For those of us who are eavesdropping on Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel this morning, what we hear may feel very distant from what we experience. Mary at this stage in the gospel is a bit of a blank slate, just a young woman from the house of David. Her response might almost feel formulaic to us, given the numbers of times we have heard it read and sung, seen it depicted in majestic or humble artistic renderings. “How can this be?” and then “Be it unto me according to thy word.” This central event in the history of our salvation may feel more like a tableau than a lived experience, try as we might to fill it in with our imaginations.
It’s a little disappointing to me, sometimes, to feel that way about the great feast of the Annunciation. This is our feast day as well as Mary’s, right? Mary is a figure for us, the church, receiving the body of Christ, becoming the body of Christ, bearing in ourselves the body of Christ. This is the reality we live every day as Christians. We hear the call of God. We are moved through this world by God’s longing to be incarnate among us. We hope and pray that our very beings—our emotions, our instincts, our desires—are transformed day by day, moment by moment, into the being of Jesus in this world.
But this one precious moment of incarnation remains beyond us, even while it shows us to ourselves. A very fine preacher may be able to bring you a little bit closer to its visceral reality. Sometimes sentiment helps us fill in what we can’t experience. I’m very much in favor of sentimental mediations on the beauty of Mary’s “let it be.” Dwelling on Mary’s youth and her virginity and the purity of her response: those are ways of tapping into something pure and whole within us that responds to God in spite of all our double-dealing and distraction. Gratitude helps. Just giving thanks for Mary’s “yes” to God, time-worn though the notion may be, is a way of letting the power of this saving moment come closer to our hearts. Honoring and loving Mary as our mother, marveling at her courage, mourning for her loss: these are all strong forms of devotion that help us put flesh on the work of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s life and in ours.
I give thanks for my childhood experiences of Marian devotion in the Roman Catholic Church. We crowned a statue of Mary in our parish each May, and though I never got to be the May Queen who climbed the secret ladder at the back of the statue and put the wreath of roses on her head, I was a princess once. We had dresses that looked like Karen Carpenter’s and we knew that we were the flower of young womanhood. It was surpassingly beautiful to me, and even after the roses faded Mary would wear a rhinestone crown for weeks after. I loved to gaze upon it and upon her. I cherish the memory of the May altars we built in our classrooms every year. We would all bring fresh flowers from our gardens. This was California, so there were big waxy rose-parade roses with strong fragrances and colors that were impossibly bright or exquisitely soft, and we could see and smell the beauty of our love for Mary and her love for us and God’s love for everyone all day long as we did our math problems and learned our geography lessons. There were sweet little wildflowers and daisies, and I suspect a few weeds. Some years I tried to keep a little altar in my own room at home. It’s a fragrance that haunts my memories.
All of this is a digression, of course. All of it is a way of saying that Mary’s bare experience in Luke’s gospel can never be represented. It’s a story that will never be told fully, even as we live it out in our own lives day after day. The story keeps slipping away from us, and we keep turning to the extraneous details. Mary’s hair or her clothing. What the angel looked like. What the room or the garden looked like. The quality of the light. The lilies by her side.
We have no way of capturing Mary’s consciousness, and so the story of Mary’s “let it be” keeps slipping out into the world and its physical objects. Like God does. Like you and I do. Some of us pray the Rosary, running our fingers over beads as if to channel the energy that wants to flow into the physical world.
Mary’s brief story will never be told fully, and neither will ours. We will gather on days like this, feast days that require extra devotion and extra work. Days that bring extra prayer, extra beauty—an extra Sunday in the week, almost. The Fernanda Guild prepares us a lovely reception. We steep ourselves in the beauty of holiness as though it could clarify something, as though observing this feast day were a way of observing—literally seeing—the truth of God’s ever-deepening presence in the world. In us. We gather to witness Mary’s story slipping out into the physical world and into our own lives.
This is our feast day, richly and abundantly, with sentiment and awe, with nostalgia and love, with hope and courage and gratitude. We won’t have the words, we won’t be present when Mary and Gabriel exchange their few remarks. Our translations will never be authoritative, our focus will never be adequate, our devotion will never be unproblematic. And the word will be made flesh and we will behold his glory in the world, full of grace and truth.
Precisely because this day is forever beyond us and yet forever within us, this is a day to celebrate our incarnate salvation. Let it be. Let it seem distant and surreal, warm and human, childlike and earth-shattering, all at once. Bring your roses, or hold them back. Meditate in silence or with sweet music. God is with us. God is in us. Nothing will be impossible with God.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
The Feast of the Annunciation 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia