Mary's Fiat, Mary's Faith

Now y'all, I know this is the Protestant Episcopal Church that we are a part of here. But here she is, unavoidable and inescapable: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Let's face it: we cannot tell the Good News of God’s salvific work in Jesus Christ without her. There is no Christ incarnate, no Word made flesh, no Immanuel (God-among-us) without her. Oh sure, God could have chosen another––God is ever free––but God didn’t. God chose Mary. Mary was God’s favored one.

Here she is. And here we are. On this fourth Sunday of Advent. On this eve of the Christ Mass. When all of our waiting, all of God’s promises, are fulfilled… by the arrival of Jesus Christ in the flesh, in time, in place, in human history, in Mary’s hallowed womb.

Take a deep, deep Protestant breath… and hang in there. We will get through this. Only 23 more minutes to go.

*                 *                 *

Our encounter with Mary begins with this visitation from the Archangel Gabriel. Gabriel has been sent by God to Nazareth to bear a message of utmost importance. This Gabriel is, according to scriptural accounts, one and the same Gabriel who appears to the great prophet Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures to reveal the meaning of Daniel’s dreams (Daniel 8:15–26, 9:21–27). And some rabbis believe Gabriel to be the unnamed angel in the revelation to the prophet Ezekiel, the one ‘clothed in linen’ (Ezekiel 9.3) who forewarns Jerusalem’s destruction. Gabriel was, is, in short, one of God’s chief emissaries—one of only a handful of angels to be named in Scripture.

But this time, this most notable divine envoy is sent not to important prophets in important places, but—it seems—to nowhere and nobody.

Gabriel visits Nazareth: the Biblical equivalent of a one-stoplight, middle-of-absolutely-nowhere town. Nazareth, as first century towns go, could not have been more insignificant. One scholar suggests that the town, at the time, had a population of 400 and one public bath.[1] Not exactly a metropolis. Not exactly where you’d expect this most momentous announcement to be made.

And, of course, the angel appears not to one of those luminary Hebrew prophets… but to this utterly insignificant girl in this middle-of-nowhere town.

Joseph, the humble carpenter to whom this Mary of Nazareth was betrothed, was at least “of the house of David,” as our text mentions. But there is no such mention of Mary’s lineage, presumably because she was not of any lineage worth mentioning. And apart from her sudden appearance in the biblical narrative, we really know absolutely nothing about her. We don’t even know her how old she is as this drama unfolds, though we guess that she was quite young. She is, the text tells us, betrothed to be married––and betrothals were customarily arranged around age 12 in those days.[2]

So here stands Gabriel, that great messenger and angelic revealer known to the great prophets of old, visiting this maybe-13-year-old nobody girl in this middle-of-absolutely-nowhere town.

You can hear the creak of a rusted out old sign as a tumbleweed bounds across a desolate landscape while this jobless teenage girl sits waiting for nothing.

And Gabriel appears: “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.” Uh, yeah, I’d say so.

St Gabriel the Archangel—patron saint of messengers, telecommunication workers, and postal workers (no joke, in the message business after all)—reveals the intention of this angelic arrival:

“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’s reply here is classic, almost comedic (the Bible can be a very funny book):

“Um, thank you,” she says, “that’s really nice to hear—quite the compliment, really—but just checking here to see if you’ve got the right Miriam of Nazareth, because, well, um, I’m, you know, still, let’s just say, betrothed.”

To which Gabriel, anticipating her puzzlement, replies:

“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. … For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Nothing will be impossible with God.

There is a moment of silence here as those words echo in time and space, and resound in Mary’s soul.

Do not miss the drama of these words, this moment. All of human history has lead up to this very moment. The entirety of God’s plan of salvation, from our perspective at least, now hangs in the balance. While the rest of the world is milling about their business everywhere else on earth that’s infinitely more important that this one-stoplight nothing Nazareth town, angels and archangels and all the company of heaven lean in as these words of an angel, spoken in the vernacular Aramaic—this most momentous message, this divine promise—awaits Mary’s reply.

She hears what the angel has said. And undoubtedly she has questions about the particulars. Whether, again, this St Gabriel the Archangel­—patron saint of messengers, telecommunication workers, and postal workers—has got the right Miriam of Nazareth. And what, exactly, did this angel mean by “overshadow”? It had been awhile since she’d studied the anatomy and physiology of conception, but a bit of clarification on this point woulda been a legitimate follow-up—right? Oh yeah, and “holy” was a word that was used with some regularity… the Temple was holy, Aaronic priests were holy, all of the stuff used in the cultic Levitical worship rites, that was holy too… but “Son of God”?! What exactly does that mean?!

