Mary was much perplexed by the angel's words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And then she said, 'Let it be with me according to your word.'
Mary pondered. And then she consented to bear the child of God.
This beautiful account of the angel's visit to Mary has been told in song and prose and painted on canvas. Indeed, the story deserves much attention, but it is altogether too easy for the complexity of the narrative to be lost when we focus on the punch-line, on Mary's offering of herself to the will of God. There is more to the story.
Yes, Mary did consent to bear the child of God, but what did she do before she said 'yes?' She pondered.
From the angel's unexpected greeting to the incredible promise of conceiving the holy child of God, Mary had much to ponder. It is safe to say that nothing in Mary's life had prepared her for the angel's visit and so as she pondered and tried to understand what was going on, she could not rely on memories, nor on the counsel of her family and friends. Rather, Mary had to use her imagination. She had to imagine the impossible. Mary consented to bear the child of God because she was able to imagine herself giving birth to that holy child. Imagining such an impossibility is the act of a strong and faithful woman, a woman capable of 'prophetic imagination'(1).
'Prophetic imagination,' a concept I am borrowing from the Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, describes an ability to imagine God's promises coming true. In Brueggemann's view, the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and later, Jesus, exercised prophetic imagination by evoking a consciousness and perception which differed from that held by the dominant culture, the so-called, 'real world.' The alternative perception of reality believed that the impossible was possible and resulted in the followers of the prophets and Jesus knowing that they were called to relate to God, each other and the world in radically new ways. They knew, or came to know through joy and grief, that instead of consenting to a religion of dominance and exploitation, they were called to imagine and proclaim the freedom of God.
Imagining and proclaiming the freedom of God is certainly what our sister Mary did when she pondered the angel's holy message and consented to bear the child of God. She trusted the angel's word that God was with her, and using prophetic imagination and being watchful and listening to the word of God even when she didn't quite understand it, Mary gave her consent to God's intimate promise. She was afraid and she doubted and she freely criticized the angel, but in the end she said 'yes' and opened history to radical newness. Her consent brought her immeasurable joy and grief.
We read about Mary's consent to the freedom of God on this fourth Sunday of Advent, not only to fill in the details about Jesus' birth, but also to consider whether our Advent ponderings have prepared us to make the Christmas consent to God becoming one of us. Do we have, within us, the strength of Mary to ponder the impossibility of God being with us as a homeless and helpless infant? In the words of Madeleine L'Engle, do we have the ability to see, "...within the contours of a human infant, our Savior who is Christ the Lord? For to us a child is born, yet this child grows up showing us that the greatest power is in weakness, the greatest majesty in meekness and leaves us all grieving and rejoicing at the same time."(2)
Consenting to Christmas is difficult, but the real obstacle is not the big, bad 'secular' world, as is so often suggested. Sure, the outrageous commercialism of the season distracts us from our Advent disciplines of pondering and preparing the way of the Lord, but our busyness is not the real problem. God is. Sustaining our prophetic imaginations and saying 'yes' to 'God with us' is difficult because, as L'Engle writes, "If we accept this birth, we must accept God's love and this is pain as well as joy."(3) In order for us to get in touch with the impossible becoming possible, we have to be willing to critique our fear of being surprised by the unexpected. We have to penetrate the despair and numbness in which we and our neighbors live and not get stuck in the resulting grief. We have to say `yes' to a faith we are not sure of and allow our conflicted selves to be amazed by the annunciations going on around us all the time.
There is a story of an Episcopal priest who several years ago spent Christmas Eve with their family. The well-loved priest at the family's church was dying of an unusual and irreversible lung disease and so the returning priest was asked to preside and preach at the midnight service. As they worked on the sermon, they knew that the congregation would experience no true joy in celebrating Christ's birth, if they did not acknowledge the grief they felt about the approaching death of the pastor. Even then the priest was curious about Mary's pondering and so after exploring what might have been on Mary's mind, they asked the members of the congregation what they were pondering. Yes, we are here to ponder and celebrate the birth of Christ and what is right in the world and in ourselves and families. But we are also here with sadness, about our pastor's illness and our own losses and loneliness.
While our sadness may feel out of place, we have to know that just as Mary and Joseph celebrated the birth of their son, they must have been sad because they were homeless and lonely. They were far away from their loved ones and confused because even though they had agreed to have the baby, they still didn't understand what was going on! We are not so very different from the parents of Jesus.
Yes, even as we prepare to sing the praises of Christ's birth, we also share holy communion, remembering that not too long after he was born 'with us,' Jesus died 'for us,' sacrificing his life in order that we might become as he: children of God. Why would we remember Christ's death at the time of his birth? Because we need to break open our numbness and sadness and remember that the baby won! The impossible came true and we are here to help each other proclaim the freedom of God.
We are here, with Mary, to ponder and say 'yes' and celebrate that in the birth of a holy child, our world with his, is reconciled.
(1) See Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1978), chapter 1.
(2) See Madeleine L'Engle, The Irrational Season (Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1977) page 18.