A Nascent Promise – Feast of the Annunciation Observed

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “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; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Sermon Text

We come now to our Scripture. The celebration of the Annunciation is an ancient one. It was solidified in our Church calendars as being properly celebrated on the twenty-fifth of March, nine-months before December twenty-fifth and the celebration of Christ’s birth. While there is no actual date recorded in scripture for Christ’s birth, and subsequently of Christ’s conception, there is a tradition of the Church that dates back centuries. Following a Jewish belief at the time that a righteous man would die on the day he was conceived, the early tradition that Jesus was crucified on March twenty-fifth locked in place both the celebration of the Annunciation and Christmas.[1]

Today, though we have waited four days for our observance of it, we celebrate a feast day like no other. The first moment in which a person became a minister in the New Testament, the first moment that Christ was received by a person, the fist transmission of the Holy Spirit in the era of Christ’s earthy ministry. It begins in a simple moment, a conversation between two people in a small room in a small city. A private conversation with a universal impact – the moment that Mary is told of what her life is to become, and the moment that she accepts her place in God’s plan without reservation.

The Annunciation is the starting point of the Christian faith, the first obvious interaction of the entirety of the Godhead with creation. The arrival of the Word made flesh, the Anointing of Mary with the Spirit, as she received her blessing from the Father. The world was transformed as it had never been before – not by general and armies, not by Caesar or Herod, not even by priests, but by the faith of a woman that was sufficient for God to work within her.

What can come as a surprise to us, steeped in various Mariologies that either cast her as the Queen of Heaven or just some woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time for God to work through her. The Scripture does not ask us to make so much or so little of Mary. She is the only woman in the New Testament to speak prophetically. While Elizabeth blesses Mary and Anna is called a prophetess, Mary alone is given voice to shout her praise and prophecy of God. The prophecy that she gives later, the Magnificat, is one of the most powerful pronouncements in scripture – it challenges us to understand what God has done, is doing, and will do. It tells us about a God who is planning to shake up creation, to turn it on its head, to make things right at last.

However, the Magnificat is not where scripture takes us today. We see the moment, months before, in which the incidents that allow for this wonderful song of praise to be sung take place. An angel appears to Mary, tells her that she is going to have a child and that that child will be the Holy. Not only will they be Holy, but they will be called a “Son of God.” This title is used throughout scripture to mean one of two things – either that a person is an angel, as it is used in Genesis or else that they are a descendent of King David and therefore worthy of being called King.[2]

The second title Gabriel bestows upon Jesus is significantly rarer – calling him a “Holy One.” This title is given in some places to all of God’s people, elsewhere to specific anointed prophets, but most interestingly as a title for those who are directly representing God in a situation. Angels who speak for God are given this title, when it is presented in plural it refers usually to God in Godself.[3]

These two titles, one tying Jesus to being King, the other to Jesus being a prophet and envoy of God. They establish what role Jesus is to have in the world as its ruler and as its new mediator between God and God’s people. The angel speaks to Mary and assures her that her child is going to be a spectacular child.  Worthy of a lineage like King David’s, as magnificent as Moses and Elijah before him.

Mary hears all these things and we can imagine that like each of the encounters she has with prophets speaking to her, she contemplated them deep within herself. The reality of her coming pregnancy was now revealed to her. The complexity of her child’s future was laid out before her. The evidence of God’s power was presented in the pregnancy of her elderly relative Elizabeth. The wonders of God were all arranged now to culminate in a grand convergence that required pieces from all of time and space to act in concert – the incarnation of Christ had begun.

Mary provides us all a model for our own faith. From beginning to end of her appearance in scripture Mary is presented as a paradigm of what a faithful servant of God is to be like. She listens attentively to God, to questions God to learn more about God’s will, and she follows God when she is given a direction to go in. Throughout the rest of Luke 1 and 2 we see Mary interact with God directly. Not on a mountaintop like Moses had, not in a chariot of fire like Elijah had, not in terrifying visions. No… Mary saw none of these things when she saw God. Instead she saw God in a child, in her child, nestled up to her and dependent upon her.

