If Gabriel could tell his story
For a moment I hesitated on the threshold.
For the space of a breath I paused,
unwilling to disturb her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step would cleave her life:
that this day would slice her story in two,
dividing all the days before from all the ones to come.
The artists would later depict the scene:
Mary dazzled by the archangel, her head bowed in humble assent,
awed by the messenger who condescended to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor upon a woman, and mortal.
Yet I tell you it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment that hung between us.
I wanted to save her from what I had been sent to say.
Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered the invitation
(history would not record the sweat on my brow, the pounding of my heart;
would not note that I said “Do not be afraid” to myself as much as to her)
it was she who saved me— her first deliverance—
her “Let it be” not just declaration to the Divine
but a word of solace, of soothing,
of benediction for the angel in the doorway
who would hesitate one last time—
just for the space of a breath torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and awful yes.
– Jan Richardson –
Although it’s a story we hear every year, it’s hard to imagine what that moment must have been like. Thirteen year old Mary, alone when the angel appeared.
Did she want to run? To scream for help? Was she frozen in place?
Greetings, favoured one. God has noticed, favoured, and blessed you. (One commentator I read noted that the angel called her favoured before she agreed – she was favoured for who she was not for her agreement.)
Our Scripture tells us she was perplexed. This wasn’t how people spoke to her, one who had just barely transitioned from childhood to womanhood. And she had done nothing special, nothing that would set her apart from her peers.
If she thought that was perplexing, the next part must have totally confused her. Here’s where the angel dropped the news – that she would bear the child of God.
And her only question – how can this be? – was answered with a response that I assume would only heighten her confusion. The Spirit of God will come upon you. This will be the child of God. And – in case you doubt – your elderly barren aunt is also pregnant.
Let’s pause here. How would you respond?
How did she get from being perplexed to her answer, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me according to your word.”
Artists have created lots of images of this conversation. In many, Mary is demure, looking down. Sometimes almost cowering. Ever humble and ready to agree. Boticelli, on the other hand, has a painting that shows her as ambivalent – ready to acquiesce and ready to run at the same time.
Debie Thomas said “I hope Mary paused before she said yes.” She says, “For better or for worse, I can’t relate to a person who leaps headlong into obedience. I can relate, however, to the one who struggles, to the one whose “yes” is cautious and ambivalent.”
Jan Richardson reminds us that Mary’s yes is a radical surrender, born – she says – of strength and grace. It is the deliberate choice of a woman who is so ready to give herself to the sacred that she abandons her plans. And so she sets herself on a path that no one has travelled before. “A dark way” she calls it – without signposts or cleared pathways.
Debie Thomas made an observation that I hadn’t thought about before. “And then Gabriel left”. He turned her life upside down and then took off. She (Debie) wondered what might have happened had Gabriel stuck around to help her with the public reaction, her fear of Joseph’s abandonment, the threat of stoning.
I hadn’t thought much before about how she got through those next months. Perhaps she was filled with a sense of peace and assured of God’s presence with her (Literally). But perhaps this was a dark time of self-doubt, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.
How did she get through this time? I envision friends and extended family avoiding her at best – threatening her at worst.
I see her turning to Scripture. Perhaps Ps 89, the psalm in today’s lectionary. Perhaps Ps 23, written by her ancestor David.
That was the Psalm I looked at a number of weeks ago when I took a retreat day. I’d like to share some of what I observed – perhaps it was the same message that gave Mary strength.
At the retreat centre, they had a booklet of psalms written in the New Living Translation. As I read Ps 23, a phrase – with its new wording – caught my attention. “Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life.”
Pursue! Not just followed – like my dog follows me when I take a walk – but pursued. Like they have an intense desire, are determined to be with me. It would be ominous – if it wasn’t goodness and unfailing love.
I loved at the Psalm again. I’m followed – pursued – by love and goodness. But that’s not all. I’m not just followed. He leads me beside peaceful streams an in doing so renews my strength.
And then there’s the darkest valley – the place where Mary might have found herself. In the dark valley, the good shepherd walks beside. The rod on the one side to protect and the staff on the other side to comfort. We may wish that he would make the dark valley disappear – but rather, he walks beside us, protecting and comforting.
Not leading – because something could attack from behind. Not following, because we don’t always know the way. But in the dark valley he is beside us.
As I reflected on this, I realized that we are encircled – led to renewal and strength, accompanied by comfort and protection, and followed (pursued) by unfailing love.
That’s what the visual in your bulletin is about. A reminder that as we journey we have God before us, God behind us, God at our side. Renewal before us, Love behind us, Comfort & Protection at our side.
I hope Mary found that message of hope for the potentially difficult months, as she waited for Christ’s birth.
It always feels fitting that advent – the time of remembering darkness and hoping for light – comes at the same time that nights are getting longer. And then Christmas comes just as the days start getting longer.
Today is Winter Solstice itself – the day of transition from long nights to increasing light. Apparently some churches have Longest Night or Blue Christmas services. It’s a time for those who are struggling during this season of celebration.
I want to close by reading another poem by Jan Richardson. – this one is a blessing for the longest night. As we go through this time of darkness and long nights, and long for the light of Christmas, may it go with us.
Blessing for the Longest Night
All throughout these months
as the shadows have lengthened,
this blessing has been gathering itself,
making ready, preparing for this night.
It has practiced walking in the dark,
traveling with its eyes closed,
feeling its way by memory
by the pull of the moon even as it wanes.
So believe me when I tell you
this blessing will reach you
even if you have not light enough to read it;
it will find you even though you cannot see it coming.
You will know the moment of its arriving
by your release of the breath you have held so long;
a loosening of the clenching in your hands,
of the clutch around your heart;
a thinning of the darkness that had drawn itself around you.
This blessing does not mean to take the night away
but it knows its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots along the path,
knows what it means
to travel in the company of a friend.
So when this blessing comes, take its hand.
Set out on the road you cannot see.
This is the night when you can trust
that any direction you go,
you will be walking toward the dawn –
Blessings to you as we walk toward the dawn of Thursday’s Christmas.
— December 21, 2014 —