The story of Gabriel informing Mary that she would bear the Messiah, and her response in what we know as the Magnificat, are great treasures of Christian literature. Scenes of the Angel Gabriel talking with Mary are among the most popular in medieval and renaissance art. Although some of the gospels indicate that Mary later was doubtful about Jesus’ religious mission, here she is presented as piously accepting the role given her. Actually, in Luke’s Annunciation scene, our text this morning, Mary showed no interest in Jesus being the Son of the Most High or in his being the rightful heir of King David who would rule Israel, as Gabriel was saying. Rather she was interested in how she would get pregnant. Perhaps that is the more relevant question for a young girl in that circumstance.
Scholars say that these scenes concerning the birth of Jesus were a later interpolation on the original telling of the gospel story. Stories of gods being born miraculously, often enough of a virgin, were common in ancient times; even Buddha was given a miraculous virgin birth, according to legend. On the Christian side, neither Mark nor John mentioned anything about a miraculous conception and birth. Matthew said that Mary got pregnant by the Holy Spirit while engaged to Joseph but reported that the angel appeared to Joseph, not Mary, urging Joseph to accept the baby. The angel came back later to Joseph and told him to get out of town because the authorities were seeking to kill a newborn reputed to be the Messiah.
Mary’s response to Gabriel’s message, the Magnificat, has been the subject of many Christian musical compositions. Only a few weeks ago we had a musical service devoted to Bach’s setting of the Magnificat. Actually, the Magnificat in Luke is a streamlined version of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. Hannah was the mother of Samuel, the great prophet and judge who anointed Saul and David. Before Samuel’s birth, however, Hannah had been barren many years, praying for a pregnancy. When Samuel was born, miraculously it seemed, given her age, she dedicated him to God. Sometime after the basic narrative of Samuel’s birth was written, scribes inserted the following song which became the paradigm for Mary’s song. It is worthwhile hearing it because it gives a context for understanding Luke’s gospel:
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
For the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
But those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
To make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world.
He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
For not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in the Heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king,
And exalt the power of his anointed.
See the similarity to Mary’s song?
I take pains to point out the literary position of our texts because most of you in a university church are going to regard this as legendary material anyway, not a serious historical report. The Church has taken these stories very seriously, however, and often literally as history. But we cannot let that distract us from the gospel message contained in them. Whether you take the stories literally or as mythic legend, they are in the Bible because of their religious message. What is that message?
The message is that God comes to us. We do not have to go to God. Every one of the gospel writers is clear about this. The message is not that we have to find some divine wisdom or perform some divinely approved act in order to be saved. We do not have to leave the world for salvation. Rather God comes into the world and changes it. We should not expect God elsewhere, but in our daily lives. Moreover, God is not going to be a super hero whose sidekicks we are. No, God is going to impregnate us and we are going to have to deal with that.
So the question is, what does it mean to be pregnant with God? Here is where Mary’s response in the Magnificat is so important, and why seeing its derivation from Hannah’s song so reinforces its importance. Both say that when God comes into our lives the usual order of power and wealth is overturned. Think of the items in Mary’s song.
First, God is in charge, not those who think they are in charge: “He has shown strength with his arm.”
Second, he has scattered the proud, turning them into nothing more than “the thoughts of their own hearts.”
Third, he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
Fourth, he has filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty.
Fifth, he has remembered his people, when the world’s events seem to make them losers.
Hannah’s song has all these elements and adds that God determines life and death, and guards the faithful. Hannah, like Mary, praises God’s power and rightful reign over the Earth.
So if we think God is coming to us, then we need to think about these power relations. We are a people of extraordinary arrogance who believe we can impose governments on other people. But God is ultimately in charge. We are a people who pride ourselves in the righteousness of our history of helping the underdog and that pride has turned now to pure hypocrisy as we beat down everyone who stands in the way of what our government calls our “national interest.” After pride comes the fall. We flaunt our military and economic power, but should God come that will be overturned. We withdraw support from the poor and favor the rich, but should God come that will be revealed. We say that those who oppose us count for nothing—we do not even report the numbers of the Iraqi and Afghanistani dead. But God remembers all God’s people, and also those who demean them, by the way.
