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How Can This Be?

Luke 1: 26-38 [i]
Lauren J. McFeaters
December 20, 2020


In the last two weeks, we’ve had the extraordinary blessing to watch Jason Oosting bring us into the Annunciation through the history of Christian Art, and Roz Anderson Flood to carry us into the Annunciation, through works of Advent poetry. Roz shared this poem, “Annunciation,” by Denise Levertov:

But we are told of [Mary’s] meek obedience.

No one mentions courage.

The engendering Spirit did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free to accept or to refuse,

choice integral to humanness…

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

 

She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans, consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light, the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly. [ii]

 

Rather than a skittish, panicky, shrinking Mary, Levertov manages to paint a fresh picture: Mary is forthright, candid, grounded, knowledgeable.

It’s a breath of fresh air, because despite our familiarity with her story, the mother of Jesus remains a woman shrouded in mystery. How Can This Be?

Part of the problem is we’re Protestants. We’ve buried Mary under layers of theology, piety, and politics. She’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some pray to her. Others ignore her. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, “Theotokos,” the Mother of God.

For some, Mary represents a troubling model of pious femininity – ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. She is known as a child prophet  – a young girl who fearlessly announces the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth.

Would the real Mary please stand up? [iii]

My first taste of understanding Mary, was as a five-year-old, and I played Mary in our church kindergarten pageant. After worship on Advent 4, our families arrived in our class room and we presented tableaus of the Christmas story.

I remember feeling quite grown‐up in my costume – a light blue gown and white head scarf.

Scene 1: I knelt before the Angel Gabriel, who was dressed in a white bathrobe, with wings, and a sparkling halo. I said: “Behold! I am the handmaid of the Lord.” I practiced that line for days.

Scene 2: A parent had built a child size stable and I sat at the manger, along with Joseph, and I rocked Baby-Doll-Jesus, singing, “Away in a Manger.” I was to look at the baby, sing, and rock.

As I got older, Mary became a silent figure at Christmas. More exciting characters and costumes came in the form of Shepherds, Cows, Camels, Sheep, Inn Keepers, and the Three Kings. Mary was an unassuming, silent figure who came out of the box once a year and sat amongst the snow: Mute, Immobile, Frozen in Time.

To our Roman Catholics friends, Mary is much more present and vibrant. I knew this because my childhood Catholic friends would talk about Mary and would share their prayers about her. It was fascinating. And they attended churches named Saint Mary of Mercy, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and Our Lady of Good Counsel where Mary was front and center. My church was named for a neighborhood; their church names defined something and said a lot about Mary herself: a real-live woman, a sainted partner in faith, and advocate in life. How Can This Be?

During the Middle Ages, Mary became important in the prayer lives of the common folk. She was seen as one who could empathize with their plight and mediate forgiveness. [iv]

In contemporary studies, Beverly Gaventa writes, our distance and absence from Mary not only cuts Protestants off from Catholic and Orthodox Christians; it cuts us off from the fullness of our own tradition. We have neither blessed Mary, nor allowed her to bless us. [v] We have neither blessed Mary, nor allowed her to bless us.

What would it mean to allow Mary to bless us?

To open ourselves to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through her?

I believe Mary’s blessing comes in the form of her question and then in her answer. It’s two phrases in this passage we rarely bridge.

“How can this be,” Mary asks.

“How can this be?”

And in depth and power, comes her blessing:

How Can This Be?     “Let it be.”

How Can This Be?     “Let it be.”

“Let it be, according to God’s Word.”

It’s a quiet act of surrender that opens a path for God’s entrance. It’s often the smallest acts of surrender, when we give up control rather than try to take it, that we allow God to enter the world in the most powerful ways.

How Can This Be? “Let it be.”

“Let it be, according to God’s Word.”

Mary did not try to seize power. She’s not hungry for fame or acknowledgement. She just agreed to let herself become an instrument of something more than herself. She stepped aside so God could step in.

How can this be?

  • Because sometimes the most holy thing, is step aside, so God can show us what to do.
  • Sometimes the most sacred act is to accept the things we cannot change, for it gives God the space to step into the vortex and act.
  • God’s solutions for us are so wildly and profoundly more elegant than anything that we could come up with.
  • Mary knew this. She knew her greatest joy was not to try to do things her way, but to be a fiercely healing instrument in God’s great plan.
  • It was her greatest joy to be of service to God. This is her blessing for us: the courage to let God be God.

Show us the path, O Lord. Make it not ours but yours.

For you alone know how we are to proceed as a human race.

You alone know how we are to learn to love.

Make us like Mary: willing to give you everything we are,

so that you may manifest your love into our broken world. [vi]

 

Thanks be to God.

 

ENDNOTES

[i] Luke 1: 26-38 NRSV In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘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 to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘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; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

[ii]  Denise Levertov. “Annunciation” found in The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2013.

[iii]  Debie Thomas. “The Pause Before Yes.” December 14, 2016, journeywithjesus.net.

[iv] Alyce McKenzie. “A Mother’s Wisdom: Reflections on Luke 1:26-38.” December 12, 2011, patheos.com.

[v]  Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary. Eds. Beverly Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, 2.

[vi] Kate Moorehead. “Luke 1:26-38: Stepping Aside.” December 20, 2020, Day1.org.