God’s magnificent entry into a corporeal form was in the form of a fragile child. All the work of God in this new era of Christ was wrapped up in a child, and before it was wrapped in a child, it was wrapped in the waters of the womb. Jesus begins Jesus’ ministry prenatally. A nascent promise waiting for Advent among us.

Mary is pushed from her life in the city into the wilderness of her close relatives immediately after the angel’s proclamation. Perhaps seeking safety while her child gestates – we have to remember that her and Joseph are not yet married and that the law of the land makes this pregnancy dangerous for both of them. Mary travels to her relative Elizabeth, the one who has received her own miraculous child, and there Elizabeth sings for Joy that Mary has graced her with her presence. Elizabeth, who finally is going to have a child after years of waiting, pronounced Mary more blessed than she is. More than that, she says that Mary’s child is more blessed than any other child.

Upon reception of these words Mary sings a song which we know best as the “Magnificat,” literally meaning, “Magnifies,” from the first words of the prayer. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This prayer lays out all the wonders of God. God’s taking down of the proud, God’s salvation of the meek and needy, God’s constancy in all conditions, the promises of God which never go unfulfilled. Mary, pushed into a place she does not know, receives support and blessing from someone else in the faith, and she is able then to fully realize what God is doing with her life.

Mary is a model for us because she is the first person to hold the promises of God within themselves. She was the first to have the Spirit transform her body into a temple of God. We are told through the letters of Paul that we too inhabit this state of being. While we are not pregnant with the physical Christ, we all contain within us the Spirit of God – the fullness of divinity wrapped in our flesh. We are not fully divine and fully human like Christ was, our nature is not one of twofold unity, but we are united to Christ’s divinity through Christ’s spirit. We all contain the fullness of Christ’s promise through the Spirit’s participation in our life.

At the beginning of our faith we all receive a word from God. “You will bear Christ into the world. You will tell others about him and show others what his love was like. You will speak against the proud and lift up the humble. You will bear the Most High because the Spirit is with you.” Still we often are unconvinced, “How can this be? I am no great orator, no speaker, no wonder worker. I have not done nearly enough to be worthy of this title – I’ll go even further and say I do not know how it is possible!”

Then comes the word from God, “I have made it possible for thousands of people for centuries. I have seen kingdoms rise and fall and yet I am present in my servants. See the wonders around you, and know that no word that comes from my mouth is impossible.” We hear this, we consent to be workers in God’s economy of grace – but can we really say that we have taken hold of the reality we are now in? Not until we come face to face with grace in action, not until the time is right for us to embrace our future. When we come into hardship and God’s grace appears to us in the kindness of another – in an Elizabeth who sees the blessing within us for what it is.

In that moment we are ready to declare what God has done and will do. “Lord! You who bring down the mighty you have chosen to work with us who are lowly. Lord! You who have kept your promises will not abandon us after saying you will protect us! Lord! You who have destroyed the thrones of power will lift up the poor and the powerless!” The promise which had up to this point been contained within is now free to go out into the world and grow. We, following Mary’s model, not only carry Christ but let Christ out into the world. The wonders that will be completed are let loose, and we in giving up our control join with Mary. In joy, in pain, in ministry, we follow the example of the first great evangelist – Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Amen

[1] Golden Legend, vol. 3, the Annunciation. C.f. De. Pascha Compututs. Pseudo-Cyprian. Latin Text available: https://scaife.perseus.org/reader/urn:cts:latinLit:stoa0104p.stoa009.opp-lat1:1-5/?highlight

[2] Psalm 2 reflects this relationship most clearly

[3] Gehman, Henry S. “‘Άγιος in the Septuagint, and Its Relation to the Hebrew Original.” Vetus Testamentum 4, no. 4 (1954): 337-48. Accessed March 23, 2020. doi:10.2307/1515813.

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