Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mary's "yes" and God's sovereignty

I've been asked to post my meditation from this morning's service at Church of the Common Table. Just to put a little context on it, we decided to bring the story of Mary's Advent waiting a little closer to us this morning by asking three of the moms in our congregation to share their experience of pregnancy as waiting. I gave this meditation after that.

Gabriel is one very busy angel in Luke 1. Luke opens up his account of the life of Christ with two separate --and very different—annunciations. In the first, the Angel Gabriel greets Zechariah, a priest whom Luke says was “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly”. This, despite the fact that God had not blessed he and his wife with children even though he had prayed for this for many long years. In the second, the Angel Gabriel greets Mary, whom is introduced simply as a virgin whose father had arranged to marry her to a man named Joseph, himself a descendant of David.

Zechariah was performing temple service when Gabriel showed up to talk to him, and he was filled with sheer terror at the sight of the angel. Gabriel was tuned into this and told Zechariah not to be afraid, that he had good news for him and that his wife would give birth to a son who would be filled with “the spirit and power of Elijah”, the great prophet of the Jewish tradition. Zechariah, attempting to get a grip on the situation --and on himself-- blurts out “How can I be sure of this? I’m old and so is my wife.”

Me being me, I hear exasperation and sarcasm in Gabriel’s response: “(sigh) I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God?? and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now? You will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” Bam! And just like that, Zechariah --the upstanding priest of God-- is totally mute and reduced to using sign language to try to communicate to those standing outside the temple that something big has gone down.

The situation with Mary is totally different, though. This young woman --whom until this point Luke has described only in relation to the men whom were her caretakers-- is not described as being overcome by terror at the very presence of an angel, but as being “greatly troubled” by his greeting… not because there was an angel in her room, but because she didn’t understand what he meant when Gabriel said “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Like Zechariah, Mary greets the news of the angel that she will give birth to the eternal king of the house of Jacob with a question, but it’s not framed as an incredulous “how can I be sure of this?” but rather as curiosity over logistics: “How’s THAT gonna happen? I’m a virgin, after all.” So Gabriel responds to a straight question with a straight answer, explaining how it will happen, and mentioning that her cousin Elizabeth is also already preggers in quite similar miraculous circumstances: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

And then Mary says something fascinating, which has been the subject of much poetry, music and theological speculation: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Gabriel, satisfied with this response, returns to the presence of God.

When I was in the Catholic Church, a LOT was made of Mary’s answer to Gabriel. Look at Mary’s servant-like nature! Look at her willingness to be used for the LORD, no matter *what* it cost her personally! Look at this example of pure, unblemished womanhood, submitting fully to the LORD in complete, child-like faith! Hail, Virgin Mother of our LORD!!

But I’m more interested in the fact that she responded… as though she knew, in some way, that God required her assent in order for this to happen. And upon receiving her assent, Gabriel’s work there appears to have been finished, like that’s really what he was waiting on. I remember being in a conversation with some Catholics once who posited the possibility that Gabriel had actually gone to several women *prior* to Mary, but that she was the first one to accept his proposition with such calmness, and therefore to become the Mother of God.

Why? Why did it *matter* whether she said yes or no? After all, Gabriel evidently didn’t require Zechariah’s assent. He came to Zechariah solely to report what would occur, and promptly took away his power of speech upon meeting his incredulity. Of course, what he was describing to Zechariah wasn’t happening to Zechariah. He would be affected by it, but it was actually happening to Elizabeth. Gabriel’s later annunciation to Joseph also served the purpose primarily of informing, rather than asking for any sort of assent. We don’t have an account of Gabriel appearing to Elizabeth, of course, so we can’t verify a parallel, but still… it is strange, isn’t it?

I mean, think about it. I’m assuming we all know *how* babies are made, but we have so unbelievably little control over when and how, really. And --as we have heard in the testimonies of some of the mothers in our congregation-- the whole process of pregnancy is a series of uncontrollable events as a woman’s body is transformed into a baby incubator, her own lifeblood mined for nutrients for this growing body inside of HER body. Every woman experiences this process differently, and differently even with every child she has. She simply CANNOT predict with total accuracy what is going to happen to her. The process is miraculous and beautiful and all of that, but the more salient point is that it is deeply, deeply physical and deeply beyond our ability to really control. At best, we firefight once problems become apparent. And we pray a lot. But it’s not like God asks us, “hey, are you cool with this?” before the process gets started.

