The Annunciation, Luke 1:26-38, prepared by Joe Ellis, Dec. 20, 2020
What do you think it was about Mary that led the angel Gabriel to greet her with the Words, “Greetings you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you!” What was it about Mary? Its not like she was some important religious person, she wasn’t some rich philanthropist, she wasn’t even some well-meaning political figure with a lot of affluence. She wasn’t any of those people who might’ve said, “Ah yes, Gabriel, I’ve been expecting that you would visit someone like me.” Mary was just some fourteen year old girl. So, what was is about her that would have lead Gabriel to greet her with the words, “Greetings you who are highly favoured.” Maybe she was like a spiritual Mozart. You know, some kid who is so talented it seems like they have super powers. Maybe she was just way far advanced in the mysteries of God.
Do you think what makes Mary highly favoured was simply the fact that God viewed her as highly favoured? Perhaps what makes Mary special is that — God loved her. Maybe what makes Mary special isn’t that different from what makes the rest of us special — that God loves us. It’s frustrating that simply saying the most wonderful news humankind has ever heard, that God loves us, can sound trite and boring. But God loves humankind! What if Gabriel was delighted to greet Mary simply because Gabriel knew something of God’s love for Mary. Have you ever been excited to meet someone that your good friend has spoken really highly of? Maybe that’s what is going on with Gabriel. Maybe He’s gotten a glimpse of God’s love for Mary, and he’s excited to meet her. Let’s say you got a glimpse of God’s delight for people. Do you think that would change the way that you said hello?
On March 18, 1958, a Trappist Monk named Thomas Merton got a glimpse of just that, God’s deep deep love for people. It changed the way he wanted to say hello: This is what he said:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
This… was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
Maybe that’s how Gabriel saw Mary, and that’s what was behind how Gabriel said, “hello.” But more importantly, maybe this is how God sees us. After all, when God made us He made creatures that were so incomparably precious to him. He gave us the most wonderful gift imaginable: He made us in His image. No wonder Merton saw us as walking around shining like the sun — we are precious creatures made in the image of God. Imagine that God would not 'highly favour’ all us creatures who’ve received the priceless gift of being created in His image. We are His image — as Christians we’ve heard this so many times that maybe we’ve ceased to wonder at the priceless treasure we’ve been given. We are in His image.
Perhaps we can learn to value this gift when we really reflect on what Gabriel was announcing. For Gabriel must have known the deep and profound mystery behind the words that he spoke. Gabriel must have known the reality that no one was prepared to expect — that when he called this child of Mary the Son of the Most High, he was announcing that this child would be the incarnation of God Himself. The fulness of the name Immanuel, God with us, would become a reality in the child Jesus. If it wasn’t wonderful enough for us to be made in the Image of God, now God Himself has chosen to become human. Humankind is so precious to God, that He himself chose to become human. He Himself chose to clothe Himself in our skin. All this points incomprehensibly to God’s deep, deep love toward us His beautiful creation. Thomas Merton got a glimpse of this, and he nearly laughed out loud — no wonder he thought those getting groceries were walking around shining like the sun.
I’ve been speaking about the wonderful way in which God takes breathtaking delight in us, His creatures. There is a fairly deep and important line of Christian theology that says that we as humans should be slow in heaping praise upon ourselves, that praise should always be directed towards God. That is absolutely true. Yet to diminish our humanity is the opposite of praising God and His goodness. By treasuring, valuing, and wondering at the good gift God has created in making us, we are offering praise to God. Praise that He is a good and wonderful creator. To marvel at the gift God has given us in our humanity, is to marvel at the intimate love with which God loves us. Recognizing the sheer depths with which God loves us can only move us to praise. That God loves us so much He became one of us and died for us — this revelation of God’s deep love for humanity moves us not to pride, but to a deep love and outpouring of praise.
