Advent 4: Saying Yes to God
Lectionary Readings for December 22, 2012: Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55
Advent Calendar (Cycle C) and guidance for using the lectionary
In the fourth week of Advent we begin to move beyond waiting and preparation to a deeper sense of the immanency of Christ’s coming. Anticipation is high. The fourth Sunday of Advent is traditionally the Sunday when the story of the Annunciation is read as the Church gathers and the drama of the Incarnation begins to unfold.
In the middle of this drama is a young girl named Mary who is pulled onto center stage as she is confronted with God’s will for her life. The archangel Gabriel announces to her that she will become pregnant and give birth to the Son of God.
In Protestant circles, we are very careful not to do anything that could be construed as “Mary worship.” We are so careful, in fact, that often we do not give her the respect she deserves. However, this week’s Gospel reading is entirely focused on Mary and her unique place in human history as the woman who birthed the divine Christ, God-made-flesh. It offers us a window into one person’s experience of receiving the will of God into her heart, into her body, and into her life. We do well not to dismiss her.
Mary was more than just an available womb. She was a particular kind of person for which all of human history had been waiting…a person who was willing to receive Christ into the very depths of her being, allowing his presence to incubate there in the darkness until the fullness of time when God’s will would be completely revealed.
The very essence of Mary’s person made her the right one to participate so fully in God’s plan for the redemption of humankind. Part of that essence was her capacity to be totally given over to the will of God. She said yes to God with “a courage that opened her utterly.”
Mary, it turns out, is a powerful example of what is means to be a true disciple—one who desires nothing more than to know and do the will of the Master. She received the Word of God to her as a seed planted in darkness, allowing that seed to take root and grow until it became fully mature and pushed its way into the world. German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart brings the realities of Mary’s experience up to date when he muses, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”
Prone to Ponder
What, then, is involved in birthing the divine will? What sort of person is able to open to God so utterly that they incarnate Christ in the world?
First of all, it seems that in such a person there resides an ability to receive the word of the Lord and ponder it deep in one’s heart. Three times in the early chapters of Luke it says that Mary “pondered/treasured these things in her heart”—once in response to the angel’s pronouncement, once when the shepherds came and worshipped the baby Jesus, and once when Jesus got lost in the temple and was found teaching the teachers.
In all of these situations, Mary demonstrated a capacity to hold large and potentially frightening or confusing realities in her heart without “getting freaked out.” She had a large interior space for prayer and contemplation that enabled the appropriate response to her unusual situation. Her soul was a deep well indeed.
Capable of Curiosity
There is also in such a person a capacity for curiosity and wonder. Mary exhibited a delightful innocence that gave her the ability to ask the obvious question that others might not be willing to ask due to their sophistication. Like the young boy who didn’t know any better than to exclaim that the emperor had no clothes, Mary wondered what any of us would wonder in her situation and she asked her question right out loud. How can this be, since I am a virgin?
What followed her delightfully honest and curious question was the most hopeful and inspiring message one could hope to hear—that what would take place in her life would be brought about by the activity of the Holy Spirit! No wonder the Scriptures say that anyone who wants to enter the kingdom of God must become like a child.
Indifferent to Anything but the Will of God
Indifference speaks of a state of wide-openness to God in which we are free from undue attachment to any particular outcome, capable of relinquishing whatever might keep us from saying an unequivocal “yes” to God. Indifference means we have gotten to the place where we want God and his will more than anything—more than ego-gratification, more than looking good in the eyes of others, more than personal ownership or comfort or advantage. It means I want “God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”[i]
Indifference to anything but the will of God is no small thing given how attached we are to our own plans for preserving and enhancing our well-being. Mary’s example is compelling because, despite the possibility of a ruined love life, being ostracized by her community, experiencing the harsh judgment of those who did not understand the will of God in her life, enduring inconvenience and real pain…her response to the angel’s mind-boggling announcement was “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Those who say yes to God have the capacity to quietly believe that the things that God has spoken deep into their souls will be fulfilled. No need for bells and whistles, just a simple journey of taking one faithful step after another. It was this particular aspect of Mary’s character that Elizabeth celebrated when Mary arrived on her doorstep. Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
We are not accustomed to believing the things that angels tell us in the middle of the night. We are much more accustomed to believing what we hear on the news, what our own pragmatic thoughts and rationalizations tell us, and whatever wisdom we read in the latest bestseller. But Mary believed what was spoken to her by the Lord to the extent that it became more real to her than anything else. And she was willing to move “with” the action of the Spirit in her life, wherever it took her.
Seeking Spiritual Companionship
Those who say yes to God seek out others who are doing the same. Mary knew that she needed help to make sense of it all. Perhaps she even knew she would need help to keep believing once the initial euphoria of the angel’s visit wore off and a long pregnancy became her daily reality. That said, she had enough sense to know that she couldn’t share this with just anyone and so she sought out Elizabeth—someone who had had her own experience with angels. And Elizabeth’s greeting was all she needed to confirm the validity of her experience.
This confirmation did not come through tortured conversation and arduous discussion. Mary’s presence triggered in Elizabeth a gut-level, Holy Spirit reaction—consolation as St. Ignatius would have described it—that provided deep assurance to Mary that she was indeed on that perilous journey of calling and commitment to becoming the mother of God. Together Mary and Elizabeth experienced the essence of spiritual community—those who are discerning and doing the will of God in their own lives and are sharing, supporting and affirming the process in others.
Those who say yes to God must learn to live between the polarities of strength and vulnerability. In the person of Mary we witness this profound paradox. We learn that saying yes to God’s will so completely, being willing to be the vehicle through which something so new and so needed is birthed, takes a certain kind of inner stamina. It takes strength to believe and courage to act on that belief—which Mary certainly possessed.
And yet, embracing God’s will so completely also took Mary to a place of vulnerability and weakness—as it does for all of us. From the moment she said yes, she was cast upon the mercy of God and others. She was at the mercy of those who would make judgments about the validity of her claims, deciding whether to stand with her or reject her. She was at the mercy of Joseph’s response to her unusual spiritual experience. And eventually, when she was at her most vulnerable—heavy with child and ready to deliver—she was utterly dependent upon Joseph’s care and protection and the begrudging hospitality of an over-extended inn-keeper. She had no control over any of it.
She was called upon to receive the mystery and the miracle of the incarnation as it was given even though it unfolded very differently than how she probably envisioned it for herself and her people. The only thing she could control was her choice to keep saying yes to every next step that was clear. And that she did.
Like Mother, Like Son
Mary embodied a spirit that says the deepest kind of yes to the will of God as it is revealed. It was this spirit that she passed on to her son, Jesus. That is why it comes as no surprise that there is a profound parallelism between Mary’s willing response to the angel’s pronouncement about the will of God in her life (Here I am. Let it be with me according to your word.) and Jesus’ response to God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane (Yet, not my will but Thy will be done). Jesus was the man he was because he was his Father’s child but also because he was his mother’s child.
May we not take lightly the challenge that Mary’s life presents to us—the challenge of saying yes to God in all the strange and compelling ways in which he calls. May God give us the courage to say yes when he asks us to be those who bring forth Christ in our world. May we echo Jesus’ words “See, I have come to do your will, O God”—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
[i] Danny Morris and Chuck Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1997), p.75, 76.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012.
Ruth Haley Barton, D.D., is founder of the Transforming Center. A spiritual director, teacher and retreat leader, she is the author of Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence (InterVarsity Press).
How does Mary’s example challenge you to say yes to God?
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