Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
When I came to faith it all seemed very black and white. There weren’t many greys at all, although I can thank my parents for the way they asked me difficult questions to try and introduce me to a more three-dimensional belief. But in those first few years it was all very clear. If we came to Jesus, God would guide our lives and everything would be ok.
I wish, way back then, that someone would have introduced me to Mary. Of course I knew the Christmas story - in my generation who didn’t? We may not all have believed it, but we knew it. Mary the sweet young girl, all dressed in blue. Jesus the smiling baby boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, and Joseph the understanding and meek husband who takes care of his family but doesn’t get any lines to say.
I wish someone had properly introduced me to Mary’s story back then because just maybe I’d have appreciated something about God that we don’t tell new Christians because partly we don’t want to scare them and also because, well frankly it would be bad PR. You see we like to give the impression that when God comes into our lives he fixes it all, but I don’t think that would have been what Mary said.
Picture it if you can. When Gabriel went to see Mary she was betrothed but not yet married to Joseph. That would suggest, given what we know of the customs of that time and place, that Mary would have been twelve. Betrothal tended to last a year with a girl being married soon after she was thirteen. It was a whole different world to ours.
So Mary was inside, with the Greek making it clear that the angel went in to her, minding her own business, perhaps doing some household chores for her family. At that point in time maybe she would have been daydreaming about her life to come, about becoming married to Joseph, a skilled builder and craftsman, and bearing children with him.
For a peasant girl in the middle east at that point that would have been the general direction of her life, as a good Jew living in the northern reaches of the country. Her life would simply have been ordinary, and if it had continued as expected then she would have been like the thousands of other girls of her time and place, and we would never have known about her.
But that wasn’t what happened. In that one instant, when Gabriel arrived in her room, everything changed forever. But, and this is my key point, I think we would be hard pushed to say that in real terms it changed for the better. But this is what God does when we get serious with him. He changes lives, and sometimes it feels like he messes it all up for us.
Mary was one the cusp of womanhood. Think of the teenage girls you know. We may think that they have grown up a lot quicker than in the past, but trust me, even they are a long way behind Mary’s generation. Most of the people I marry are at least in their late twenties with many more being in their thirties and forties. She was just about physically capable of bearing a child.
And so that is what God asked her to do, to bear his child. But she wasn’t yet married. And this is what I mean about God messing it up for us.
You see for a twelve or thirteen year old to be pregnant in our age still makes the tabloid headlines, but for Mary the threat was more potent because you can’t hide pregnancy, and for an unmarried woman to be pregnant risked her being stoned. At the very least she would be shunned. And think of poor Joseph.
Even if he believed her about Gabriel he would either have to live with the stigma of people thinking he had married an adulterous woman, or letting people believe that he and Mary had had sex before they were married, that he was incapable of self-control. Whatever happened, Joseph Mary’s betrothed, was also going to have to live with the consequences.
Rick Morley (who inspired some of this) asks the question of what must have been going through Gabriel’s mind before he pushed open that door. He must have known what he was going to ask her to do, and what the implications of that were likely to be. This poor young girl whose life had barely started was about to have its course radically redirected by the message from God he was about to convey.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that she did agree with what God asked of her. No ifs, buts or excuses. She simply said yes. Her assent to God meant that she faced the ignominy of being pregnant outside of wedlock, a long and harrowing journey to Bethlehem in the south, an even longer journey to Egypt to escape from the horror of Herod’s massacre, a lifetime of rumours about the background to her firstborn’s birth, and the awful witnessing of his cruel torture and death by crucifixion.
That was what God asked of her. But what does it have to say to us? What can we learn from this? I guess the first and most important point is that God is not some distant deity, but is instead active in our lives. If we give ourselves to him as Christians we should be prepared for him to ask things of us, and when he does so, it will be because he thinks we are the right people for what he wants.
A vocation isn’t just for the clergy; it’s something for all of us. It’s not very easy to tell people that though, particularly when you’re trying to explain why the Christian faith is Good News. So we tend not to. But if we’re honest, what we should say is come to God through Christ, but be aware that if you take him seriously, then he will take you seriously, and he may ask you to do something that you could never have imagined doing.
What I can tell you is, despite how it can sometimes be a difficult path to tread, I have never felt so fulfilled and so in the right place as I have being here as a priest, and I wish someone had had the foresight to ask Mary what it felt like to see whether, at the end of the day and with all the difficulties she had been through, did she feel it was worthwhile. I suspect she would have said yes. Despite everything she went through, it was still worth letting God mess up her plans.
You see I think that there is one thing which is far more important than happiness and that is that we should be able to say that our lives counted for something, however hard it may have been, and I think that’s a really important part of the good news. God wants to be involved in our lives, and if we let him then he may ask things of us, small or big, and if we do his will then something is changed in the world. May we learn to echo Mary’s words; let it be with me as you have said.’ Amen