If Mary had not been willing to embrace impossibility, to receive in humble submission the glory of God, which she did not understand, where would we be? There would be no hope, peace, love, or joy as we know it! If Christ had not been born the creation would have come crashing in on itself in despair, violence, hatred, and bitterness. But she received or 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. Will you pray with me? 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. Amen.
For some of us that prayer is as deeply imbedded in our souls as the Lord’s Prayer. For others of us, only the sung version, Ave Maria, is part of our repertoire. Mary is the greatest example of human faithfulness. She represents the person we could become, if we are as receptive to God’s will as Mary. Jesus was fully human, fully divine. I cannot relate to being fully divine, even though through the power of the Spirit I am able to grow in Christ-likeness. I find it easier to relate to Mary, who fulfilled her calling by being receptive to God in her body, mind, and soul. We see in this story of Mary the origin of the prayer. 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, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Then the third part, “Pray for us” is not a prayer to Mary, as it has been misunderstood, but is a request for her prayers, in the same way we ask someone living to pray for us. Because we believe in the communion of saints, then we can be comfortable requesting the prayers of Mary. To say “pray for me” is to say I need to be held in communion in your relationship with God. So it’s you, your pray-er, and God.
Hear the Ave Maria again, this time the way the Eastern Orthodox Church prays it: 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. Mary called “Theotokos” in the early church, Greek for “God-bearer” has born the Savior of our souls. Her womb is said to be more spacious than the heavens because she held there and nourished with her own flesh and blood, the amazing God of love, the One who made the heavens and the earth.
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. 39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." (NRSV)
Imagine Mary’s surprise at the message of Gabriel. She was a young teen girl, and as was customary in the day, she was promised/betrothed to Joseph. Imagine the challenge of telling Joseph – fortunately, he had his own visitation by an angel in the night, according to Matthew. Young women who got pregnant accidentally were not just scorned – they were subject to abandonment and sometimes torture. And yet this young peasant girl, not powerful, not expected, was the favored one, the one chosen to carry the Messiah, to contribute her own chromosomes to the Son of God. Why? Because she was open to believing impossibilities. She heard the message of the angel. She responded faithfully, despite her doubts.
If Jesus was just a great prophet, a highly visionary teacher/leader, then Mary is just an ordinary woman. But if you have a high Christology, if you believe that Jesus was fully divine as well as fully human, then what Mary contributed is amazing. That her body could contain all the holiness of God is overwhelming to imagine. Mary trusted from the beginning and she had to trust through to the end. No one has ever been closer to Christ our God than Mary. The one she carried had a special purpose far beyond her own love. She had to make a huge sacrifice to allow him to be for the world, and not just for herself. This required deep trust on her part – to permit him to have his identity with God his father, and not just with her, his mother.
The beauty of God’s love is that it is never coercive. We have to be willing and ready to receive it. That’s what Mary was able to do to the extreme – to be receptive to God, able to trust God and allow God to do whatever God wanted to do with her. To trust in God is to believe that God can accomplish what we think is impossible. It is to see reality from a divine perspective, believing meekly but confidently that God can take is working for good in all things. One of my favorite carols is O Little Town of Bethlehem. In the very best third verse, we hear these wonderful words (singing):
“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
Christ grows in the meek soul of Mary. She is pregnant with the power and presence of God. Im-possible possibility! Christ can be born in us too. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he says, it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2:20 NRS)
And in the letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul prays that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 1 (Eph 3:17 NRS)
Jesus Christ dwelt in Mary’s womb. Christ dwells in our inner selves, as we live according to his Spirit. It is no longer we but Christ in us. Impossible possibilities. The Angel Gabriel said to Mary when she wondered how she could be mother of the Son of God, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will over shadow you.
Mary responds, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Supreme act of trust. God, whatever you want with me. With most of us, our prayer is “Let it be with me according to MY word.” We pray to God, telling God how WE want it to be. Mary prayed that it would be as God wanted it to be. That’s faith. That’s trust. And, in the end, that’s joy for all the world. Nothing is impossible for those who allow God to work in them and through them, who are willing for their own personalities and wishes to be over shadowed by God’s.
Maybe it is not so surprising after all that God so often chooses the powerless to accomplish great things. It is easier for those who have no stature in the eyes of the world to listen to and abide by God’s will and to believe that God can do impossible things.
The powerless are much more likely to acknowledge the presence of angels and to be radically open to God’s will and way, rather than insisting on their own way. Mary became the new Eve in her willingness to do just what God wanted and the world needed. Like many in the Bible who are called by God, she initially questions, “How can this be?” But then having heard about her relative Elizabeth’s equally unlikely news of a coming child” she agrees that God can do the impossible and says, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
And she quickly travels to visit Elizabeth, filled with hope and peace. As soon as she enters the doors of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house, she receives the joyful confirmation of the Holy Spirit in Elizabeth. We too need the support of friends and family, who announce to us what we were afraid to believe by ourselves – “that God can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” (Eph 3:20) Without Mary telling her, Elizabeth knows and even her infant John is jumping for joy in the womb. This reassurance fills Mary with the confidence to sing her famous song, the Magnificat, which we will hear on Christmas Eve.
Mary demonstrates the joy of trusting God, even when she is reasonably, understandably confused and afraid and in very dangerous circumstances. We too are called to believe that God can do impossible things through us. Like Mary we can move from doubt - “How can this be?” to discipleship - “Let it be with me according to your word.” The Beatles put it this way, straight out of the Gospel of Luke: (singing) When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. (chanting: with me according to your Word, O God – the Beatles left off that part)
Mary went from lowly peasant to powerful prophet. Mary went from ordinary girl engaged to Joseph to Mother of God, Christ-bearer. Blessed is she who believes that God’s word is trustworthy. She brings joy to the world by trusting God, despite all reasonable fears, that God can do amazing things just when life appears grim and hopeless. What child is this growing in Mary’s womb? The child who makes the impossible, possible! (singing refrain of What Child is This) Joy! Joy! For Christ is born, the babe, the Son of Mary.