The Word himself was waiting on her word

A sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens

Readings for this service: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1.26-38

My grandson Joshua is two today. It is fascinating being part of the growth and development of a young child, particularly as a grandparent when you can remember what happened with your own children and also see the way in which, in this case, my daughter and son-in-law approach their role as parents. For several months now Joshua has been able to say ‘no’, often repeatedly and with much shaking of his head. He cannot yet say ‘yes’. Both are words of one syllable which one would expect that a child should find easy to learn, yet one is learnt early and the other much later. It may be, of course, that he has heard the word ‘no’ being said to him much more than he has yet heard the word ‘yes’!

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord,’ said Mary, ‘let it be with me according to your word.’ Mary said ‘Yes’ to God. As we have already begun to reflect, there is much more to saying that simple one syllable word ‘yes’ than we would at first imagine.

The poet-priest Malcolm Guite describes the Annunciation as follows:

‘a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.’

Victoria Emily Jones has reflected that ‘When Gabriel came to Mary to tell her she would bear a son, she was at first troubled, afraid, guarded. How was it possible that she, being a virgin, could become pregnant? But with the angel’s words of reassurance and promise, she yielded to the divine plan …” This is known as Mary’s fiat (Latin for “let it be”)—her consent to become the mother of God—and it’s celebrated by the church as the moment at which God became flesh, setting salvation in motion.

Theologians have debated the nature of Mary’s fiat—whether she really had a choice in the matter. After all, Gabriel comes speaking in terms of what will happen, without mentioning any conditions. However, most believe in the criticality of Mary’s “yes,” of her willing bodily and spiritual surrender. Between the angel’s ‘Hail’ and Mary’s ‘Let it be’ was a moment of supreme tension, one that Luci Shaw explores in her poem ‘The Annunciatory Angel’:

‘… We worry that she might faint.
Weep. Turn away, perplexed and fearful
about opening herself. Refuse to let the wind
fill her, to buffet its nine-month seed into her earth.
She is so small and intact. Turmoil will wrench her.
She might say no.’’

Why might Mary have said ‘No’? In the same poem Luci Shaw suggests there was a ‘weight of apprehension’ at the Annunciation because what had to be announced would ‘not be entirely easy news.’ As a result, Alan Stewart, in an Annunciation monologue, has Mary say ‘I said yes to my God / And I have come to question those words / For I did not know where they would lead.’ Where they led was to an immediate future of gossip, rumours and insult from those who thought of Jesus as illegitimate and in the longer term to a life of gathering gloom, ultimately one of sorrowing and sighing before a stone-cold tomb after the experience of viewing her son’s torture and cruel death; which was like a sword piercing her heart.

And yet, although she did not know it and could not have articulated it, there is a sense that she accepted all this when she accepted the challenge that the angel Gabriel brought from God. It may also have been that for having Jesus as her son she was, like many parents, more than glad that she had said yes, accepting the trauma, the gossip, the exile, the insults that she might bear her child, the promised Saviour.

Mary could have said ‘No’ but her ‘Yes’ was a ‘Yes’ to new life, to growth, to new birth. Matthew Askey says that: ‘Mary ultimately said ‘yes!’ to life, and gave herself into the hands of God’s love, and this was something that resulted in the life of the most inspiring person who has ever lived, Jesus, and then the birth of the world-wide Church that followed. The Incarnation was predicated on the willingness of the teenage Mary to respond to God’s call.’ So, the Annunciation is the moment when the creator of everything finds a way into flesh and blood. And in doing that, the meaning of all life enters into full humanity.

That is what we celebrate at Christmas and continue to experience as we say ‘Yes’ to God, as ‘the meaning of life enters humanity still. The meaning of life desires us. Watches our movements and listens to our hopes. The meaning of life is a lover whose gentle fingers occasionally touch and startle us, asking if we can love back, but never using force on us … waiting to be invited to love. The meaning of life is love. Something intangible by nature. Something that cannot be possessed, bought, or sold.

And at Christmas we celebrate the fact that God, the source of all love and meaning, has so desired humanity that He has taken the risk of becoming vulnerable to what we might do if His life is left in our hands. God, the meaning of life, desires you and me in a way that one of us would desire our partner.’ (The Late, Late Service)

The poet Noel Rowe captures something of this in his Annunciation poem when he writes:

‘The angel did not draw attention to himself.
He came in. So quietly I could hear
my blood beating on the shore of absolute
beauty …

my heart, my heart, was wanting him,
reaching out, and taking hold of smooth-muscled fire.
And it was done.’

He says, ‘I used a slightly eroticised image not to suggest their encounter was sexual, but to reimagine spirituality as passionate and creative, a poetic of desire.’ This has been the experience of Christian mystics throughout Church history; God as the incomprehensible mystery that embraces everything making the goal of human life that of losing oneself in this divine mystery in love. As Karl Rahner wrote: ‘When I abandon myself in love, then you are my very life, and your incomprehensibility is swallowed up in love’s unity. When I am allowed to love you, the grasp of our very mystery becomes a positive source of bliss.’

‘Love and desire are about creative union. About being open and receptive to the other, letting them be fully themselves, working for their pleasure, receiving their gifts to you. And when we’re open to being God’s partner, we find the mystery of meaning …

You and I have this choice. A chance to respond to the touch of our lover and receive this union in our souls … the centre of who we are. A choice to live life for the meaning of the moment, not just the thrill, and to turn from anything that promises a thrill and delivers meaninglessness. God is still in Flesh and Blood. Now God is flesh and blood in partnership and love, and like Mary we must say “Yes” to that partnership and discover the meaning of our own individual (and communal) lives.’

Malcolm Guite writes that in her ’open ‘yes’’, as she heard God’s call, Mary ‘spoke aloud for every living soul.’ So ‘every Christian after her seeks to become in some small way a God-bearer, one whose ‘yes’ to God means that Christ is made alive and fruitful in the world through our flesh and our daily lives, is born and given to another.’ Christ is carried by Mary, both in her womb and in her arms, in order that he can then carry us to God by means of his death of the cross. In turn, we carry him to others by means of our daily life and witness. As Teresa of Avila said:

‘Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.’

Similarly, it is through his actions that little Joshua says ‘yes’ at present, while he is as yet unable to speak the word. He is constantly embracing new experiences and the love of family and friends, but does so through his actions rather than his words.

Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word’ and then lived that out despite the challenges she faced. Will you do the same by saying, as the chorus to ‘I, the Lord of sea and sky’ puts it: ‘Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? / I have heard you calling in the night / I will go, Lord, if you lead me / I will hold your people in my heart’?