Undoubtedly all of those questions and more were stirring in Mary as these words hit her ears. As she struggled to keep up with the moment, to take this all in. As she perhaps questioned her own sanity. As she perhaps wondered whether she was dreaming, or maybe hallucinating, or even having some sort of mental breakdown. As she wondered what to make of it all.

Then those final words of promise, of assurance are spoken: For nothing will be impossible with God.

In that moment, after these words of Gabriel are spoken, it all hangs in the balance. History hangs in the balance, sin and redemption hang in the balance, the meaning of human striving, human faith and hope, hangs in the balance. In that moment, while the material world mills about its business unaware, the entire rest of the cosmic order leans in to hear what she will say.

What… will… she… say?

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

*                 *                 *

Make no mistake: These are not words of passive acceptance. This is no mere blithe acquiesce to the will of God. These are the words of audacious faith. These are the words of bold belief in the promise of God: that nothing, nothing is or will be impossible with God.

Mary, in this moment, cannot possibly fully comprehend what her fiat—these words “let it be with me according to your word”—will mean. She cannot know the full implications and ramifications of her yes to God. She cannot know what incredible nausea will set in in that first trimester, or how she will just want that little Son of God OUT by the third. She cannot know how her body will be broken that she might bear the Body of Christ to the world. She cannot know about the sleepless nights she’s suddenly signed up for. She does not yet know about the terror she will feel when she loses her son in the labyrinth of the Temple complex, or how simultaneously petrified and proud she will be when she finds him thinking he has the credentials to teach Torah to Scribes, Pharisees, and religious elite. She does not yet know that her simple request of him at a wedding feast will occasion the first recorded sign of his unusual gifts. She does not yet know how her heart will be pierced with sorrow as she watches her son, her baby boy, betrayed, accused, and condemned to death. She does not yet know what it will be like to hold his lifeless corpse.

But do not think that Mary is naïve. She’s just been conversing with an angel, y’all. I don't know about you, I’m pretty sure that I, for one, would not even survive that encounter, if one showed right here and right now. I guarantee you I’d die of shock. “Do not be afraid,” ol’ Gabriel says. But those angels are always telling you to not be afraid precisely because your natural reaction would likely (and rightly) be that of pure terror.

Yet Mary is not flummoxed. This is a woman of steely resolve. This is a woman made of something special. This is a woman who was not randomly selected out of that nowhere-town-of-400. This is a woman, girl, who’s been chosen for a reason. This is the one who has been chosen to be, in that parlance ratified by the Council of Ephesus in 431, the “Theotokos”—the God-bearer, the Mother of God.

And it is by her fiat, Mary’s “let it be with me according to your word,” that the great, mysterious, unfolding plan of salvation realizes its most dramatic development yet. It is her yes to God that sets in motion the coming of Christ into the world. It is her body that will become the host for our salvation, Jesus Christ. Her form that will allow the infinite God to take that incomprehensibly vulnerable form of an infant child. Her flesh that will become His flesh. Mary, Mary of Nazareth, becomes the temple in which the God of the universe dwells.

*                 *                 *

This Christmas, as you look upon Mary—whether in the pageant here this afternoon or in your nativity scene back home or that manger out in front of Lowe’s—do not see little Mary meek and mild. See Mary for who she is: the first among the disciples. The first to say yes to Jesus Christ. The first to count the cost of discipleship. The first priest, who bears Christ’s Body and Blood to us—to the world. The one whose body was broken that he might be born onto us, that his Body might be broken for our salvation.

See Mary, the mother and follower of Jesus Christ. See Mary, the God-bearer. See Mary, the Mother of God.

And may her fiat, her faith, stir up something in you this Christmas—as you receive the gift that she has to bear to us, partnering with God to realize this next crucial step in the unfolding plan of salvation. As she offers up her flesh that the Word may become flesh and dwell among us, may you follow her—offering up your heart, your soul, your flesh, your strength, everything, everything you have—to bear Jesus Christ to the world.

May you believe Gabriel’s promise, that nothing will be impossible with God. And may Mary’s words echo and resound in you, as you seek to say yes to God: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Amen.

[1] Korb, Scott. Life in Year One, Riverhead (2010), 109.

[2] Allison, Dale C., Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, Continuum (2004), 12.

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Fr Joseph Wolyniak serves as chaplain to The Episcopal Church at Princeton, encompassing students, faculty, and staff at Princeton University, Westminster Choir College, and Princeton Theological Seminary.

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