December 24 | Expecting Emmanuel: Mary


Scripture:Luke 1:26-38

Meditation by Katie Graber

Throughout Advent, we’ve been hearing about women from Jesus’ family history who don’t have big famous stories in the bible. We’ve heard imaginative interpretations and questions about Tamar and Ruth and Rahab and Bathsheba – about who they were and what might have happened.

But now we get to Mary, mother of Jesus, who we know well. Or we think we do, we’ve certainly heard a lot about her. It’s Christmas eve – we know she made it to Bethlehem, and she’s about to have a baby. But even in stories like Jesus’ birth, we engage in interpretation whether we realize it or not. Our nativity scenes are amalgamations of time and place, with the Wise Men and animals and angels and shepherds all together at the same time. And there are additions that have become tradition, such as the number 3 for the wise men, the cattle who are lowing and the baby who never cries.

I have no problem with this! I firmly believe that things don’t need to be true in order to be meaningful. I’m sure many of us have experienced viewpoint-changing epiphanies from fictional stories. We learn about how the world works through the true and fictional stories we hear, and also through the things that lie between fact and fiction, like the songs and poetry that makes us feel.

The flip side of adding to Bible stories is that we sometimes accept their brevity without really thinking about how strange it is. With the story of Mary, we have the angel Gabriel coming to visit and telling her she will conceive and give birth to a son. The Bible says Mary asked “How can this be since I am a virgin?” and that’s it. But we could also imagine a thousand other questions she might have asked. Why me? When is this going to happen exactly? How will he “reign over Jacob’s descendents forever”? (those are Gabriel’s words from NIV translation)

We could imagine many questions before Mary gives her resounding “yes,” when she says “I am God’s servant; let your word be fulfilled.” When God asked Moses to lead the slaves out of Egypt, he said he wasn’t qualified. When God asked Jonah to preach to Ninevah, he fled. But Mary asked her one (or a thousand) questions and said yes.

Several years ago, saying “yes” was portrayed as a kind of self care – try new things, get out of your comfort zone, don’t let imposter’s syndrome hold you back! But more recently people talk about saying “no” as self care – know your limits, honor your boundaries, prioritize your own health and rest! This week I was at a Zoom discussion about the book Expecting Emmanuel (which is the book that inspired our Advent themes this year), and we were discussing this phenomenon. One participant pointed out that saying yes to one thing means saying no to another and vice versa. So maybe it’s not that there’s one right answer, but that we need to ponder our decisions and ask questions like Mary.

So why did Mary say yes? We can see the reasons in her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist: at the time, Mary sings Voices Together 412 My Soul Cries Out. (Ok, maybe that arrangement was not available at that time. Better to say that “My Soul Cries Out” is based on The Magnificat, or Mary’s Song from Luke 1.) In those verses, she is not singing about a sweet baby who never cries. She sings that God’s very name puts the proud to shame. God scatters the proud, sends the rich away empty, brings down rulers from their throne. That is the God she serves, the God she said yes to. So either she asked those questions of Gabriel, or she’s been asking all her life.

There’s another song about Mary called “The Angel Gabriel” that got a significant update for Voices Together. Maybe you remember the old version that portrays her as a humble maiden:

1. The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
“All hail,” said he to meek and lowly Mary,
“most highly favored maiden.” Gloria!
3. Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleases God,” she said.

There’s nothing specifically wrong with emphasizing lowliness or meekness. I’ve heard sermons about how meekness is not weakness – the meek shall inherit the earth! But we should also be able to explore Mary’s courage and strength, her willingness to ask questions that can lead her to  a brave “yes.” And so in Voices Together, there is a reinterpretation of that hymn. You can turn to it, because we’ll sing it next, number 221. The second verse expands on Mary’s question: “How can this be? Why would the Holy One show strength through me? Yet by the Spirit’s power I will serve faithfully, and I will be God’s mother.”

And as we celebrate Mary’s courage, we can also think about what our own no’s and yes’s are (and should be). Another of my favorite hymn lines is from “God is here among us.” It says “God is here among us, come with adoration, fervent praise and expectation. … Come, abide within me; let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.”

We don’t have to be God’s mother in order to participate in bringing more of the Divine into the world. Tonight we sit in this final night of liturgical anticipation, waiting for the yearly celebration of the mysterious magic of creation. We know there’s always a mystical spark in sunrises and animals and humans and even snow and ice! And yet it is good to take the time to really remember these magical moments. So as we anticipate Christmas, let us breathe into the possibilities waiting for us when we ask deep questions and truly ponder our responses.