A Response to Change History
December 22, 2002
“Let it be done to me according to your Word.” The history of the world turned on that line. All that God planned to do to save us, the gift that divine love wanted to give us hung on Mary’s response, on her willingness to cooperate. Her choice was a free choice, for Mary could have said “no”. It would have been easy to find many reasons to say “no.”
She could have responded to Gabriel by saying, “Wow! This is unexpected. Sort of out of the blue. How long before you need my answer? I’d really like to think about this. I know that God has a plan, but I’m rather upset about being brought into it at the very last minute. You might want to suggest that if God expects human cooperation it might be good to give a little lead time, a few months so you could think things over. I’m sure that God would get a much better response using that approach. And really, to tell you the truth, it’s not the best time for me. I’m really busy with the wedding and all coming up. We still have to pick a hall and get flowers; I’ve already bought the dress and it’s not going to fit if I’m pregnant. And the more I think about it, this idea of conceiving by the Holy Spirit without a human father, it’s kind of peculiar, isn’t it? I really wish God would rethink that part of the plan. Joseph is a great guy, but I don’t think he’ll sign off on that. So why don’t we just leave it this way: first of all, tell God that I’m very honored to be considered. But the plan is nebulous and really not that well thought out. So why don’t you take it back and work on it a bit? Put some more detail in it, iron out some of the wrinkles, and we’ll talk again after the wedding.”
Mary could have said “no”, but she didn’t. What she said was, “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” Without much preparation, with very few details, and with a lot of things that were unsettling at best, Mary said “yes” to God. She said “yes” because she trusted that God had a plan and would not abandon her. Because she said “yes”, we have Jesus; we have eternal life; and we are preparing to celebrate Christmas.
Mary is our model, our model always, but especially our model in the next few days. I am quite certain that in the next few days, in the midst of holiday preparation, God will be asking us to do some things. God will be asking us for our cooperation. Like Mary, God’s request is very likely to come out of the blue, without much preparation. Like Mary, the call might be unexpected, or even unwanted. It certainly will come at a very busy time. But unlike Mary, we should not expect an angel to announce it to us. Therefore, we need to be watching, watching for the opportunities that God provides, waiting for our chance to say either “yes” or “no”.
That chance might come with a sudden twist in our plans—something unexpected that looks like an intrusion—something our children need or our parents expect. When that intrusion comes, we can either complain and feel sorry for ourselves, or we can see it as an invitation from God to be flexible and loving. We can choose to say, “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” It might come because we have a sadness to bear in this holiday season—a sadness because someone we love is not with us, a sadness because there are tensions in our family. When that sadness emerges, we can either hold it in and let it cause anger and depression in our hearts, or we can accept the truth that there is a sadness that we cannot change and reach out to others in love and in hope. We can say, “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” It might happen as we gather together with family and friends. Suddenly we could be faced with an opportunity to affirm somebody we love, to forgive someone who has hurt us, to listen to someone who is in need. When that opportunity presents itself, we can either choose to forge ahead with all of the other things that we have to do, or we can stop and accept the invitation to do God’s will. We can choose to say, “Let it be done to me according to your Word.”
Mary is our model, the model of how God chooses to interact with us. What God does is invite our cooperation and then wait for our response. Do not expect to see the angel Gabriel, but watch for the opportunities. They will be there. When you see them, be like Mary. Say “yes.” Say “yes” to God’s request, “yes” to God’s will. Do your part in bringing Jesus into our world.
The Prayer of Mary
December 18, 2005
When I find myself in times of trouble,
mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom:
“Let it be.”
And in my hour of darkness,
she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom:
“Let it be.”
Those famous words from a Beatles song are open to many interpretations. But at least one interpretation can serve as a key to unlock today’s gospel. On this last Sunday of Advent, Mother Mary comes to us in a scriptural scene which is the greatest moment of her life. As she stands before the Angel Gabriel, Mary changes the course of history by agreeing to become the mother of Jesus.
