Vision of Mary

Fourth Sunday of Advent  |  Luke 1:26-38

Gabriel didn’t tell her everything. Mary knew that.

“Greetings, you favored one!” Gabriel said. “The Lord is with you.”

Mary was no simpleton. She knew from stories that angels making announcements were just the start of the trouble, and so she stood there and tried to work out what kind of greeting this Gabriel creature was offering her.

The angel, perhaps seeing that it did not have her full trust, went on to say that she would have a child. This would be not just a child, the angel claimed, but a king, and not just any king, but king forever without end. It was quite a claim, backed up by nothing but words. Sure, these were the words of an angel, but words nonetheless.

Mary’s presence of mind was remarkable. Most of us would stare slack jawed at the spectacle of an angel, but Mary was thinking on MaryBabySnowCPher feet. She listened to the promise of a son, and she knew that the angel was skipping over an important step in the process.

“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” she asked. It might be the best question anyone ever asked, when you think about it. She could have asked for proof that Gabriel was, in fact, an angel. She might have asked for miracles, or gone into whys and wherefores. She might have lost her self control and fallen into a cowering heap at the sight of an angelic being. Instead, Mary (her actual name was Mariam) chose the path of empirical evidence. Mary was a woman with a scientific and logical mind.

With statues and paintings, rosaries and Hail Mary prayers all over the world, it may sound strange to say that we don’t give Mary enough credit. Maybe it is more precise to say that we do not give her credit for the right things. People speak of Mary’s purity, and her humility, and her faith, but this story reveals a woman with remarkable intelligence and courage.

Gabriel told her that a holy spirit would come upon her, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, whatever that might mean, and that the holy one being born to her would be called the son of God. Then the angel changed the subject. It began to talk about Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, who was pregnant even though she was thought to be too old, like Abraham’s Sarah. To top the announcement off, it told her that nothing was impossible with God.

“Behold, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “May it be to me according to your word.” And Gabriel, satisfied with the response or having nothing else to say, left her.

We should admire her intelligence at least as much as her other attributes. She could have objected that the angel was a little vague on the biology question, and she could have asked what Elizabeth’s situation had to do with her own. Instead, she asserted her faith, and she added a sensible, “May it be so.”

A son who becomes king sounds like a good thing. This was an angelic being standing in front of her. Whether one believes in the angel or in what it says, there is little point arguing.

In so many words, she said, “We’ll see.”

The Gospels tell us that Mary faced a pregnancy that came too early to be respectable. She traveled. She raised a family. She did all of this with courage, intelligence, and more than a little grace.

Perhaps this Advent season, we might welcome a new vision of Mary. This one has nothing to do with robes and roses. This new vision of Mary is of a woman who thinks clearly and acts with courage. Our daughters, and our sons, would do well to look past the statues and to imagine the overwhelming difficulties she faced, to learn from her sensible and steadfast nature.

In this season, we might ponder—as did Mary—the journey of God toward humanity, on unexpected paths, announced by unlikely messengers. We may meet no angels. We do not know whether such visitations are rare or whether we simply do not recognize them when they happen to us. Perhaps that was one of Mary’s gifts, to know an angel when she met one.

Hail Mary, full of grace.


Mary and the Angel

Painting - Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Annunciation of the Lord  |  Luke 1:26-38

Mary wasn’t surprised by the angel, just by what the angel said. She was blessed, it said. She was going to carry a child, no man required. God, the Other, was going to enter the world as a child. Her child.

Not to be surprised by the angel itself, Mary must have carried some expectation that God could break the boundaries of her world, that angels would open the doors of her mind. And Mary responded the only way that anyone can ever really respond to God.

Here I am, she said.BlueWaterGlass 009

Sometimes the world rises, or sinks, to our expectations. Angels appear, maybe because we believe they will. We see God at work because we are watching, waiting for something to happen.

But when it happens, it’s not what we thought. The angels tell us things that make no sense.

And there you are.

“Behold I am the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “Let it be as you say.”

