Angels calling | Advent 4 | December 24

Reading: Luke 1:26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The 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. 36And 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. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then 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.

Song: STS 11 No wind at the window, v. 1

No wind at the window, no knock at the door; no light from the lampstand, no foot on the floor; no dream born of tiredness, no ghost raised by fear: just an angel and a woman and a voice in her ear.


Gabriel’s Annunciation |  by Jan Richardson

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Violin  No wind at the window, 1x through


As difficult as it must have been for Mary, there’s something almost enviable about being given such a clear task – at least how Luke tells it.  To be visited by a messenger, which is what the word angel means.  A messenger.  To get a message of whatever kind from whatever heavenly or earthly source, that you are needed for this particular task, at this particular time.  To carry out this duty as an act of service to humanity.

How many times in life does one get that message?  A dozen?  Twice?  What if it only happens once?  Is that enough to carry one forward to the end?  What if that angelic moment of clarity and call hasn’t yet happened, or never comes?  Then what?

It’s a rare thing.  Sometimes all we get is the occasional reminder to love your neighbor, with all the details of what that means left entirely unclear.

For Mary, it didn’t begin with clarity.  She is, as Luke states it, “much perplexed” by the words of her messenger, who had simply said, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Mary is, as we hear again later in the gospel, a ponderer.  She is “much perplexed,” and ponders what sort of greeting this might be.

This, I would venture to say, is where most of us live most of the time – being “much perplexed” about this thing called life and all it throws our way, pondering, at varying levels of intensity, what in the world it is we’re doing and whether any of these thousands of messages we’re bombarded with each day have anything significant to say to us.

Rather than greeting each other with “How are you today?” maybe we should be more honest and say “How are you much perplexed today?”

But the messenger has more to say.  Tells Mary to not be afraid.  Repeats that she has found favor, or grace, as the word could be translated.  And makes the big ask.  That she would bear, in her womb, through her very body, this child of whose kingdom there will be no end.

Like Mary, we don’t know what sort of greeting this may be and what sort of angle and angel is taking.  Is she, as Ruben Herrera and Dan Clark told us as we were embarking on our abbreviated discernment about Sanctuary, at the top of a list of one who could pull this off?  Or does Gabriel come to Mary like a worn out member of the Gifts Discernment Committee, having asked every other possible candidate for the position?  After thousands of years of messages ignored or denied, Gabriel appears to this common girl who is just barely a young woman, assuring her that she too is full of enough grace to be eligible to do the work?

We don’t know.

Mary has questions: How can this be?

Gabriel has the only answer possible: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you….nothing will be impossible with God.”

It’s a moment, or a weeklong discernment process, or however long….it’s a time of clarity, in the sense that there’s a vital task at hand, and a decision to be made.  How many times in a lifetime does that happen?  Mary says Yes, and, as the poet Jan Richardson says, it “slice(s) her story in two, dividing all the days before from all the ones to come.”

Vocals  v. 2

“O Mary, O Mary, don’t hide from my face.  Be glad that you’re favored and filled with God’s grace.  The time for redeeming the world has begun; and you are requested to mother God’s Son.”

Reading: Luke 1:39-45   39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[a] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Violin  No wind at the window, 1x through

Poem:  Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light | by Jan Richardson

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.


If Mary did have any further clarity on the matter, it was this: She could not do this alone.  Not just the “me and Joseph” kind of not alone, but calling- in- the- wisdom- of- my- elders- and- ancestors kind of not alone.

As soon as the messenger goes his way, we’re told: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.”  She heads straight away for her relative Elizabeth who is sixth months ahead in her pregnancy, little John the baptizer’s kicks getting stronger by the day.  Elizabeth was also ahead of her in life.

It’s all guess work for us.  Earlier Luke says Elizabeth was “getting on in years.”  Mary was very likely just coming of age, newly eligible for marriage.  With these clues, we can picture Elizabeth old enough to be Mary’s mother, more or less.

And so what can “getting on in years” Elizabeth say to young Mary? What advice to guide her path?  What wisdom to impart?

I love that we have this piece of the story.  If you can’t relate to being visited by an angel, you can at least relate to Mary seeking out Elizabeth.  Who hasn’t sought out an elder, an aunt, a mother or father-figure when faced with disorientation and challenge?  How many Elizabeths have you needed to get you where you are now?   How many times have you already been an Elizabeth for that person who reminds you of your younger self, charged with energy and cluelessness?

What advice to guide her path?

Fortunately for Mary, and to Elizabeth’s credit, she is less interested in giving good advice as giving good news.  Elizabeth reminds Mary, or perhaps enables her to see for the first time, that she is blessed.  “Blessed are you.”  These are the first words that come out of her mouth.  These too are the words of an angel.  Elizabeth becomes another messenger, and not one that swoops in and departs after the singular mission has been completed.  Elizabeth is the kind of angel who accompanies and stays by Mary’s side.  Luke will soon tell us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before returning home.  A whole trimester of living with an angel.

This is how the story of Jesus, who would be called Messiah, Son of the Most High, begins.  Mary and Elizabeth dared to believe that they had a role to play in the story of salvation.  Dared to accept the proposal that their lives, their bodies, their “Yes,” to something they barely understood, were needed, by God.        

Vocals  No wind at the window, vv 3-4

“This child must be born that the kingdom might come: salvation for many, destruction for some: both end and beginning, both message and sign; both victory and victim, both yours and divine.”

No payment was promised, no promises made; no wedding was dated, no blueprint displayed.  Yet Mary, consenting to what none could guess, replied with conviction, “Tell God I say ‘Yes.’”

Reading: Luke 1:46-56

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.


Blessing | by Jan Richardson

Blessed be the ones

who dance

in the corridors of death,

who sing

in the hallways of terror,

who laugh

in the prisons of fear,

who shout

across the silencing walls,

who love

beyond the borders of hatred,

who live

to welcome home freedom,

who die

never turning their heads,

who return

as the rising of hope.


We thought we’d add a slight twist with the roving violin.  My thought was that Alexander might represent a sort of Gabriel, who comes your way, invites you into the call that Mary heard so clearly, and then departs.

Mary’s response to that invitation leads her to Elizabeth.  Elizabeth has a blessing.  Mary has a song.

Mothers sing all kinds of songs to their children.  Mary’s first song is anything but a gentle lullaby.  Some songs are intended to put you to sleep.  Other songs are meant to wake you up.  Mary’s song, what we call the Magnificat, is a wake up call.

She sings in “the hallways of terror” and shouts “across the silencing walls.”

Mary, of course, is not making this up on the spot.  It was a variation on a theme that her people had been singing from ancient times.  It samples from the prophets, it echoes the spirit of Moses and Miriam who sang about God triumphing gloriously and becoming the salvation of their people by throwing the horse and rider of Pharaoh into the sea.  It remixes the song of Hannah, mother of Samuel who brought her young child to the temple, fulfilling a vow that if God would give her a child, she would give God a priest.

Mary sings her song to Elizabeth and, we can also imagine, sings Jesus into his infancy and through his boyhood.  Where did Jesus get all his crazy ideas, anyway?  It’s a song about a salvation that upends all our ways of keeping score and determining who is and isn’t blessed.

It’s that call, that baffling realization that God is looking for a way into this world, and needs us to say Yes in order to bring it about.

Violin  No wind at the window, 1x through