FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
“I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Luke, 1:38
It’s that special time again – that time of wonder and joy and miracles.
Christmas is right around the corner. We hear it coming in the music that we listen to, the last minute shopping that’s got to be done, the parties we have to attend, the family celebrations that are being planned, the food we’re beginning to prepare, the cards we receive with all the family pictures complete with tales of what all the kids are doing.
And then there’s another big hint. It’s the issuing of every media outlet’s Top Ten List: the Top Ten songs of the year, the Top Ten movies, the Top Ten TV shows, the Top Ten books, and on and on it goes.
It got me thinking about what it would be like if you and I were to list our Top Ten Gospel quotes. If we did, which ones would you include?
Surely, at the top of everyone’s list would be: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” This probably would quickly be followed by: “He is risen!”
Also making most people’s list would be such all-time favorites as: “Jesus wept;” and “Neither do I condemn you;” and “… still a long way off, his father saw him; was moved with compassion; ran out and … kissed him;” and “when you do it to the least of these, you do it to me.”
High on my list would be still another: “May it be done to me according to your word” – the very words spoken by Mary to the angel Gabriel in today’s gospel; the very words that opened the door to the possibility of you and me entering into a whole new kind of relationship with God; the very words that changed history; the very words that said “yes” to grace, and “yes” to God crashing into our world, and “yes” to His now being able to show each of us the infinite depth of His love.
But, one of the things I treasure most about this story of Mary and the angel is that before Mary is presented with God’s request of her, she is first told: “Do not be afraid.”
And why wouldn’t she be afraid, even terrified?
To dramatize her original fear, I’m told that in the Philadelphia Museum of Art there is a painting of this classic Annunciation scene which shows Mary as a young girl sitting on her disheveled bed. In front of her is a light. But, unlike so many renaissance paintings of Mary which depict her as totally serene and robed in beautiful attire topped off with a glowing halo, in this particular painting her hair is unkempt, her eyes are frozen as if in terror, and her mouth open as if she were dumbfounded. The whole look on her face is that of someone who is stunned and confused.
And why wouldn’t she be?
What God was asking of this young, uneducated Jewish girl named Mary was unimaginable. She is being visited by an angel, a direct messenger from God, who was asking her … to do what?
Of course she was afraid. She had to be initially speechless, astonished, dazed.
After all, Mary was being asked to make a decision: act out of fear, or act out of faith; respond with terror, or respond with trust.
In a way, it could be argued, we’re all asked by the demands of life to make similar decisions – just not ones quite so unique and exceptional.
What I mean by this statement is that all of life’s major sins that you and I commit are ultimately grounded in fear. Fear is the number one hostage-taker for all of us.
And when it comes to our moral life and the choices we make there, often it is our fears that determine those decisions. In fact, I would suggest that the primary fears we experience have to do with one single question: will I get enough?
Will I get enough love, enough affection, enough affirmation, enough attention?
Will I get enough wealth, enough power, enough possessions, enough comforts?
Will I get enough of … whatever?
Our primary fear is: we will not. And so we take, we grab, we steal, we cheat, we dominate, we demand, we get even, we destroy. We in effect repeat the Garden of Eden story in our little lives.
What Mary’s response is really all about is a reversal, a re-write. Adam and Eve’s “no” becomes a “yes.” The world is offered a new model, a new blueprint upon which human lives can be based.
Mary, in the midst of whatever fears she experienced, chose to trust. She chose to allow the words of the angel to soothe her anxieties, to calm her immediate fright, and enable her to reach out in confidence.
That’s why she is our Mother in faith. That’s why she is the ultimate disciple of her Son. She chose trust over fear, belief over doubt, freedom over being held hostage. The result was the birthing of Jesus, God’s beloved Son.
In spite of all of our own inherent fears, we are challenged by today’s gospel story to do much the same. And we are urged to do this because Christmas is really the story of a God who wants nothing more than all of us to abandon our worries and dreads, and instead embrace the message of the Bethlehem Child: trust, believe, hope, love.
Trust that fear can be overcome. Believe that God is Love. Hope that each of us can imitate Mary and become people who live our lives as she did: being handmaids of the Lord; being people who are willing to push our fears aside and allow our God to come and make His home within us.
Two thousand years ago these magical words spoken to the angel Gabriel gave us all a directive on how to live life without being dominated any longer by fear: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
That’s why I would probably choose to have Mary’s generous words way up there on my Top Ten Gospel quotes list. Maybe even at the very top!
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.