Perhaps it was a good thing that Mary was distracted by obstetrical concerns about how she would get pregnant. Had she thought about the real meaning of divinity suddenly coming into human affairs, she might have been less docile about accepting it. Not many of us, not even those who agree with the list of injustices I just cited, are ready for the overturning of power relations that God’s presence entails. Of course these power relations are very complex and subtle. I’ve oversimplified them in order to echo the scriptures. The clever among us can always rationalize the current state of affairs and policies as expressive of the very ways by which the meek inherit the Earth. No one fails to be morally ambiguous, even the meek, poor, and downtrodden. That the Iraqi insurgents are patriotic defenders of their land and religion against foreign invaders, does not mean that they are not also often terrorists and desirous of using the patriotic conflict to win special advantage for their own faction over against other factions. False righteousness from the arrogant top down is worse than the false righteousness of the embittered victims, but only marginally so. All of us are guilty of the abuse of power, even those who have little of it. All of us will be caught up short when we realize that God is in charge. All of us fail greatly when we caricature our opponents and make them seem to be the only unrighteous ones among us. The coming of God to be with us, of course, is good news. But it is also bad news. So it should be with the greatest caution and fear of the Lord that we celebrate God’s coming to us in the form of that revolutionary baby.
Given these warnings, how should we think about God coming to us? The image of God coming to us riding on clouds of glory and separating the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares, the righteous from the wicked, fails to register the subtlety of the ambiguity of human life, the inextricable mixture of good and evil. The better, and far more shocking, image is that God comes to impregnate us. God enters our fragile, frail, frames and makes us fecund with divine children. What Gabriel announced to Mary is a message for us: “Do not be afraid. . . . you will conceive in your womb and bear a son. . . . 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.”
Now, my brothers in Christ, you might not be comfortable with this imagery, this lesson that gives us wombs, tells us that what the Holy Spirit would do to us is to impregnate us, and calls us to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That grates against the male ego even more than the male anatomy. Our sisters in Christ, however, have had to put up with a lot of male imagery inapplicable to them, for millennia, and we can very well do some adjusting here. Besides, Christians have thought of themselves individually and the church collectively as the Bride of Christ almost since the beginning. So we can put aside our machismo and imagine ourselves, for a moment, all of us, men and women alike, to be wombs for God.
The fruit of our wombs, of course, shall be Jesus if in fact we submit to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit: Jesus the merciful who is present in all our acts of mercy, Jesus the peacemaker in all our efforts at reconciliation, Jesus the humble when we shame the arrogant, Jesus the nourisher we feed the hungry, Jesus the friend when we companion the lonely, Jesus the lover when we embrace all those who can be made whole by our love. The fruit of our wombs when God comes upon us will not be an obedient child. No, Jesus our issue will turn things upside down, upsetting bad rulers, scattering the proud, lifting the lowly, nourishing the lost, dismissing the established. The divinely inspired deeds of our lives will get us into trouble, praise God! Look what happened to Mary’s Babe!
Nevertheless, here is the meaning of Advent. When we sing, “Come, O Come Immanuel,” we should not mean that we want Jesus to pop into Copley Square suddenly. We should not mean even that we want Jesus to come into our hearts and make us feel repentant and forgiven. We should mean that we want Jesus to come into our wombs and be born in deeds of divine action that are flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. The seriousness of the incarnation requires that we spread ourselves open so deep and dark to God as to feel the impregnation of the midnight hour, the travails of birth, and the hopes and heartbreaks of sending children into the world that is healed by them and then flays and hangs them. Imagine Mary’s heart! Gabriel announced: this is our heart. Come, O Come, Emmanuel!