The angel rode a rope of light down through the stars, and landed lighter than a dust mote right behind the old priest.
Gabriel, whose name means “God is my strength,” watches old Zechariah fussing about with a light in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, glides in behind him and down like a feather and promptly startles a year off the old priest’s life. The angel loomed up out of the shadows like a gargoyle for an instant, but then the radiance that rolled off Gabriel like as an afterglow from the heavenly courts lodged behind the old priest’s left eye and began to grow like a rising moon on the horizon.
The angel told the priest to not be afraid, calling him by name, Zachariah, as if that would reassure the old man that she was friendly, but you might as well tell someone to decide not to breathe. Gabriel relays the message, a prophecy about a child, complete with child’s name, and what the child will mean to the people of Israel. Now other people, when they’ve gotten the full treatment—spotted the wings, the glory, the rising light in the eye—they’ve gone straight to laughing, or singing, or both. Not Zechariah. Despite his fear, Zechariah doubts the words of Gabriel. In return, Gabriel gives Zechariah an affronted version of “Do you know who I am?’ and as a lesson, Zechariah is struck mute for nine months.
Six months later, Gabriel slides down that rope of light again, but this time to Galilee. The angel expects to see a slight young woman, this Mary, gown and hair making her seem larger than she is, near a locked garden to remind us of how pure she is. Gabriel touches down lightly, like a dancer, a dancer who spends most of her time in the air and not earth-bound.
Gabriel takes a step back at the determined light coming from Mary’s eyes as she looks up from her book. A stem of lilies appears in Gabriel’s hand—trumpets to announce that the walls of sin and death will fall before the power of Love Incarnate. Lilies offered-- offered and accepted, and at the moment Mary touches them they become brighter white, and a sweet scent twines itself around the room.
The angel greets her as “O favored one,” and says that the Lord is with her. Although she’s a very young woman, her response is interesting: she’s not afraid, but rather is perplexed and puzzled. When Mary was declared to be God’s “favored one” one wonders if she did not have to fight off the urge to look behind her to see if the angel was talking to someone else. Where are all those signs of “favor?” Is she rich, well-connected?
Yet just as with Zechariah, Gabriel assures her that she shouldn’t be afraid and addresses her by name. In place of being told her prayers are being answered, she is assured once again that she has the favor of God.
And so in these verses we hear in our gospel are the seeds of the so-called “Angelic Salutation,” the Ave Maria, or “Hail Mary:”
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners now,
And at the hour of our death. Amen.
And Mary considers this. That same light that filled Zechariah’s eye blooms within Mary’s dark gaze, and begins to glow.
But Gabriel explains to her exactly how it’s going to happen—that she will bear her own child. To give credence to this prediction, Gabriel references Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Where Zechariah scoffed and was made mute, Mary ponders, and gets the last word: Yes. At the moment Mary declares herself a servant of the Lord, violets spring up outside the window where angel and maiden meet.
You would think that she would be the one who would refuse to believe that she had found favor with God, given her lowly station as a probably barely-teenaged peasant girl living literally in the middle of nowhere. God’s call to Mary is an invitation, not a command. It seems impossible. And yet, “Nothing is impossible with God.” As crazy as this all sounds, Mary ponders… and says “Yes,” even though her entire world will be changed in unimaginable ways. In giving her assent, she is the supreme example of cooperation and collaboration with God and human free will.
This is an important point. Mary agrees to do this absolutely of her own volition—she had the ability to say “No,” but the courage and the faith to say “Yes.” Her choice. Her song. Calling us to our own witness.
And yet this week’s gospel reading leaves us hanging. Puzzlingly, in this year we don’t get the record of the longest conversation between two women in the entire New Testament—Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth, and Mary’s resulting prophetic shout of liberation, The Magnificat. Luckily, the Magnificat is today’s canticle.
It is clear the two prayers—the Hail Mary and the Magnificat—are meant to be considered together. At the Annunciation Mary says yes to God. In the Magnificat she explains why she said yes. She moves for yes to the angel, to joy and proclamation with Elizabeth. She says yes so God’s economy, God’s reign, God’s household, God’s justice can be brought to life and embodied amongst us, starting with Mary. Yes to love, yes to mercy, yes to restoration and stretching all the way to dusty roads running to and from Jerusalem and back again.
