Let it be!

Recapping the argument

Advent frames three human experiences: expectation, preparation, and waiting. Expectation is tricky. How much expectation can we allow or even tolerate? Preparation is more comfortable, being busy is a wonderful distraction for anxious people. Most of us restrict expectation to what can be reasonably hoped for. I am sure you are familiar with the old adage: cut the coat to suit the cloth. The question always is: how much cloth do we think we have, and given that, how efficiently can we cut the coat?

Episcopalians tend to be moderate people. We are attracted to the Anglican espousal of moderation. There is a lot of safety in this. When it comes to expectations, ours are always reasonable, and our coats usually tasteful if not fashionable, and always carefully understated, lest heaven forbid we become open to the accusation of being flashy.

Three towering heroes of mine from the last century are the theologian Paul Tillich, the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, and the poet T.S. Eliot. Each challenges my assumption that I can expect only what I can prepare for. By contrast, they all advocate in favor of the notion that we only become what we have the courage to hope for. Who we currently can be is limited by the poverty of what we are brave enough to hope for.

For me, Advent is a time when something I call the trans-generational vision comes more sharply into focus. The TGV (not to be confused with the Train à Grande Vitesse, the French high speed trains bearing the same acronym) is a leitmotif of divine expectation, weaving in and out of human consciousness, surfacing and submerging, only to surface again and again throughout the events of human history. For Christians, the leitmotif of divine expectation becomes anchored in the event we know as the IncarnationGod becoming human in the birth of Jesus. Immediately preceding the Incarnation, paving the way lies another event known by us as the Annunciation. 

The Annunciation is a uniquely Lucan idea. Note that in Matthew’s version of the birth narrative, an angel speaks to Joseph in a dream. Luke goes further, like a good historian he names the angel as the ArchAngel Gabriel, and it is to Mary, not Joseph that he/she (angels are always androgynous) speaks. But, who is Mary? Any exploration of the Annunciation begins with a tongue-in-cheek request: would the real Mary please stand-up? 

The Biblical evidence

In Matthew’ Gospel, Mary is simply the betrothed of Joseph. The earlier Gospel of Mark makes scant mention of her at all. Joseph is the important figure for the Jewish Matthew because it is through Joseph that Jesus’ lineage is traceable back to the house of David. Locating Jesus within Isaiah’s prophesies is a crucial element in the TGV confirming Jesus’ identity. Luke, not being Jewish, and not interested in Jewish lineage, places Mary within a larger narrative of the birth of John the Baptist, another stand in the TGV. John is conceived to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. This is more than a point of familial connection for in the TGV John the Baptist is Elijah announcing the coming of the Messiah. In the Biblical record, after the birth and some other events recorded in Jesus’ childhood Mary does not appear again except in one incident in Mark, where she appears with Jesus’ brothers who want to take Jesus home because they think he is mad. John records Mary at the wedding at Cana and all the Evangelists record her presence at the foot of the Cross.

Christian Traditions

There is no single tradition on Mary, but competing Christian traditions about Mary, and in which her significance varies. In Catholicism, Mary is the Virgin Mother of God and crowned by Christ as Queen of Heaven. In Orthodoxy, Mary is the Theotokos, the Godbearer, which is a concept I like. In the Reformation Churches, Mary is significant as someone to be ignored. She lies buried beneath layer upon layer of vying political pieties: catholic, protestant, patriarchal, and not to forget, feminist. Mary is alternatively heroine or victim.

Mary in Anglican Tradition

For Anglicans, being moderate people, Mary is neither venerated nor ignored. She is the saintly Mary, the earthly mother of Jesus, who embodies the primary human characteristics of courage, patience, and compassion. Mary is honored because she is chosen of God. As Anglicans, Episcopalians honor Mary. After all, we’ve named a good number of our Churches after her. In our Gothic Revival Churches, of which St Martin’s is one, to the right of the main sanctuary is a small chapel, traditionally known as the Lady Chapel. The Lady Chapel is the place for more intimate weekday prayer and worship, in which we find an image of Mary, sometimes alone, sometimes as mother with child, traditionally in glass or stone, and more recently in Icon form. We are affectionate towards her, we honor her, we feel she is somehow on our side as we ask for her prayerful consideration, but we draw the line at worshiping her, or assigning to her a semi-divine status. Like Jesus, what matters to us about Mary, is her humanity.