That behold is sometimes translated here I am. The Greek Ἰδοὺ idou “behold” substitutes for the older Hebrew הִנְנִ hineni, a response to the calling of God: here I am. Abraham said it to God and to Isaac. Moses said it. Samuel said it. Isaiah said it.

And Mary says it. Here I am.

Strangely enough, this story is all about God saying the very same thing to Mary. Behold, here I am with you.

Mary didn’t expect her story to start as it did, just as she did not expect her son’s story to end as it did. It isn’t about God meeting our expectations. It is simply a matter of expecting God.

Here I am with you. Emmanuel.

Advent is the season of anticipation, a time of mindfully expecting the impossible, that there is a God, and a God who chooses to be with us. Among us. Within us.

We may not receive a visitation from an angel. We may never know God dwelling with us the way that God dwelled within Mary. Still, we may hope. And that hope, all by itself, is a miracle.

Hineni – Here Am I

“Hineni,” the young boy said.IMG_2928 - Version 2

In the third chapter of 1 Samuel, we read of a young Samuel, hearing the call of the Lord three times, and answering three times, “Here I am.” What he actually says, each time, is the Hebrew word hineni. (It sounds something like the ‘hi’ in ‘hit’, then ‘nay’, then the ‘ni’ in ‘nit’ or the ‘nee’ in ‘knee’.) The most common translation is ‘here I am’.

This Hebrew term is found in other places within scripture. In Genesis 22, Abraham responds to the call of God with hineni. Abraham responds to the call of his son with hineni. And he responds to the call of the angel with the same hineni.  In Exodus 3, Moses hears the Lord calling his name, and Moses answers, “Hineni.”

We can learn a lot from this one little term. I invite us to consider two aspects–our response to God and God’s response to us.

How might we recognize the voice of God, or of a messenger of God? Among the many answers we may offer, the fundamental answer is simple: by listening. To say “here I am” to God is to pause quietly in the expectation that God is going to say something. That is no trivial thing. There are plenty of people who believe in God, who live wonderfully exemplary lives, and who never actually stop to listen to God and who never actually seem to expect God to communicate anything. It is easy to believe, or not, in something that is far away, a concept. It is another thing altogether to consider the immediate presence of God and to actively, expectantly listen. It is still more removed if, having heard, we respond.

Consider Abraham. It is interesting that he did not see fit to explain to his servants what he was doing. He did not begin by telling people that he was responding to the voice of God. Perhaps he still wondered himself. And take Moses–suppose someone came and told you that he had heard the voice of God speaking from a bush, and that the bush was on fire, but the fire did not burn the bush. You might very reasonably think that he had eaten the wrong mushrooms.

Entertaining the possibility that a small, faint voice may be the Almighty speaking is an act of faith. It is also an act of freedom, freeing us from the worldly constraint that says that truth always speaks loudly, and that we should listen to the powerful, the mainstream, that we should wrap ourselves in the terrible chains of normality. If we are paying attention, it is pretty clear that Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Paul were not normal people.

So how we distinguish faith from lunacy? It may be that the only answer is found in these old stories of faith, the stories of Abraham, and Moses, and Samuel, of people who responded to God and whose response was, finally, embraced by the continuous body of the faithful over the centuries. Time and faith were the winnowing fan of scripture. If we are hearing a voice that speaks something radically different from the voices found in scripture, it may not be a voice to follow.

What does it mean when we say to God, “Here am I?” What did the folk in our faith stories bring with them when they said, “Hineni?” There is nothing of ‘Hey, look what I can do for you’, nothing of ‘Here I stand with ability and worth’. In fact, the only thing we can bring is recognition of our emptiness, of our unworthiness to respond to the Almighty.

There is a blessing. When we stop to respond to God, we recognize that all of these burdens, ideas, conceits, and worries we carry around are what they are—nothing in the face of God.

Remember that we are not the only ones saying, “Hineni!” …They shall know that it is I who speak; here am I. (Isaiah 52:6)

These are words of comfort, that we might hear God calling us, and a promise that God is always listening, always present, always waiting. If we pause, quietly, expectantly, we may hear the voice of God whispering, ”Here am I.”