– It is agreed among most Christian denominations that, if we want to be successful in reading the Scriptures as a faith community, as a church, we have to find ways to make it relevant. To make a connection between the Word of God of ancient times and today’s world, to connect God’s story to our story, as people and as individuals.
I have a little “Guide to the Bible” at home and this is what the guide says: “When you read the Bible, you have to apply the passage to yourself“, and in order to do so, there are a few questions you can ask – among them:
– “What does this passage tell me to feel? To love or to hate?”
– “Is there an example I need to follow? A sin I need to confess?”
– “What does this passage teach me about my relation with God?”
And so on.
And all of those are useful tools we may want to use when we read the Scriptures. I know I do. We certainly use these tools when we do Bible study.
One of the things that came up this week, is that indeed, Mary is “God’s servant” as self-proclaimed. And there is certainly a lot we can learn from this example and apply to our lives:
Mary’s humility, her trustful obedience, saying yes to God without full knowledge or understanding of God’s will, Mary’s acceptance of being interrupted, and even disturbed, having to think about her life differently than she did before because she had to admit that God’s plans weren’t her plans, and then of course she had to take risks: the natural risks of the pregnancy, the difficult life of being a single mother – risking even her own life at that time since she was in danger of being stoned to death for having had extramarital relationships as she undoubtedly would be suspected of – or just maybe she had to take the risk to be seen as crazy, telling around this incredible story that the child she was bearing was in fact the Son of God.
And so, there is a lot, right there, from the beginning, that we can find for ourselves in Mary’s story. A lot that can shape a disciple’s life. Among all and probably above all, a sense that we are called to give away something of ourselves and even to give away our own selves – for God’s sake and for the sake of others.
For me, an example came to mind – of something I saw in the news this week, and maybe you saw it too. They interviewed this nurse who was one of the first in this country to have received the Covid vaccine. Her testimony was very touching. This simple woman, simple nurse just doing her job, said that she came to the realization that she had to overcome her own fear so she could be a good example to all, so she could encourage everybody to receive the vaccine as well and by that, finally put an end to the epidemic and allow healing to take place.
I had this passage of the Gospel in mind as I was listening to her. She made me think of Mary, who also, twenty centuries ago says the story, had to overcome her own fear. Her selflessness would be the reason God could find a way into the world and bring salvation.
And that could be enough, right? To me that could be enough to make this passage of the Gospel real and relevant and an example for each one of us. Mary has been on a pedestal for so long, we need to make her more accessible to us, more relevant. This is at least the belief of many scholars and theologians: Mary has appeared so otherworldly in so many ways – her virginity as a sign of complete moral integrity and flawlessness – we need to bring her down her pedestal to be able to actually make sense of her, what she was going through, and follow her on the way to Christmas, on the way to Jesus.
And yet. Yet as I was trying this week to think about all the ways we could relate to Mary, Betty kept sending me by email pictures for our cover page bulletin, all of them so wonderful I couldn’t pick one – which was already a problem in itself – but more deeply, I started to have a sense that something didn’t click. Something didn’t click and probably wasn’t right about “downplaying the scene” to try to make it more accessible and relevant to us. Seeing Mary in all this beauty, holiness and purity – something didn’t feel right trying to bring her down, even for the sake of relating to her example. To me I guess the aspect of the story that I am the most sensitive to is the way Mary knew what was God’s plan for her and agreed so quickly to put it into action. Compared to her story, I feel like I live in a perpetual fog, trying to find God’s will! Even as I try to relate to her, deep down I know this woman isn’t like me and like most people I know.
This woman, in this moment of the annunciation and as we’ll see later in the Gospel in other times in her life, is certainly one of us, but she is certainly unlike anyone of us. And to me this is what all those painters have tried to capture since the beginning and maybe there is something so precious about this scene that we would be fools trying to lose it.
The angel, the light, the flowers, the gaze in Mary’s eyes: Yes, obviously it’s difficult to relate. But maybe, maybe, instead of thinking about it as a problem, maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the point: To show us something really extraordinary, and something really perfect, something really flawless and maybe we shouldn’t rush in trying to understand how this applies to us or affects us or guides us to do something in the world.
Maybe Luke’s point in “painting Mary” on this perfect day – writing this passage – instead of telling us that it is a story we should reproduce by using it as an example for our lives – maybe Luke is first trying to describe something that we cannot imitate or reproduce in any way, something so unique and so special that, as when we look at those wonderful paintings, the only thing we can do is to contemplate the mystery and let wonder and awe fill our hearts.
“How can this be?”
Maybe that’s the words of today’s Gospel we need to let resonate: “How can this be?”
Maybe we are to resist first to find practical applications, trying to find in our Scriptures good moral examples of virtue and obedience, and maybe we need first to realize that we are just invited to pause and contemplate the mystery, rejoicing and marveling at the fact that this is indeed very unique and beautiful and incredible – and that’s the wonder of it. After all, if we could explain it, it wouldn’t be God.
(And we had a sense of that in our first reading. God makes it clear to Prophet Nathan and to King David that God does not want and cannot be contained – would it be in God’s Temple. The king won’t make a dwelling for God but God will make for God a dwelling among God’s people.)
Almighty God will send God’s messenger to a humble young woman to announce to her that God will make a dwelling among humans.
“How can this be?”
Maybe as we let the question Mary asks the angel sit in us – maybe, surprisingly, we will discover that it is actually the way we can relate to Mary. There may have been generations of believers who could not believe in Christ’s virginal birth, or who couldn’t believe that God really took human flesh and dwell among us – but let’s not forget that Mary was the first who couldn’t believe it, the first to ask:
“How can this be?”
The Gospel mentions that Mary “pondered” the greeting of the angel and many times in the Gospel this expression comes back around Mary. Mary is not first of all an example of moral greatness, or faithful discipleship – maybe she is first inviting us to pause in front of God’s mystery and be immersed in wonder in front of God’s mystery.
A sociologist said that one of the great sadness of our technological and scientific era is that we have lost all ability to be surprised and delighted – and I am thinking maybe we have also lost our ability to feel “perplexed and confused” as Mary was. Because we can explain away almost anything, or dismiss what we cannot explain, we take so much for granted, we have lost a sense that there is something greater than us we cannot contain and cannot control and we end up living very flat lives in a very flat world. Well, Christmas’ message is that this world is not a flat world after all. It’s a time of wonder, a time when we have to ask ourselves “How can this be?”, when we discover that there is so much more to life than life as we know it – When we are called to experience in our flesh the mystery of the Word made flesh for us.
And so maybe as Christians that’s what we are called to do first to bring to the world the healing and salvation we have found in Jesus: Maybe all we need is to make room for God, that our lips maybe but mostly our lives may to point out to God’s mystery – something like the selflessness I saw in the nurse I was talking about earlier – something so good and so beautiful that it make us all ask, out of awe and not out of incredulity:
“How can this be?”