Receive the Fullness

Luke 1:26-38
4th Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Today we read the story of Mary, the one who received the gift of God in all fullness. We talk about receiving gifts, but all hail to Mary. She received the best gift of all. She caught in her very own womb, God’s miraculous fullness to transform all of creation. She was chosen to be the mother of God with us, Immanuel. Let us pray: Ave Maria.... Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

For some of us that prayer is as deeply inbedded in our souls as the Lord’s prayer. For others of us, who were taught to define ourselves in reaction to the Roman Catholic Church, it is not be a comfortable prayer, though the music of Ave Maria is part of our repertoire. I want to begin today by telling you why this prayer is meaningful to me. To me Mary is the greatest example of human faithfulness. She represents the person I could become, were I to be as receptive to God’s will as she was. Jesus was fully human, fully divine. I cannot relate to being fully divine, even though through the power of the Spirit I grow in Christ-likeness. But I find it easier to relate to Mary, who fulfilled her calling by being receptive to God in her body, mind, and soul. Receptive to God in body, mind, and soul.

Protestants often resist praying the Hail Mary prayer because we have been taught not to worship or pray to Mary. But I think Protestants might grow in respect for Mary by attending to this prayer, as it relates to our scripture today. The first part of the prayer is the greeting of the angel. “Greetings, favored one is the same as Hail, Mary, full of grace, or graced one.” Then the second part of the prayer is Elizabeth’s greeting, mother of John the Baptist, who says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” That visit of Mary and Elizabeth is not part of our scripture today. But it is the third part which makes some protestants stumble. “Pray for us” Yet I invite you to notice that we’re not praying to Mary, but asking for her prayers, in the same way we might ask for anyone to pray for us. Of course, Mary is not just anyone. She is the consummate saint in heaven, the Queen of all the saints. So if you believe in the communion of saints, then perhaps you are okay with asking for Mary’s intercession. Do you converse with family members who have died before you. I do.

Hear the prayer again in different words, Greetings Mary, favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Having prayed with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, now let us pray with our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers: God-bearing Virgin, rejoice! Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have born the Savior of our souls.

Now hear the scripture:

NRS Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

The visit from Gabriel is a surprise to Mary, naturally. Few of us have such supernatural experiences.

I want to tell of one which I had on All Saints Day in Greece less than two months ago. Emily and I were asleep in a hostel. Though exhausted from our travels, I was sleeping poorly, knowing I had to walk four blocks to the bus station at 4:00 am to get to the airport. I can’t bring myself to pay over $50 for a taxi ride when I can take the bus for three dollars. So while I’m trying to sleep, another hostel resident comes to our door and repeatedly tries to open our door, obviously confused about the room number. But every time he or she tries to unlock my door, fear rises up in me and I imagine having to confront someone drunk or worse, someone determined to do us harm. Finally the person gets to the right door and leaves us alone, but I’m lying there afraid to walk to the bus station. At last I doze off and in my dream Barbara Deibert, Richard’s mom has come to visit the family as an angel. Barbara died in the summer of 2006. When I wake up I am confident that she is present in the room, and that she will walk with me to the bus station, as my guardian angel. It was a powerful experience. Tears ran down my face as I rode the bus to the airport.

I have had one other significant angelic-type experience like that when my dad, after he died, and I resolved a deeply emotional issue in a dream. I needed for my own peace of mind to forgive my dad and that forgiveness got resolved in a dream. You can separate reality from dream if you want, but for me they are connected.

Now, let’s be clear, the text does not say that the angel came to Mary in a dream. It says that about the angel and Joseph in Matthew, but we don’t know whether Mary’s visit was in the day or the night. But the scripture tells us the angel greets her as the one full of grace, and says to her what we say to each other every week as we come to the Sacrament. “The Lord be with you. The Lord is with you.” The angel explains that Mary has been chosen by God and encourages her not to be afraid. And the angel informs her that she will have a son, who will be great, who will be Son of the Most High.

Mary asked the question that generations after her have asked. “How can this be?” Our modern minds bent toward scientific proofs want to know even more than people in Biblical times, “How can this be?” Tell me how. We try to tame the miracle. We want to be able to wrap our minds around it. Make it more believable, more real. But maybe it’s more real, when you relish the miracle like I relished the presence of Barbara Deibert on the sidewalk of Athens at 4:00 am. I challenge you this Christmas to take on the faith of little children and cling to the miracle. Enjoy it. Celebrate it. Live into a second naivete’ and dare to believe the truth which cannot be proven, but which will change your life when you are open and receptive like Mary.

I like believing that the Holy Spirit can do things that seem impossible to us. Does that make me a fundamentalist? No? But it means my view of Christ is higher than my view of my own ability to process information. I cannot explain higher math, so why should I be able to explain how Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit?

I affirm by faith, though not by logical reason, that the child conceived in Mary was truly divine. If not conceived by the Holy Spirit, then Jesus was just a great human being, a marvelous teacher, a prophet. He was all those things but more. He was Immanuel – God with us in person. He was set apart from the very beginning. I believe this Incarnation – this God becoming human flesh – was a holy and mysterious event, brought about by divine grace surpassing human possibilities. (This language borrowed from The Study Catechism) If he’s not fully divine, then he is not deserving of our worship. If he’s not fully human, then we have not been fully saved. As Irenaeus, the 2nd century church leader, whose name means “peace” said, “That which has not been assumed, cannot be healed.”

I’m grateful that Jesus had a wonderful step-dad in Joseph but I have no trouble claiming that his real father was God. And that whatever happened to Mary was different and more glorious than what happened to me four times, or we could say five. And of course, we all know anyone’s child-bearing, is a miracle beyond our explanation – how babies in the short period of nine months become the perfect and beautiful individuals they are with genes from two people mixed into this unique DNA combination. And how even adopted children develop deeply held attitudes and mannerisms picked up unconsciously from their loving parents who nurtured them.

But miraculous as regular child-bearing and child-rearing is, it is not the same as giving birth to God with us, the Lord of heaven born on earth. But what the Church has seen in Mary for two thousand years is a human being ready to receive the fullness of God, willing to receive the fullness of God, unafraid to receive the fullness of God, the fullness of God, the fullness of God. Mary is our greatest role model, as she was the very first person to accept, to receive Jesus Christ into her life unreservedly.

I pray to become more like Mary, willing to say to the outrageous claim of an angel of the Lord, “Let it be with me according to your word.” In other words, in common vernacular, “Okay, Gabriel, what you’ve just told me makes no common sense but do with me what you want. I am open and receptive.” Wow, what if we said that too! What might happen, if we really received Christ like that? O Little Town of Bethlehem, which we will sing in a moment, has this wonderful line: Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. We are told Mary was likely a peasant girl, not very old, not at all prestigious, until by her faithful openness to receive the fullness of God, she became known and loved around the world as Mother of our Lord. May we discover the meekness of a childlike and receptive faith this Christmas.

The other wonderful line from O Little Town of Bethlehem will be our prayer –
O holy child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.