I recall when I was younger and attending the Lutheran church, we heard very little about Mary. She was generally relegated to the nativity story and beyond that, we really didn’t talk about her. But I did go to mass with my cousins who were Catholic and boy did they talk about Mary. There were statues of Mary in their church, and they prayed the “Hail Mary” and there were all kinds of devotions about Mary. I can’t say I understood it, but I gathered there was something about Mary … I just didn’t know what. When I was 11, we joined the Episcopal Church and here I found that we talk about Mary quite a bit more than I had experienced in the Lutheran Church. Not only did we talk about her during Advent and Christmas, we also celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation in March and the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary in August. It was intriguing to me.
Shortly after we joined the Episcopal Church, we made our annual trip from the San Francisco Bay area to San Diego for Christmas. We’d always stop about half way down the coast at a small town named Solvang – a Danish enclave in the central coast region. In the middle of the town was the old Spanish mission of Santa Ynez. I loved visiting the mission and being Catholic, Mary was very prominent in this church. It was there, when I was about 12 that I bought my first rosary. I didn’t totally understand it and had to go to the library to look up what to do with it and how to pray with it. In fact, as a “cheat sheet,” I wrote down the three sets of mysteries in the front of my “proposed Book of Common Prayer” (circa 1976) so I could remember them all – joyful, sorrowful and glorious. I still use my “cheat sheet” to remember them when I pray the rosary. There is something about Mary …
The prayer we know as the “Hail Mary” comes from today’s gospel reading – it’s known as the angelic salutation. “Hail favored one! The Lord is with you.” I can only imagine that Luke downplayed Mary’s reaction to this stranger greeting her – perplexed likely didn’t really capture the mood of the moment. The biblical tradition tells us that when angels show up, this isn’t something to be taken lightly. Angels in the Bible are not cute … they are scary! They bring news from a God who is beyond all and all powerful – and the news isn’t always good.
Gabriel tells Mary of God’s plan to be born into the world through her. When other people in the Bible encounter God and receive a call to action, they usually try to find a way out of it. Remember Moses? His response when God told him to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews was to say, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” In other words, “Are you kidding me? You don’t want me!” This seems to be the usual response – “Say what? No way – I can’t do that!” followed by some excuse as to why we can’t do whatever it is God is asking of us. Jeremiah’s excuse was “I’m only a boy,” Isaiah’s was, “I am a man of unclean lips,” and then there was Jonah – “Nineveh? Uh uh … Tarshish is nice this time of year.” This seems to be the normal response but not for Mary. She doesn’t find some excuse based on her own self-understanding of who she is. Instead, she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The only other person in the Bible who had this kind of faith was the archetypical father of us all – Abraham. When God told him to “get up and go to a land that I will show you” – he did. He didn’t give God any excuses – he just followed and it was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” And so it was with Mary too.
It is easy for us to sentimentalize today’s gospel and read it through our modern 21st century eyes. If we do that, we lose the incredible power of Mary’s response. In the first century, the only honor or esteem you held was that of your family and their honor. It was up to you to uphold your family’s honor through your actions. For a young woman, one betrothed in a contractual marriage to another family at about the age of two or three, to be found pregnant out of the bounds of that marital arrangement was to bring shame not only on your own family but on your betrothed’s family too. And the punishment for this was death – death by stoning. Think about that for a moment – Mary said “yes” to a death sentence. We forget how radical her “yes” was – there really is something about Mary and her example! Whenever we say “yes” to God’s call, there is a death of sorts – the death of our small and limited vision of who we are and what we are capable of being.
In this season of expectation, where is God calling you? Where have you found yourself resisting God’s call with some kind of excuse? May you and I have the courage to step beyond what we think we are and follow Mary’s example – say “yes” to God’s call to something new in your life and dare to become something far greater than you ever could have imagined.