Pastor Ben Patterson tells a story about his 5-year-old niece, Olivia, and her best friend, Claire, who were participating in a nativity play at school. Claire was playing Mary, and Olivia played an angel. Before the show, a young boy named Johnny was going around the dressing room proclaiming to all who could hear him, “I’m a sheep.” Then asking, “What are you?” Each child responded politely, including Olivia who proudly declared she was an angel.
The boy then turned to Claire, who was still struggling into her costume with her mother’s help. He repeated the question to her: “I’m a sheep, what are you?”
Claire simply said, “I’m Mary”.
Realizing he was face to face with a lead character, the boy felt he needed to justify his own role. “It’s hard being a sheep, you know,” he said with all the seriousness of a 5-year-old actor with a big part.
Claire’s equally serious response was humorously profound. “Yes,” said Claire innocently, “but it’s also hard being a virgin.”
Well, yes, I guess it’s hard being a virgin. Let me hasten to say it’s even harder being a teen-aged mom. Scholars tell us that, according to the customs of that land, Mary may have been 13 or 14 years of age when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and made the announcement that would change her life forever. Presumably, Joseph was older as he was not mentioned in the later gospel stories, he may have passed away.
The Bible doesn’t tell us what Mary was doing when the angel appeared to her. She may have been deep in prayer at the time, but it’s doubtful. Women in those days did not have a lot of time to spend in spiritual contemplation. They were up at the crack of dawn baking bread and drawing water from the well, cleaning the house, spinning the yarn, grinding wheat, and caring for children. Most likely Mary was mired in some boring domestic chore when Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” God came to enter an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.
Think about it: You’re maybe 15, it’s an awkward time. Your body is somewhere between childhood and adulthood. Hormones are doing all sorts of weird things to your body and you feel awkward and confused. Then, one day this beautiful angel appears who says, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you. You’re going to have a baby.” What would you do? What would be going through your mind?
The gospel-writer Luke tells us that Mary was thoroughly shaken by this announcement, but she does not bolt. She does not run to her parents. She listens as Gabriel says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
“How can this be?” Mary asked the angel. She doesn’t lose her voice but rather she finds it. Like any of the prophets, she agrees to the task, saying “Here am I.”
Mary proceeds as we must in a life obedient to God, making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy.”
It’s an amazing story. From the earliest centuries Christian people have been so excited about Mary. What is it that warms our souls when we hear her story? Surely it must be more than the miracle of the virgin birth.
Benedictine author and poet Kathleen Norris writes, “Mary’s ‘virginity’ has less to do with biology than with her stance towards God and life itself.” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Riverhead Books: 1999)
Mary had an attitude of receptivity that made her open to the gift of new life. Mary’s greatest qualification for being the mother of God’s Son was her faith in God. When the angel told her that nothing is impossible with God, Mary believed it. In spite of her poverty, in spite of her humble station in life, in spite of the Jew’s current oppression by the Roman government, she still believed that God could do exactly what God said God would do. And God works through those people who have faith in God and respond when God calls. Nothing else about them matters.
Spiritual writer Thomas Merton describes virginity as a “point verge”, an attitude of purity, “a point untouched by sin, illusion, a point of pure truth which belongs entirely to God. (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) Image Books:1968), p.158.
Richard Rohr points out that when we stop idolizing the illusion of control over the events of life and recognize our poverty that we become virgin in the sense that Merton means. . . We all need to be told that God loves us, and the mystery of the Annunciation reveals an aspect of that love. But it also suggests that our response to this love is critical.
Mary responds like the prophets of old saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary proceeds, as we must do in life, making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead. The story forces us to ask: “When the mystery of God’s love breaks into my consciousness, do I run from it or am I trusting enough to respond with my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a ‘yes’ that will change me forever?” (Norris)
Another theologian, Richard Rohr writes, “If Jesus is the representative of the total givenness of God to creation, then perhaps Mary is the representative of humanity, showing us how the gift is received. And that is why we love Mary.” She represents all of us. When we can say, like her, “Let it be,” then we are truly ready for Christmas.
(Rohr, Giving Birth to Christ, “Receiving the Gift”, Tuesday, December 8, 2020.)
If we are to be like Mary, we need to offer our minds, our resources, our bodies as God’s instruments in doing God’s work in the world. Mary shows that you can be unremarkable, unnoticed even, and still be mightily used by God. Preacher Dwight Moody once said, “The world is still waiting to see what God can do with one totally surrendered life.”
Look what God did with one surrendered peasants girl’s life about 2000 years ago. Something good happens when you turn your life over to God’s service.
Christmas is about the birth of Jesus long ago in a manger. But the truth is that for you Christ was never born unless he is born in you. There is no true Christmas for you without your acceptance of the gift of Christ. And if you have received Christ already, then every Christmas is a time of re-birth.
Each year, an angel comes to you as he came to Mary with the announcement, “You’re going to have a baby!” Christ is waiting, longing to be born in you this Christmas. But he will not be born unless you want him in you, unless you say “Yes!”
Will there be a place in the inn of your heart for him? If you are willing have the Jesus live in you, please pray these words with me (which is actually sung to the tune of “Morning has Broken”).
Told of God’s favor, told of God’s purpose, Mary said, “Tell me, how can this be?”
Told of the Spirit, told of the power, told of the promise, Mary said yes.
Yes to conceiving, yes to the body changing and growing, yes to the flesh—
Yes to the new life kicking within her, yes to the pleasure, yes to the pain.
Yes to the waiting, yes to the labor, yes to the hurting, yes to the birth—
Yes to the baby, yes to the future, yes to the holy, yes to the world.
Told of Christ Jesus, told of the Spirit, can we say yes as Mary says yes?
Yes for our bodies, yes for our spirits, yes for the future, yes for right now.
Praise to the Spirit, praise to the Most High sending the word that Mary was told.
Praise to Christ Jesus, who was made welcome into our world when Mary said yes.