This is Mary’s greatest moment—greater than giving birth in Bethlehem, greater than standing at the foot of the cross, greater than being assumed into heaven. For in this moment, Mary utters the greatest prayer ever offered. Her prayer is “Let it be.” “Let it be done to me according to your word.” In this moment, Mary reveals herself as the first and greatest disciple and provides a model that all subsequent disciples must follow. Mary’s prayer tells us that the foundation of the Christian life is accepting the will of God. She is our model because to believe we too must surrender to God’s purposes.
Now following the example of Mary is not easy, because all of us want to be in control. We want to call our own shots in life. We want to determine how to move from A to B. With the best of reasons, we want to bring about good things for ourselves and for those that we love. Therefore, when things happen that we cannot control, when hurts occur that we cannot heal, when troubles come that we cannot escape, our life is thrown into turmoil and confusion. We loose sleep; our stomach churns; we beat our head against the wall. All because we cannot determine what we should do. Mary tells us that what we should do is surrender, surrender to God. To follow Jesus we must accept those things in life that we cannot control or change.
Surrender is truly the foundation of the Christian life. Yet it is important to understand that surrender is not neglect. Surrender is not “letting God do it” and avoiding our own responsibilities. For whenever in life a clear path is shown to something that is good, we are obliged to follow it. Whenever there is an opportunity for reconciliation, healing, growth, or understanding, we know that it is God’s will for us to act. We must take responsibility and do what is right. But we also know how often things are not clear, that there is no viable option to take, that there nothing we are able to do. It is in those moments that we must surrender.
So surrender is not neglect, nor is it giving up. Surrender is not throwing in the towel in a desperate act of frustration. Surrender is not giving up, it is handing over, handing over to God. As believers, we understand that there are things that we cannot do, but God can. There are things we do not understand, but God does. There are many times where we are not in control, but God is. Believers hand over to God, what is impossible, what is unclear, what is painful, realizing that God will do what we cannot do. In the end, surrender is trust.
So if there are troubles and divisions in your family, which you cannot heal, surrender them to God who can. If there are people in your life, that you cannot change or protect from harm, entrust them to God who will not abandon them. If you wake up yet another morning, with a pain that you cannot relieve, hand it over to God who will carry that burden with you.
When you find yourself in times of trouble,
mother Mary comes to you,
speaking words of wisdom:
“Let it be.”
And in your hour of darkness,
she is standing right in front of you,
speaking words of wisdom:
“Let it be.”
Mary points to a truth
which only faith can see:
There will be an answer,
Let it be.
December 20, 2008
Luke 1: 26 – 38
God never forces us to do anything. Although God is all powerful, God never chooses to take away our freedom. Therefore, when God wants us to do something, God has to ask. This is why today’s gospel is so important. Because God’s plan to send his son into the world depended upon the answer of a woman. In order for the savior to be born, Mary had to say yes. Now I suppose, if Mary had said no, God could have asked someone else. But it would have made things different. Jesus would have grown up with another mother and in another home. It is clear that God wanted Mary, so God sent the angel Gabriel to lay out the plan. Mary listened, asked questions, and finally accepted God’s offer. Mary said yes.
Now it is at this point that the most important thing of the gospel becomes clear. What is crucial is the way in which Mary said yes. Normally when we think about agreeing to something or saying that we are willing to participate in someone else’s plan we say, “Yes, I’ll do it. I’ll participate.” But that is not what Mary said. The text is very clear on this, Mary does not say, “I’ll do what God wants.” She says, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Mary doesn’t say, “I’ll do it.” She says, “I’ll let God do it to me.” Now this is a tremendously important description of faith. Faith is not us doing things for God. It is God doing things for us.
