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The Annunciation

My homily from last Sunday, on the Annunciation of Mary from Luke 1:26-38.

“The holy one to be born to you will be called the Son of God.” With these words the Angel Gabriel announced the good news to Mary. We call this announcement The Annunciation and we call this good news Gospel. Mary was afraid. An otherworldly being stood before her, saying something very confusing. The virgin would conceive. This… cannot happen? Mary thought. Her son would be the Son of God. This… also cannot happen? Mary thought. How can a virgin conceive? How can the one and only God have a divine son? These are good questions, and as the foolish Seminarian I am supposed to try to answer them. But their answers lay beyond my reach, beyond your reach, beyond anybody’s reach. The incarnation of Christ is the first and deepest mystery of the Gospel. Like a cubist painting we can recognize shapes and broad forms, and explain what purpose it serves, but we cannot explain its parts either in isolation or according to the secret logic that holds them together. What does it mean that Mary’s baby will be the Son of God? While we cannot finally grasp this mystery, we can have what my dear friend Jacob called “an articulate unknowing.” An articulate unknowing. We can spell out the pieces as an offering to God, as our feeble attempt to say “Thank you God for this truth you have revealed to us, even though you have hidden it from the wisest of the world. Have these reflections of ours, though they are only wood, hay, and straw.”

What we have to understand about the Incarnation is that though language fails us Jesus is both God and human. This passage in Luke 1 stresses that Jesus is human: he is born of a human mother, takes on a real physical human body, and has a human cousin, who is John the Baptist. Another passage in Colossians 1 stresses that Jesus is divine: that passage reads: “The Son is the visible image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This is what Gabriel’s words must mean, in the fullest sense, by that in Mary’s womb was the holy one who will be called the Son of God. Resting in Mary’s womb will be not just any baby but the one in whom all things hold together. Her son, though neither she nor we can grasp it, is the one through whom and for whom all things have been created. This infant, so tender and mild, will reign over the entire universe of which he is the cosmic center, and he will destroy all rivaling thrones and powers and rulers and authorities. Weighing some seven or eight pounds is God himself in human flesh. 

Think about the contrast between Zechariah and Mary. Earlier in this chapter Zechariah was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told he would have a son, though he and his wife were infertile. That is similar to Mary and Joseph, who will also have a miraculous conception. But Zechariah responds in disbelief. So Gabriel strikes him mute until their son is born. Meanwhile Mary responded not in disbelief but in faith seeking understanding. My friend Charles at Streetside Thursday last week pointed out that verse 34 does not say “How could this be,” but “How will this be?” Mary’s question is not disbelief but assumes that Gabriel is telling the truth. Yet she does not stop there. She trusts this message from God and wants to know more: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s faith is not faith full stop but faith seeking understanding. She is approaching a mystery, but after her question she will have “an articulate unknowing.” She will be able to hold in her heart this message from God through all the confusion in the months to come: that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born to you will be called Son of God… no word from God will ever fail.” Her potential rejection from Joseph and her almost certain rejection from her community will be scary and painful, and not finally understanding why this is happening will make things worse, yet this Word from God will never fail. Because she has it, she can trust God.

To this mystery Mary gives her consent in verse 38. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.” By her consent the Son of God will come into the world. By her consent the one through whom and in whom all things were created, will come into the world. This means that by her consent Mary has caused her own creation. How can this be true? How can her trust in God result in all things? Of course this, too, is a mystery, but we can say what we can say about it. Mary is the true and better Eve. Our first parents in their confusion and temptation caused humanity and the entire universe to enter a deep darkness. But because Jesus’s mother trusted the messenger of God, and consented to God’s plan, there is a new light breaking into humanity and the entire universe. This new light is Jesus who is one person in two natures, both God and Human. But these two natures are incompatible. One nature is created and temporal, the other nature is uncreated and eternal. As St. Maximus pointed out, created and eternal natures cannot share any properties with one another. Yet in the person of Jesus it is so. What I am saying is that Mary consenting to her own creation results from the much larger problem that something uncreated is being born. Something eternal is entering time. In Mary’s womb our linear, sequential time and God’s eternal, non-sequential time are one. Time itself bends its knee in obedient submission to this baby. This is what creates the problem that Mary needs to preexist herself to consent to her creation. The more you reflect on this baby, on his dual divine-human person, the less that reality as we understand it makes sense. The problem with Mary is not unique to her, though. It is a problem inherent in all things, that each thing has its being independently from God as God’s gift to it, yet without God it cannot continue to exist in its particular form. To this baby in a manger not only Time but also All Particularity Itself bends its knee in obedient submission. Were it not for this baby, the pew you sit in would melt into pudding. As would you. Everything would return to formless and void from Gen 1:2. I am not saying that all things are Christ. That would be pantheism. But all things have their particularity only in Christ, only in Christ incarnate, only in Christ incarnate as a baby in a manger. 

The new light who is Jesus will shine over all things, bringing light and life into the deep darkness of our hearts, our communities, our world, our universe. Think about the beautiful stained glass windows around us. They are illuminated by the Sun’s light, but their particular colors and shapes and pictures are what we can see inside. That is also true of Jesus. His light shines into the whole world, and since we are his stained glass windows, he shines through us. The particular colors, shapes and pictures that make up your life, begin to beam with the light of Jesus. There is a saying that you are the only Gospel most people will ever read. We can say a similar thing. You are the only stained glass window most people ever really see up close and personal. This Jesus who is the center of all creation, comes to be center of our hearts and works to reach others through our ordinary and mundane lives. As we live out our faithfulness to God — reading and treasuring his Word, pouring out praise, praying with adoration and penitent need, loving those around us, and so on — this light in us begins to grow in intensity and in heat. In time it becomes a raging fire, your life a burning bush, from which the One True God of Israel speaks saying, I AM WHO I AM. As his voice rings out among the nations, and we are reduced to ash, he brings us new life in this infant. This infant, who is the light of the world, by his very being speaks louder than when God said “Let there be light” in the beginning. In him there is life, and this life is the light of all mankind, and the darkness has not overcome it. “The holy one to be born to you will be called the Son of God.” 

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