As Anglicans, Episcopalians abhor any spirituality of the exceptional. Not for us the spirituality of the unique. We value the spirituality of Benedict because it is a spirituality, not of the exceptional or the unique, but of the ordinary and the everyday. We honor Mary not because she is exceptional and unique, but because she is homely and ordinary. It is because of her ordinariness and not in spite of it that Mary is chosen by God. For us, it is the Annunciation to Mary, not the Immaculate Conception, nor the Assumption of Mary that we look to, to shape our view of her.

Although we affirm her virginity in the Creeds, we don’t focus so much on whether she was really a virgin or not in any biological sense. The Virgin Birth is a doctrine of the Universal and Apostolic Church, and as part of this tradition Anglican Episcopalians hold it to be true, but we don’t lie awake at night worrying about it, and we don’t hold it as a badge of orthodoxy. What is important for us is that it is God’s message to Mary not anything special about Mary that sets her apart. Mary is not the subject of the Annunciation, in other words, it is not about her!

Mary in the Trans-generational Vision

Although growing up I was steeped in the Anglo-Catholic piety, which holds an honored place for Mary – a piety pretty much as I describe above, I no longer look to traditional Catholic piety for my orientation to Mary. What interests me is who Mary can be seen to be within the concept of the trans-generational vision.

The TGV first appears in the first two chapters of Genesis telling the stories of Creation. The creation stories – there are two – tell of God creating from nothing. Actually, the Hebrew concept here is not creation out of nothing (ex nihilo fit nihilo – out of nothing comes nothing), but of creation as a process of God bringing order out of chaos. Humanity emerges within this process of God ordering the primal elements of chaos into shape and form.

Now fast forward to the visit of Gabriel to Mary. In a sense, I see the Genesis theme of creation echoed in this angelic –human encounter. Gabriel announces to Mary God’s intention to make a new creation, or maybe more accurately to take the next big step in the cycle of creation. What God announces is an intention to dismantle for specific purposes the demarcation between creator and creation. Gabriel announces to Mary God’s intention to enter into the experience of creation through taking on the limitations of human existence. How does God propose to do this? In Luke’s narrative construction of Mary’s angelic encounter God announces the hope of building a bridge between the divine and the human, a bridge located in the promise of a new human life. In the life of the Christ Child, God enters into time and space at a certain point of history.

The Annunciation is not only an incremental step in the cycle of creation, it is a game changer, as Americans say. In Genesis, God’s creative energy is not limited by anything beyond God. In the Annunciation God’s creative energy is dependent on Mary’s collaboration. Is it accurate to say God can be limited by the absence of human consent? Although in theory it is not accurate to say so, in practice it appears to be so. I see in the Annunciation God-honoring a core element in the Genesis endowment of human life, i.e. freedom to choose. God is modeling respect for freedom of choice, in requiring Mary’s collaboration in the plan. God not only is seeking to be bound by the need for human consent, God seems to be inviting humanity, in the form of Mary, to be a full participant in the next big step of creation – the incarnation of creator into the creation as an embodiment of God’s creative energy, which is love.

Chosen by God?

It seems to me that to be chosen by God is tantamount to a curse. Who willingly wants to pay the costs of collaboration with God as Mary and Jesus each paid? Yet, it’s important not to see Mary as a divine victim, who faced with the enormity of the encounter with the divine could not refuse. Between the end of Gabriel’s salutation Hail  most favored one and Mary’s …be it to me according to his word, all of heaven and earth waited in silence. What fills this silence in Mary’s mind and heart is an intoxicating question inviting wild speculations.