And when we are full of praise and wonder at God’s love for us, we are then drawn into a deeper love and affection to God — and into a deeper trust. Knowing that God so deeply loves us, cherishes us, wants the best for us — calls us to a profoundly deeper level of trust. The type of trust that we hear in Mary’s response of “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” Do you think this was easy for her to say? The Angel Gabriel appears and announces that she will carry a child out of wedlock. Infidelity would be treated as adultery. The full penalty for adultery was death. Yet Mary responds with a deep, level of trust in this God who loves her and holds her in high favour. From that trust she responds simply, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” For centuries, faithful people of God have pondered Mary’s response as something we are to emulate.
Some of the spiritual masters have referred to Mary’s response as being ‘holy indifferent.’ Knowing and trusting in God’s unconditional love means we can have ‘holy indifference.’ This phrase was pioneered by Ignatius of Loyola to mean not so much an unfeeling lack of concern, but that we hold all of God’s gifts reverently, gratefully, but also lightly, embracing them or letting them go, all depending on how the help us to praise, love and serve God. This is the pathway to true spiritual freedom. Ignatius said that when we have holy indifference we should “not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.” In other words, we choose to stand alongside Mary and whatever comes our way, we say, “I am the Lord’s servant, May your word to me be fulfilled.”
This is easy enough to say when life is easy. Yet this is very, very difficult to say when life is difficult. “I am the Lord’s servant” is easy to say when we are enjoying great health, abundant wealth, astounding success, and are living a long life surrounded those who love us. Much more difficult is this to say when we find ourselves inexplicably and chronically sick. When we have the cold, harsh threat of poverty at our door — having lost our job, facing a a crumpling economy. This I much more difficult to say when our greatest attempts at success have only brought humiliating failure, embarrassment and shame. “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled” is much more difficult to say when you’ve had the conversation with the doctor who has given a diagnosis where the one thing you hear is, “Your life will not be long.” And yet we are called to stand alongside Mary, with her holy indifference and say, “I am the Lord’s servant — May your word be fulfilled.”
How on earth can we say this? How on earth can we get to this place. There are at least two possible ways to stand alongside Mary. First, we could say Mary’s words with the strength of sheer will power — in other words, “Grin and bear it.” No matter what comes your way you can just paste that smile on your face and say, “I am the Lord’s servant — May your word be fulfilled.” As I said, that’s easy enough to do if your life is full of roses. But when sickness, poverty, failure, and death come our way — the “grin and bear it” approach will begin to crack. Our tone of voice will betray us — the bitterness in our voice will not hide what we truly are feeling behind our words.
Yet there is another way. We can practice a type prayer that leads us deeper into experiencing God deep, unconditional love. There is a type of prayer that helps you taste something of God’s has deep affection for you… you whom He so lovingly cherishes. There is a type of prayer that leads you into the knowledge that He cares for you so much that He Himself became human, took on Himself all your sins and failures, and even took on death so that you might live. Ignatius taught his students to pray in a way that they might be able to pray and hear from God, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured.” He suggested that having a deep and intimate understanding of God’s love is what enables a person to actually live their life with holy indifference and say with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word be fulfilled.” When we rest on the foundation of God’s deep love, we can submit to whatever comes our way not from some hard willpower, but with a childlike trust in God. A trust that despite the fact that this particular moment life feels like a tornado in a toilet bowl, God deeply, deeply loves and cares for you. He wants the best for you. He loves you. That’s why we learn to pray — we are learn to pray because we want to grow in this trust that God loves us and wants the best for us… with that we will be able to say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word be fulfilled.”
So we become like Mary. We carry the Word inside of us. We carry the Words of Jesus within ourselves. We let them work. We let them fill us. We let their life take over. We let them open our eyes so that we can see God as He sees us. We come to the Word and let it dwell in us richly — and as we do so a deep, abiding trust will grow — slowly, like a child growing imperceptibly in the womb. And this trust filled love will give strength to stand alongside Mary and say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word be fulfilled.”