Oh God of love, help us to hear your invitation today, as you call each of us on a journey of faith, and equip us with all that is necessary to reply, “Let it be to me as you have said.” Amen.
The story I’m about to tell you is called “An Angelic Salutation”, and it was written by David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester.
An Angelic Salutation
For a long while they sat opposite each other, gently holding hands. She with her head bent, her body racked with sobs; the Angel calm, still, waiting for the word that would have to be spoken. At last the woman lifted her head, pushed her hair away from tear stained cheeks, and said, simply, “I can’t”. Silence followed. She was gathering her energies to offer a reason, a rationale for why her courage had failed her; why she, who had always been obedient to God’s will and law, was now withholding her consent. “Don’t be afraid”, said the Angel. He’d used those words before, at the very beginning of the meeting, when his sudden presence, and the light that quietly emanated from him, had so clearly scared her. Now half-formed sentences began to tumble from her: about her place within this close knit community; the shame that the inevitable gossip and accusations would bring both on her and her family; the loneliness of a life as a tainted woman, one no man would take as wife; the pull towards prostitution, in the struggle to sustain herself and the child she would bear. It was too much. Please let this cup pass from her.
The Angel still held on to her as tightly as ever. Only when she had emptied herself of both her words and her tears did he respond. “Fear not”, he said, for a third time. “God loves you. He loves you as deeply as ever. This was never a command, always an invitation to come on a particular journey with him. Go in peace. Marry. Have children, and bring them up in that same love of The Lord which you yourself know. And teach them this; that God, in their generation, will do this great thing. Tell them to be alert, to watch for the signs that the Promised One is coming among them. Live long, do not regret your decision today; but of your mercy, when you hear of Him, pray for His mother.”
He stood up, passed out of the house, walked perhaps a stone’s throw away from the building, then stopped to wipe a hand across his eyes. He gazed back at the woman’s home for some minutes. Silently, he held her and all that she was before the One who had sent him. From somewhere within his robes he pulled out a scroll and unfurled it. It was a list of names, women’s names. Many had already been crossed through, and now there was another to strike out. He looked at the details for his next assignment. Another unpromising village, another pious but conventional upbringing. Another dispiritingly traditional name. Mary.
• David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
Eve and Mary
This story is just that – a story, of course – an imaginative take on a familiar word. But it invites us into this space of invitation – the pause before the response comes to the question – “Will you join God on this journey?”
All Advent we have been waiting, anticipating, expecting, and allowing the hope of the coming of the Christ-child to be born within us. But one thing has been waiting – Mary’s response.
Today, finally, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we are brought into a place of wonder as we listen to the angel’s invitation, and we hear Mary’s simple response: “Let it be to me as you have said.” An acceptance of a gift, a burden, a task, and most of all a journey with God.
But not an easy one, and the story I just told attempts to illustrate that. With this response, Mary was tossing away her reputation and risking losing her family, her friends, her fiancé, and possibly even her life, because the punishment for adultery for the woman was stoning. And the angel didn’t make any promises about everything turning out okay. In fact, we know that things got harder for Mary, not easier. In the very near future she faced not only disbelief and dismay from Joseph, but a gruelling trip to Bethlehem and a midnight flight to Egypt. She didn’t know how things would work out.
Ever since the very beginning, when God created the world in love, he has been inviting humanity on a journey with him – a journey of joy, and love, and discovery. We don’t know how long it was, but it wasn’t very long before the first humans decided to reject God’s invitation and go their own way.
Genesis tells us that “when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” (Gen 3:6-7)
In these few verses, we feel again the breaking of a perfect world, the breaking of humanity’s innocence, and the breaking of God’s heart as the first humans turn away from him, and his lovely creation comes under the shadow of sin, and darkness is ushered into the world.
On the cover of your bulletin this morning is a very special Advent picture, a pen-and-ink drawing done by Sister Grace Remington of the Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. The title of it is “The Consolation of Eve,” and there’s a larger version of it up here at the front. In the drawing, a pregnant Mary consoles a shame-stricken and sin-trapped Eve. A serpent is winding its way around her leg, holding her – but Mary is crushing the serpent’s head with her heel.
And that is what is happening this morning, as we overhear this dialogue between Mary and the angel. The beginning of God’s plan of redemption is put into motion and a cry of triumph echoes throughout the universe as this young girl – possibly no older than Arielle or Rae-Ann – says “yes” to God’s invitation to join him in this journey of redemption.
Just like all of humanity has suffered under the consequences of Adam and Eve’s decision to turn away, so all of humanity also feels the consequences of this one decision of Mary’s, this courage to say yes, to follow God on this journey and allow the Christ-child to be born within her. Eve’s shame in this picture is answered by Mary’s compassion as she points to her womb, where the Saviour of the world resides – the One who will grow up to take away the shame of the whole world.
So we rejoice, and we hold Mary up as theotokos – God-bearer – the mother of our Lord. But Mary did not get there on her own. As a child she would have heard, over and over, the stories of her people’s faith. She would have listened to these family stories, passed down generation after generation, of her courageous ancestors who had dared to say yes to God and to face the consequences:
…the story of Sarah, who stepped out in faith to follow her husband Abraham and an unknown God into an unknown land…
…the story of Moses’ mother Jochebed, who defied Pharaoh to save her son, who then led the Israelites out of slavery…
…the story of Rahab, who sheltered the Israelite spies at the risk of her own life…
…the story of Ruth the Moabitess, who left her own people and country to follow her mother-in-law and the God of Israel, and then became the grandmother of King David…
…the story of Queen Esther, who risked her life to save her people…
…and so many more in the long ancestry of faith-filled people that led to this moment, the moment when finally a young girl, fed on these stories, was able to say to God, “Thy will be done” – and the Word took on flesh in her womb.
Mary Teaches Jesus
And then imagine, Jesus, as a little boy, sitting at his mother’s knee as she in turn feeds him with the stories of faith – her own faith, and the faith of all those who came before her. We can be sure that courage in submission to God was one of the things Jesus grew up watching his faithful mother model. And over three decades after Mary says “Let it be to me as you have said,” in a dark garden just outside of Jerusalem, we hear the echo of her response as Jesus gasps out to his Father: “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
Mary Teaches Us
Mary is a faithful teacher. And by hearing again her story we too are invited to sit at her knee and learn from her, just as Jesus did, the practice of saying to God “Thy will be done.” To hear the invitation to each of us, day by day, to join God on his journey of redemption, and to say with Mary, “Let it be to me as you have said.” And, finally, to tell and retell our own stories of faith so that we too can join in this great chain of faithful believers, adding our chorus of “yes” to the heavenly throng.
May it be to us as you have said.