And it’s not like He asks us this with other things in life, either. I mean, we all, I’m sure, have wondered in passing if we could have had some notice before experiencing the big changes in our life, good and bad. Would it have hurt for God to give us a little heads up? Some sign? I find myself going back over the events preceding each huge, life-changing event in my life, mining for clues... a Colombo of faith, sniffing around for any evidence that God could have been telling me what was going down… and in many cases, that I could have prevented that thing from happening.

…which raises a very interesting and important question. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, Lewis imagines purgatory as a city with a sprawling suburb in perpetual grey twilight, and the portal to heaven as a bus stop in the middle of the city that takes its passengers to a meadow with hills in the distance. The hills are heaven, but the passengers in the bus find that they are like paper-thin ghosts in this new land, that the grass hurts their feet and the sun hurts their eyes and they are afraid to go forward from the bus. Some choose to go back to purgatory. But even beyond that, there are those in the land of twilight who have moved far, far from the city center, who never go into town and don’t even know about the portal to heaven. It seems that, to Lewis, our every decision every day points us in a direction, either towards, or away from heaven. Toward the light, or towards the dusk that will someday deepen into a blacker night than we can possibly imagine.

So which is it? Does God have the control? Or do we? This is not a philosophical question. If you believe that our choices matter deeply, that God is in some way limited by our permission for Him to act in our lives, then our actions and decisions are directly linked to God’s ability to change the world for the better. If you believe that our choices are something of a side issue, or perhaps even irrelevant in the face of totally sovereign God, then you can find either rest or despair in the fact that your choices, while important insofar as you are obedient to God, do not have any real ultimate effect on your life, your salvation or the affairs of the world. Your perspective on this affects everything: how you make your decisions, what you think of prayer, how you enter into relationships with one another… everything. Really.

Even in Romans 8:28-30, part of the passage we read this morning, God is seen as predestining, controlling our futures. But then it says that all things work together for good to those who love Him, placing the agency back on us and our love for God. So which is it? What do you think? Is God totally in control? Or are we?


Craig said...

If I'm reading your tone correctly, it seems there are a couple ideas here. Acceptance of God's will and what this has come to mean for women. What if God had asked Mary to become a great teacher and prophet to all the nations, rather then a trembling hand maid with dilated eyes of complete submission and affection? Perhaps this is separate from your larger idea of God's sovereignty, but I agree that the profound impact made by Mary on our idea of womanhood is hard to deny. Yes, she was asked to bear the son of God because of her gender, but it seems to me we often confuse the means here for the message. Say "yes" to God, with or without a uterus.

Moff said...

I like it, Craig. I'm not really trying to focus on Mary's role in redemptive history here... but yes, it's a definite undercurrent for me.

In terms of Biblical feminine archetypes, I'd much rather spend time focusing on Deborah, one of Israel's judges... or Jael, who drove a tent peg through the head of Heber the Kenite, also in the book of Judges, than Mary... not that I think women should be hurting people, but because a lot of church-y women still need permission to think of their strength as an asset --indeed a necessity-- for God to do His work in the world.

Their partners need permission, too, to be strong beside them, strong enough not to be threatened by an equal, strong enough to care that their spouse be empowered to bring what she has to the church and to bringing Christ into the marketplace and into the family.

Ummm, but really, that's not what I was talking about here. heh. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to hop up on a different soapbox though, Craig. You're the shizz, my brother.

Anonymous said...

That was great. I have had many conversations on the subject of predetermine versus predstine.

I believe that one fo the basic concepts of Christianity is Free Will. If we don't have a choice, none of it really matters.

I don't think of God as powerless to affect change. I think of God as a God of order. He chose to give us free will and works within those parameters because he understands that the other side of grace (divine or otherwise) is a willingness to accept.

I could talk endlessly on this subject, but I will leave it at that... for now.