herbert, and Nicholas Ferrar, sought to restablish a praying, hopeful, generous community, George in his parish, and Nicholas in the community he set up at Little Gidding. It is something our daily pattern of prayer in this parish aims to continue- a community that opens itself to the will and plan of God, as Mary did.
St. Paul sets Jesus before as the supreme example of this readiness to do the Father’s will, telling us that Jesus was born and bred into that same praying community, taking upon himself the form of a servant. Mary and Joseph taught him by prayer and example that God was to be trusted, even when the future didn’t look hopeful. This openness of heart and mind compels Jesus, in Paul’s words, to “Empty Himself, radically forsaking wealth, security and popular power.
Today’s feast reveals the task that Mary, and we, are called to. Her greatest title of honour calls her Theotokos, the one who bears God into the world. Abp. Rowan, reflecting on icons of the God-Bearer Our says of her, “ Mary stands on the frontier between promise and fulfillment, between earth and heaven.” He sees her as a sign to us of our own hope and commitment. “She speaks to us about the hope for the world’s transfiguration through Jesus” But she is also a sign of encouragement to persevere in the time of trial. Rowan reminds us that “Mary struggles with the strangeness of her son, from the finding in the temple to the station at the cross.” By her resilience and generosity of heart, and her continued prayer for us and with us, she sets before us a grounded, realistic model of faith, constantly pointing us towards her Son as the way into new life, and new hope.
Neville Ward, a Methodist pastor, wrote a book of reflections upon the Rosary, ( Five for sorrow, Ten for joy.) He sees Mary as what he calls ‘a vehicle of reality’. He says,
‘Before long the work and the joy for her stopped being easy, and became a matter of faith. It happens in human love, as well as in religious commitment, which in fact are very much alike. A stage may come when for a time we must live entirely upon trust, in the faith that the love that is there can survive whatever may happen, to their very last day, because what has its arms around them may not be particularly good, but it is certainly God. There is every reason for persisting in this waiting and looking. ( The Following Plough: J. Neville Ward.)