The Magnificat erupts from Mary’s throat as a song of joy and triumph the moment Elizabeth and Mary see each other. One young, one old, but these two women share the longest conversation between two women in the New Testament, reveling in a bond not just of kinship or shared expectancy, but of two people who know the power of God in their lives.
And Mary’s song moves from joy to power, from being full of grace to being full of fire. Mary goes from the Mother of God to God’s disciples with a full-throated roar that would make Elijah, Isaiah, or Jonah weep for envy. Mary creates a song so powerful that its singing has been banned on slave plantations, in India under the British raj. In Argentina during the reign of the dictator Pinochet, mothers of the disappeared were banned from singing the Magnificat as a protest against government terror on its own citizens.
The Magnificat is a threat to unjust regimes everywhere, for it clearly realigns the world and names the work of a God who is not waiting until tomorrow to act. Mary speaks with certainty from the other side of oppression. God HAS pulled down the corrupt mighty from their thrones. God HAS filled the bellies of the hungry. God HAS lifted up the lowly—starting with Mary herself. And God asks us, like Mary, to join in that work, and against injustice anywhere.
As a prophet, as a freedom fighter, Mary herself is suffused with light. After that assent to God’s holy messenger, with the acceptance of the offered lily, Mary is no mere vessel. She offers her very being to God—and to the raising of her son. She says yes, not because she expects that being “favored” bit to translate into being blessed by wealth or renown. She says yes, and then in the Magnificat waves the banner of true equality which is justice and God’s real reign set into motion.
Mary says yes, because she knows that when King David wanted to build a palace for God, David was also trying to domesticate God—to place God within a gilded cage, rather than in the human heart and as the center of the human community, where God longed to reign. With Mary’s yes, God is restored to live among us and within our hearts again. To live as one of us to show us that we can live by not the iron law of devouring each other but in compassion, amity and justice.
She says yes to show us the courage we are given when we say yes to God, when we consent to raise our field of vision from our own navels to the horizons of hope that is God’s invitation to live in a different better way than by our own blindness, brokenness, and prejudice. She says yes to encourage us all to allow the Son of God to grow. Within us, under our hearts, and to bear him forth into a world that STILL does not know the beauty of his gospel. We are all called to give birth to Christ in the world, and mother his gospel to those who need his good news the most.
Mary is a model to all of us who seek to follow in the Way of Jesus. Her story reminds us that we all have the choice to say yes and to see what HAS already happened by the hand of God in our lives. It is up to us to choose to assent—or not. To lift our eyes from our own feet to the horizon of God’s grace that. is waiting to fill us up to overflowing as well.
Our choice is this: will we bear Christ into the world—or not? Do we want to unlock the chains of fear, hopelessness and distrust that bind us to the ways of fear, or do we want to be free-- Free to offer our opened spirits like a bowl to be filled with the promise of salvation, to respond in faith and courage to God’s plea to live not in wood or stone building where human hands can keep God safely locked away, but within our hearts?
How would it change our perspective and our lives to go from confining Jesus inside a box of our own making, and instead to make Mary’s song our own:
My soul overflows with the greatness of God,
My spirit sings unending praise to One Who Saves,
the One who lifts up the lowly servant
who dares to be the instrument of God Most High.
Surely, from now to time unending
All generations will see that I have been blessed.
What would it be like to allow the power of hope and assurance of God’s steadfast presence to make its home with our spirits? What could we do? What could prevail against us?
May we have the courage to say yes. Yes to bearing Jesus in our hearts, and in our lives, in our words, and in our deeds. Yes to our souls magnifying the greatness of our God in our life and in our work. Yes to making ourselves a true home and witness for God, forgiven, healed, and renewed. Amen.
Preached at the 10:30 am online worship service in Coronatide from St. Marin's Episcopal. Church, Ellisville, MO. Readings: Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 Romans 16:25-27 Luke 1:26-38 Canticle 15