Today Gospel reading is a classic in Christian scripture; something we expect to hear every year at Advent and Christmas. In Biblical scholarship, its fulfills some of the prophecy in the OT Book of Daniel. But the scholarship implications of this story are not what caught my attention this week.
When I ponder Mary's acceptance of the role that God has laid out for her, I am amazed at what Mary didn't say to Gabriel. Mary was a child of her culture, as we all are, and probably about 14 or 15 years of age. She would have to have been cloistered not to realize the implications of Gabriel's message.
What did Mary NOT say ??
Mary did not say " I am betrothed, not married, and my pregnancy will bring great shame to my family and my espoused husband. This is no win situation for my soon to be husband. Either he accepts the gossip that he could not wait until we were married, or decides to expose me or send me away.
If he chooses to send me away, I will be placed with distant relatives as a virtual slave girl, or I will be a prostitute in a distant town.
If he chooses to expose me, I may be stoned to death.
Mary knew the implications of being pregnant and unmarried.
She also did not say what crosses the mind of any woman pregnant with her first child, especially in what we would call Third World Countries. From the moment of conception to well after delivery, a woman treads a thin line between life and death. We forget, in our sanitized world, that the act of giving birth can easily result in the death of both mother and child. Death and life are no where tied as closely as they are in childbirth. Components of both hover over a woman, particularly a first time mother.
What Mary did say was a practical question. " How can this happen ?"
When she had a satisfactory answer, she said "I'll do this".
Much has been written about Mary's leap of faith. She embraced an opportunity to be a cooperator with the Holy Spirit. And she asked only the most practical of questions.
So what does this story have to do with us in this time and place. ?
Of course we have an opportunity to marvel and Mary's faith and willingness. And we may have the inclination to place this story in a "that was then, this is now" framework. Mary was a simple girl in a simple time and she performed an act of simple faith, right ? No one in their right mind would apply such simplicity to our infinitely more complex situation.
I believe the story of Mary and the Holy Spirit speaks to us at St. Paul's and St. Stephen's. As parishes of the Bitterroot Valley, we are being presented with an opportunity to take a leap of faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit. And we will ask many of the questions that Mary didn't ask.
What will it cost us ? For Mary, it could have cost her life. Are the risks of saying we will embrace new life that high for us ?
What will people think ? Are we content to be slightly under the radar as Christian communities. When you talk about your faith community do people say "Where is that church ?". Or in Stevi we always hear "Is that really a church ?"
Will seeking full time clergy change our comfort zone ? What if a higher profile in the community attracts people we would rather not have ?
There is a story – one of my favorites – about an Episcopal priest who had returned to his congregation after a high power evangelization conference and preached for a month on reaching out to the community. Finally, after one particularly pointed sermon, a matron of the parish stopped him at the door, and very firmly told him " Father – this evangelization thing is all well and good, but anyone in this town that should be Episcopalian already IS Episcopalian".
We are a cautious people, weighed down by fear and worry. We know or anticipate the social complications, the loss of control, the risks involved. We are mature, thoughtful people and not all that fond of change. We want to know that we are committed to a sure thing. Maybe it was easier to be 14 years old and have limitless faith in the Holy Spirit. But Mary asked the one basic question "How can this happen ? " and hearing the answer she said " I'm ready".
How can this happen, these changes in our individual and parish lives, this stretching of our comfort zone with new life, much like Mary's body expanded with our hope. Can we trust that the Holy Spirit has the power to give birth to new life in the Bitterroot Valley ?
How could this happen ?
And, could we say Yes ?
In the name of Godde; Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.