As you may know, the Virgin Mary has apocryphal parents who are named Anne and Joachim. Canonical scripture doesn’t mention them, which is why this evening we will be forced to turn to holy imagination to fill in the details.
So here are the details I imagine. I imagine Mary was raised in a smart family, a strategic family. A family with backbone. Mary’s family knew that if you weren’t careful, the world would sell you a bill of goods. I imagine that Mary was brought up knowing all about what not to believe, so that when she heard the words of the Angel Gabriel she would have some confidence in her assessment of his offer. She would be ready.
Let us imagine Anne and Joachim passing on smart family wisdom to Mary at idle moments in conversation. While washing clothes with Mary, Anne might happen to mention something about how there aresome bad angels out there and you have to make sure you only listen to the good ones. “Don’t let just any angel into your room to whisper sweet nothings to you” she might say, “Hold out for the one you can trust.”
Joachim might lecture her on the way to the village: “Don’t let the angel of sentiment get to you. He will tell you that you are pretty and God has a plan for your life, and you won’t notice until after he is gone that he never mentioned the salvation of the world. Hold out for the salvation of the whole world, do you hear me? Don’t let some half-baked angel give you some silly version of personal redemption. Don’t imagine yourself as the star of some insipid religious picture. We’re looking for an angel who brings real life to the people of God.”
Or on the way back from the fields, Joachim might say to Mary, “Don’t let the angel of complacency visit. He will tell you that there is no need for a birth, no need for the shame or the mess or the misunderstanding. You’re better than that and so is God. Make him work. Don’t settle for anything less than incarnation.”
This family has favorite sayings, I imagine. “Don’t let the angel of certainty mislead you,” they might comment from time to time. “If you understand God’s plan, it’s not really God’s plan.” These aphorisms are like glue that hold the family together in my mind.
I can imagine Anne turning to Mary late one night with real concern, maybe noticing a tendency she doesn’t like: “Mary, beware the angel of pointless self-annihilation. God will ask enough of you without invoking maudlin fantasies about female unworthiness.”
Maybe Anne was able to give hints about what the perfect angelic encounter would feel like: “You’ll know that even though the angel is talking to you, it’s not about you. But not being about you will be the most profound validation you’ve ever felt. It will have nothing to do with self-abasement.”
Maybe they taught her to ask questions if she needed time to think. “ ‘How can this be?’ always works. Don’t be afraid to make space to ponder if you need it.”
It’s clear they taught her the perfect biblical response. “Ultimately, when you’re sure, say ‘Here I am.’ The expression in Hebrew is ‘hineni.’ It’s what all the prophets say when they are ready to accept God’s call. Don’t forget that one. Claim your prophetic lineage. Even if you’re just a young girl when the angel arrives, square your shoulders and throw back your chin and show up for duty. Say it calmly: ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord.’”
And then: “Say ‘Let it be’ –Do you hear how you sound like the creator himself when you use that expression?—‘Let it be with me according to your word.’ An elegant balance of power and submission.”
I can imagine, I want to imagine, somehow, that they had prepared Mary to receive the angel, and to know that the angel was true. I can imagine that they had worked to shield her from false promises, and to make sure she was up to the challenge of coming to terms with her creator.
But of course none of these little training sessions ever happened. What seems semi-earnestly to me to be reasonable, prudent parenting, is apparently of no interest at all to God. I want to fortify the poor girl, strengthen her, add some resources to the picture. But in the end, parental advice or no, when the Angel arrives it’s just Mary in that room, just Mary and the angel. Gabriel will be short on detail, and Mary will have only a few sentences in which to hear, ponder, ask, and cooperate. Apparently in God’s eyes, and Luke’s, training is a luxury we don’t need and shouldn’t want.
Can this be all there is for Mary, then? And is this true for us too? Can the Holy Spirit arrive on such short notice and find us so unrehearsed? Are we this vulnerable to the indwelling of God among us? Is God so casual?
I ask, because it doesn’t seem a simple thing to me these days to receive the Spirit of the Lord. I run classes, you know, for people who are being confirmed and received and baptized as adults, and I’m astonished sometimes by the sheer audacity of a person coming forward to be sealed as Christ’s own forever. Sure, we have classes, but how can we ever have enough?
In this world? To bear God’s presence? To measure the distance between the life of Christ that you know is growing in you, and the life of the world that feels so grotesquely astray? How can this be? How, indeed, can it be that the spirit of God should dwell in us and we should dwell in this time and place.
If you’re hoping that by the end of the sermon I have a trick for softening this assessment of the present day and our place in it, let me assure you, I do not. I have just this one thing to offer. Mary had no training for the visit of the angel, but we do have her example. We do know that a teenage girl, all by herself, asked the right questions and gave the right answers and was highly favored among women.
We do know that even though she was young and confused, she squared her shoulders, lifted her head, and said “Let it be to me according to your word.” An elegant balance of power and submission, a God-like “fiat” with which she consented to the renewal of all creation.
If the world has you cast down, remember that long ago in a room a young girl simply got on with her work as a follower of God. She did not look for a more reasonable proposition. She did not cast about for invitations from angels that offered sentiment or complacency. It simply was for her, according to the angel’s word.
Let me just say what the church has always said. Turn to Mary for guidance. Profit from her example. Let her, let the church, offer the instruction you need in going on with the work. Let it be for you, for all of us, according to the word God speaks.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
25 March 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia