By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ at his birth, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. At the risk of being called pedantic, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the virginal conception. It is the story of the angelic Annunciation to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and bear God’s Son.
The angel’s greeting in this story has inspired composers throughout the history of the church to try to capture the essence of that moment in a musical setting of the “Ave Maria.” And this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. A typical painting would look something like this. A young woman dressed in a diaphanous blue gown is seated on a throne, her head surrounded by a golden halo. Before her there kneels an angel of ambiguous gender with hands devoutly clasped in prayer. Above is a white dove in a golden nimbus, and from the dove a ray of light emanates, aimed at the head of Mary—as if Jesus is to be conceived in Mary’s head!
What you don’t see is Jesus! But in truth, the whole point of the Annunciation story is Jesus, not Mary! Luke shares this early tradition about the origins of Jesus, because it tells us something we need to know about this remarkable man from an obscure town in Galilee.
First, we are told that Jesus is to be born of a virgin and that his father will be none other than the Lord God. The details of how this will come about are a bit mysterious: the angel Gabriel explains that the conception will take place in a spiritual manner as God’s power passes over Mary like a shadow. Now, the virginal conception of Jesus is a problem for some. And that’s understandable. After all, none of us has ever witnessed such a thing. Nor are we expected to! The Gospel portrays the event as a one-of-a-kind occurrence. And that’s one main point of this story: Jesus is one of a kind. The other main point is that Jesus comes from God—exactly how is less important. The Holy Scriptures aren’t interested in giving us a biology lesson. Now, as for me, I don’t have a problem with the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus. I believe that if God wished to beget a Son in such a manner, God could certainly do it. But even if you doubt the facticity of the virginal conception, I would encourage you to take to heart these two corollaries of the doctrine: 1) Jesus is unique and 2) Jesus comes from God.
The angel Gabriel goes on to prophesy that Jesus will be called the Son of God and will rule as king over Israel forever. In short, the angel is telling Mary that her son will be the long-hoped-for Messiah, the Davidic king who will usher in a New Age of peace for Israel. What Gabriel doesn’t tell Mary is that this Son is destined to rule over a kingdom far greater than Israel. He doesn’t tell her that this holy Son will one day rule over the entire Kingdom of God.
But the Gospels tell us again and again of this greater Kingdom. And we are meant to believe and to wait and to labor faithfully while we wait. And what a wait it’s been! Two thousand years have come and gone, and yet the Kingdom seems no nearer. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit to having questions, if not actual doubts. Even Mary, the obedient servant of the Lord, had questions. She wondered how she could possibly conceive a child when she was a virgin. We too wonder sometimes about what is asked of us. We wonder how we can go on as we get older and “tireder” and fewer in number. We wonder if what we do here makes any real difference in bringing about the Kingdom of God. Frankly, I can’t provide satisfactory answers to those questions. Only God can!
Mary has some helpful assurance. She was told by an angel of God that her assent to God’s will would result in a Messiah for her people. But we don’t have that kind of assurance. No angel has prophesied the result of our efforts. We are forced to wait and see. And that, brothers and sisters, is what Advent is all about—waiting and expecting and hoping for some kind of culmination. The culmination of Mary’s act of obedience to God was the birth of the Holy Child Jesus. The culmination of our efforts is still to be determined.
In the meantime, we come to church Sunday after Sunday. We pray for the world. We sing God’s praise. We provide hospitality to one another and to the occasional stranger. We make our small efforts to help those in need, especially at this time of year. We welcome newcomers to the faith. We bless marriages. We visit the sick. We bury the dead and console the grieving. Year after year, we faithfully do these small things. And sometimes it just doesn’t seem to be enough. We despair of the growing budget deficit and the dwindling membership, and we are tempted to account ourselves failures.
But we are not failures! You are not failures!…not so long as you say yes to God and do your very best to obey his will. Mary was given a promise, and that promise was fulfilled. We too were given a promise that will be fulfilled—but that promise was not a large, thriving parish! What we were promised was eternal life, beginning here and now and to be continued in the Kingdom of God. God does not judge us by our average Sunday attendance or the size of the parish bank account. We may judge ourselves by those criteria; the Diocese may; but God does not. God judges us by our faithfulness. And I can attest that this small, dwindling community is faithful.
Mary was called to bear the Christ child and to devote her life to him. We too are called to devote our lives to Christ. We are called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ by word and deed, in church and out of church, day in and day out. We are called to plant the seeds of God’s love, knowing that others may come along and water those seeds, and still others may reap the harvest. Being only human, we would like to reap the fruit of our labor; to put it bluntly, we would like to acquire new members and more income as a reward for our faithful efforts. But that is not what we are supposed to be longing for in this time of waiting. If that’s what we are secretly longing for, then we need to raise our expectations and our hopes to a whole new level altogether. Instead of yearning for a big, prosperous parish, let us yearn for nothing less than the Second Coming of the Messiah and the fullness of God’s Kingdom on earth!
Some would deem it impossible for a virgin to conceive. Likewise, some would deem it impossible for there to be everlasting peace on this earth. But the Scriptures tell us that neither of these things is impossible. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” So as the dark and disconcerting season of Advent draws to a close, hold on to your faith, live in the hope of “impossible” possibilities, and do not be afraid; for you have found favor with God, and the Lord God is with you, now and always.
© 2014 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.