This gospel, then, shows us how to act when God sends an angel to us. Does God send angels to us? All the time. On a regular basis. Now the angel need not have wings or display a heavenly glow. An angel is anytime God asks us to do anything. God can ask us by placing a thought in our minds, by attracting us through someone or something that we love, or by directing the circumstances of our life to lead us in a particular direction. Here are some examples in which God could be asking us to do something: when you think that you are ready to make a commitment to a particular person, when you think it might be good for you to volunteer some time at the hospital, when you realize that you like chemistry and you might get a degree to work in medical research, or when you think that you are going to take off from work a few hours early and spend some time with your children. Any one of those decisions can be God asking you to participate in God’s plan.
I know that such decisions look like things which we are doing, decisions we are making. But on a deeper level it is actually allowing God to do something to us. When we choose to share our life with another person, it is a choice that we make. But on a deeper level it is opening ourselves to a lifetime of joys and sorrows, many of which we can never anticipate. Choosing someone in marriage is saying to God, “I love this person. You do something to us according to your plan.” When we decide we are going to spend our life in medical research, it is our choice of a career. But on a deeper level it is us allowing God to use our time and talent over the years and perhaps help a great many people. When we choose to give time at the hospital or with our children, we are making a choice. But on a deeper level we will never know the ways in which God can use that time we give to change us and to bless us, to bring us into God’s larger plan.
This understanding of faith is particularly important when we have to face tragedy or pain in our life, when we face sickness, loss, or grief. In so many of those situations we do not even know what to choose. But whenever there are circumstances that we must face and cannot change, we believe God is somehow asking us to go through those circumstances. Even though we do not understand what is happening, we like Mary say, “I trust you. Lead me through this. Show me the way.”
God comes to us in many ways. God has a plan for the world and for our lives. God is asking you to participate in that plan. So keep on the watch for angels that God will send. They will not be long in coming. I cannot describe to you how they will come, but I know you will recognize their arrival. When God’s request comes, it will be as clear as it was to Mary. And when the angel comes and says, “This is what God would like you to do,” I suggest that you say yes. Do not be afraid, because whatever you do, God will do more. Whenever you fail, God will compensate. So say yes. Don’t be afraid. Look right at the angel and say “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
Troubled by Angels
December 18, 2011
Luke 1: 26-38
There is a basic rule in the Bible that when an angel appears to you—God wants something. When God decides to involve human beings in the divine plan, God sends an angel to make the request and to close the deal. Therefore, when an angel appears to Mary in today’s gospel, we can be rather sure that Mary knew she was about to get a job.
But what is puzzling is the peculiar dialogue that takes place between the angel and Mary. The angel begins with a beautiful greeting, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Short—spiritual—positive. It would be difficult to imagine a more uplifting way to begin the negotiation. But Mary does not seem pleased with this greeting. The very next line of the Gospel tells us Mary was greatly disturbed at what was said to her. Now, what is so disturbing about this greeting? Was it that Mary was full of grace or that the Lord was with her? What is Mary hearing in the angel’s words that we are not hearing? It might very well be the very first word that the angel speaks, the word, “Hail.” “Hail” is the English translation of the Greek word, “chaire,” a word that is not used that often in the Gospels. In fact, besides this verse, it is used only in five other places.
But, when we look at those other places it becomes clear why Mary was troubled. Four of those five occurrences take place during Jesus’ passion. When Judas comes up to Jesus in the garden to betray him, he begins with, “Hail, Rabbi.” In three separate Gospels when the Roman soldiers mock Jesus in Pilot’s courtyard they shout out, “Hail, King of the Jews.” So, perhaps when Mary heard Gabriel’s “Hail,” it already carried for her resonances of suffering, crucifixion, and death. No wonder Mary was troubled at the greeting. She realized that God was going to offer her a job that included pain and heartbreak.
