(Note: I preached this sermon on the third Sunday in Advent, 2011)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Then the angel departed from her.” Does anyone else just want to burst into tears when you hear this verse at the end of today’s Gospel lesson? “Then the angel departed.” When a human father does such a thing to the mother of his child, which happens often enough, we don’t rejoice. I find this story so very sad, and yet so very moving.
Let me explain. This story from the Gospel of Luke has for a very long time been known as The Annunciation, that is, the angel’s message to Mary and her consent to God’s plan. It’s one of the most frequently-depicted scenes in all of Western art. I’ve put a famous and fairly typical example on the screen today. It’s by an Italian painter from the 15th century named Filippo Lippi. If you want to see it in person, you can just scoot over to Munich, Germany. But you can find a similar scene in most any big museum and in any book about European art.
You’ll notice Mary on the right, standing at what looks like a kneeling lectern, as if she’s being interrupted in prayer or study. She’s bowing very demurely and humbly, and her whole attitude and the expression on her face is very pious and holy. Gabriel, the angel on the left, bows before her, looking very gentle and feminine, with his angel’s wings.
It’s a beautiful painting and I love it, but it’s a rather fanciful imagining of what happens in today’s Gospel. First, Gabriel was an angel, but in Greek, angel simply means “messenger.” I don’t know when we started putting wings on angels, but in the days of Luke and Mary, people did not picture angels as these winged creatures. Gabriel may have appeared like a natural man, or like a more fearsome being. Mary, for her part, was probably very young–younger than she is depicted here. Since girls were not typically taught to read back then, she was very likely illiterate, too. So she would not have been reading a book just when Gabriel popped by.
In these days, women did not spend time alone with unrelated men. We don’t know where Mary is when this encounter takes place, but since she’s alone, we can assume she’s either in her father’s home or in some “female space” in the town. Marys and Gabriels didn’t mix in those days, and if a Gabriel paid an unexpected visit on a solitary Mary, it was usually not for any good reason. Mary must have been very, very afraid–afraid that she’d be kidnapped, that she’d be violated, that she’d be harmed in some way.
So when Gabriel calls her favored one, and says that the Lord is with her, she is afraid as well as perplexed. And Gabriel reassures her, but only for a moment. “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.”
Now put yourself in Mary’s place. Are you feeling highly favored yet? You’ve got a fiancé, you’ve got parents, you’ve got a community that is not too keen on mysterious pregnancies. When Mary answers, “How can this be?” I doubt it is a naive question–golly gee, how can I get pregnant? I’m a virgin! But Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of God will overshadow her, and even her barren cousin Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age. “Nothing will be impossible with God,” Gabriel says. See, Mary! You can become and be exposed to shame or punishment and who knows what without even having intercourse! That should show you not to doubt the power of God!
How then do you think Mary spoke when she gives her famous reply: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Is she joyous? Is she resigned? Is she somewhere in between, both fearful and excited? But accept this word from Gabriel she does.
And then the angel departs from her. The angel departs from Mary–young, vulnerable, illiterate Mary–and leaves her to fend for herself.
Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, says this about Mary:
To be sure, Mary bore the child miraculously, but it came to pass with her after the manner of women, and that season is one of dread, distress and paradox. To be sure, the angel was a ministering spirit, but it was not a servile spirit which obliged her by saying to the other young maidens of Israel, “Despise not Mary. What befalls her is the extraordinary.” But the Angel came only to Mary, and no one could understand her. After all, what woman was so mortified as Mary? And is it not true in this instance also that one whom God blesses He curses in the same breath? …she is not a fine lady who sits in state and plays with an infant god. Nevertheless, when she says, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” — then she is great, and I think it will not be found difficult to explain why she became the Mother of God. She has no need of worldly admiration… for she was not a heroine… but became greater than such, not at all because [she was] exempted from distress and torment and paradox, but [she] became great through these.
Lutherans have a phobia about Mary, a phobia that arose because Luther and the Reformers of the Church felt that some of the devotion paid to Mary distracted people from the clarity of the Gospel: that God forgives all our sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. But no one said that Mary was not a great figure, and no one said that she did not have a necessary role to play in our salvation. Indeed, God places this burden on her, and then God’s messenger departs, and Mary must rely on her faith.
While no one here has this same role to play, we too hear an annunciation, and we too must find a way to persevere even after the angel departs. We hear that God created a good world, that God created us in God’s own image. We learn here that even though the world is sick and broken, God promises to heal and restore us through the cross of Jesus Christ. We hear words of forgiveness and receive gifts of grace and strength. If you are an especially favored person, you have had moments of blessed assurance, moments when God felt so close you could just burst into tears. You may even have seen visions or dreamed dreams. Or perhaps your faith has been nourished with humbler food.
But either way, we know very well that God stops speaking. A terrible tragedy happens, only a short walk from here, and suddenly a whole community is left to wonder how something like this can happen, and how a world made by a good God can house such awful things. Where is that messenger when we need him? Where is the sign of grace? Where is that saving word?
The angel departed from her, but Mary still believed. The angel left her with only words, but she held onto those words, and she treasured those words in her heart. I can only believe that Mary–the real Mary, not the image we see in most of our art–had to fight for her faith, through the dread of being discovered, through the unknown changes in her body, through the days of waiting for the baby to quicken inside of her. She had to live according to the word of promise. We have to do nothing less.
So while this painting may be historically inaccurate, it tells the truth all the same. Mary was probably not educated, but she was wise in the way that matters most. Mary was not a wealthy woman dressed in fine clothes, but she was rich in the grace and love of God. And Mary was a scared, vulnerable girl, but she was blessed with the great power of faith, faith before which the very power of God kneels down in homage.
Because when the angel departs, when the voice of God stops speaking, when the facts of life get back in our face, the promise still stands–for Mary, and for all those her Son came to save. Amen.