Botticelli’s The Castello Annunciation, the picture accompanying this posting captures my imagining of Mary’s response to Gabriel. In it, Gabriel kneels before a standing Mary. The sheer momentousness of Gabriel’s communication is like a physical force pushing Mary to the very edge of the frame. Her head bows forward enveloped by the halo of consent, yet, while one hand is extended in a possible gesture of welcome, the other is raised in protection, warding the angel off. Her outer blue robe is open revealing a red dress through an opening suggestive of a reproductive receptivity. Out of the window the distant scene is of a bridge only half completed. It is as if God has built from God’s side, and now waits for Mary to agree to complete the bridge from hers. In his poetic reflection on this painting, Andrew Huggins puts it like this:

And though she will, she’s not yet said, Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord, as Botticelli, in his great pity, lets her refuse, accept, refuse, and think again. [1]

In her ambivalence, Mary is every one whose heart longs to open to receive God more fully, while at the same time gravely fearing to do so. While we have every reason to be wary of becoming the object of the Lord’s favor, the Word of God is born in the yes of every heart. However, that yes is not a heroic fearless yes, nor a callow acquiescence. Saying yes to God always involves a dynamic dance between the poles of refusal and acceptance. This is a repetitive dance, one that allows for both a further refusal and time to think again before a final decision.

Mary is not special. Her virginity is an immaterial distraction and our preoccupation with it says more about us than her. What matters about Mary is her acceptance of her role as an agent in the in-breaking of the Kingdom. In her great song of affirmation, The Magnificat, Mary extols that in her soul God has become magnified not because he has given her the Christ Child to bear – she says nothing about this – but because in her ordinariness God has called her to play her part in the birthing the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom God’s mercy is on those who love him. The proud are scattered by the grandiosity of their imaginings. The powerful are exposed and the powerless are raised up. Those who hunger are fed with good things and the rich are sent away hungry. For in the Kingdom of God, this is the trans-generational vision: that the promise is made again and again, firstly to Abraham and then to all of us who follow him, until the end of time.

Expectation and waiting

If it’s the Kingdom we are waiting with the expectation of birthing, then we must have the courage in our present time to give birth to it through our audacious dreaming of its coming. Remember we are already that for which we wait. The implication here is that we cannot be agents of the Kingdom’s birthing or put another way, the Kingdom cannot come to birth in our yes if we don’t expect it’s coming. The Kingdom is here and still emerging, in and through us. Ours is to bear it’s expectation – T.S. Eliot’s hoping and loving through the courage of waiting in the full expectation of its arrival. In the meantime, we get on with procreating it’s signs in the here and now or as the words of that great Beatles song echo those of Mary herself: Let it be!

[1] I am grateful to Debie Thomas’s referencing of the Botticelli work and of Andrew Huggins’ poem on it.

The angel has already said, Be not afraid.
He’s said, The power of the Most High
will darken you.  Her eyes are downcast and half closed.
And there’s a long pause — a pause here of forever —
As the angel crowds her. She backs away,
her left side pressed against the picture frame.

He kneels.  He’s come in all unearthly innocence
to tell her of glory — not knowing, not remembering
how terrible it is. And Botticelli
gives her eternity to turn, look out the doorway, where
on a far hill floats a castle, and halfway across
the river toward it juts a bridge, not completed —

and neither is the touch, angel to virgin,
both her hands held up, both elegant, one raised
as if to say stop, while the other hand, the right one,
reaches toward his; and as it does, it parts her blue robe
and reveals the concealed red of her inner garment
to the red tiles of the floor and the red folds

of the angel’s robe. But her whole body pulls away.
Only her head, already haloed, bows,
acquiescing. And though she will, she’s not yet said,
Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord,
as Botticelli, in his great pity, lets her refuse, accept, refuse, and think again

3 thoughts on “Let it be!

Add yours

  1. I began listening to your sermons when you were in Phoenix and have continued reading them since your move to Providence. Your careful attention to the biblical text and your ability to connect elements of that text to the central issues of human motivation and activity is done with remarkable insight. It also is interesting to see how you are using your sermons as a way of developing and presenting a unifying theological-psychological interpretation of human life. Although I may never make it to Providence from my home near Portland, Oregon, if I were to get there Sunday at St. Martin’s would be on my list of things to do.

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