Now Mary, as always, is an example to us. Her conversation with the angel is meant to prepare us for those times when angels are sent to us. For every time we turn a corner in our lives, every time we face a new challenge or opportunity, God is asking us to take on a new job, God is asking us to assume a role in the plan of salvation. And, every time we are asked to assume such a role, it is very likely that suffering is involved. When expectations shift at work, when we enter a new school, yes there will be opportunities to serve others and opportunities for personal growth. But there will also be grieving for what we left behind and the experience of being stretched in new and uncomfortable ways. When we watch a member of family or a friend enter into marriage, there is the beauty of their love which reflects God’s goodness. But there is also the misunderstanding and hurt which are unavoidable in trying to love another person for a lifetime. When we assume the responsibility of caring for an aging parent, there are moments of deep intimacy. But there is also impatience and anger and hurt. As we approach retirement there is new freedom and a lifetime of wisdom that has been accumulated. But there is also the debilitating effects of aging and the painful experience of watching the people we love begin to die.
How then are we to assume these new roles that God asks of us? The Gospel calls us to follow the example of Mary. Mary says, “Yes.” But why does Mary say, “Yes”? It might be because she is aware of the last occurrence of chaire in the Gospels. It takes place on Easter morning as Jesus greets the women who come to the empty tomb. You see, Mary understands that what God is asking of her is more than pain. It is also resurrection. She seems confident that every time that God asks us to take on a new role, even though we are not guaranteed that it will be easy, we are promised that it will lead to life.
So the next time that an angel shows up at your doorstep, do not be naïve. What God asks of you will often demand courage. But the pain that you experience can be transformed into glory. “Hail” the angel says to us. Understand what is in that greeting: joy and pain, death and resurrection. “Hail” the angel says. May we respond with Mary, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”
How Annunciations Work
December 21, 2014
Today’s gospel is the Annunciation: the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become the mother of God’s son. The story is rich and complex and there are many ways we could approach it. But I would like to focus on one line, the last one: “And then the angel departed from her.” Why does this text go out of its way to tell us that the angel left? Did we imagine that the angel was going to stay? Did we suppose that Gabriel was going to move in with Mary and Joseph and become a resident of Nazareth? Of course not. The text tells us that the angel departed, not to correct some misconception in our mind, but to show us how annunciations work.
Annunciations are joyful beginnings. They initiate a gift that is meant to unfold into the future. Annunciations often involve angels, visible signs of God’s presence. When an angel is present, doubts can be resolved, commitment can be strengthened, and hope can be confirmed. But once the good thing has begun, once the gift has been announced, the angel departs. Then we are left to live out that gift without sure signs of God’s presence.
Mary knew this truth. When the angel Gabriel left her, no further angels were sent. There was no angel to tell Mary what she should say to Joseph as he planned to divorce her over her pregnancy. There was no angel to guide her as she fled from mad King Herod into Egypt. There was no angel to support her as her own family doubted the validity of Jesus’ ministry. There was no angel to console her as she watched the child of her womb die on the cross. As Mary lived out her joyful annunciation, she had to remember the words that were spoken to her. She had to press forward without visible assurances. She had to believe that the good news she heard was real, even after the angel left. Mary’s story demonstrates that her trust was not in vain. She last appears in the Bible in the Book of Acts, gathered with the apostles and joyfully praising God for her Son’s resurrection.
Mary is an example to us. Her story shows us how we are to deal with joyful beginnings in our lives. When we hold a newly born son, daughter, or grandchild in our arms, there is no doubt that angels are present. The love and the promise of that moment is tangible. But then, as the relationship grows, there can be mistakes, misunderstandings, and even possible estrangements. It is then that we need to believe with Mary that joyful beginnings will not be wasted. When we enter a new school or begin a new job, it is easy to feel that we are full of grace. But then there are challenges, jealousies, exams, and turf wars. It is then that we, like Mary, must trust that joyful promises can still reach their fulfillment. When we meet our partner for life or our closest friend, there is no doubt that God is with us at the beginning. But as the relationship grows, we must struggle with patience, compromise, and forgiveness. Then we need to believe with Mary that what was joyfully begun still has a future.
Annunciations are beautiful moments—moments of hope, light, and joy. But living out those gifts requires courage, perseverance, and faith. This is why the story of Mary is important. It tells us that God does not begin good things in our lives to deceive us and that the voice of the announcing angel can be trusted. When we believe with Mary, we understand that even when the angel departs, God is still with us.