This is the text of my recent Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster, broadcast on Tuesday 27 August (link to audio below). As I say here, I was drawn to the story of the Annunciation by consideration of newnesses. In particular the challenge of newness presented by cultural, social and religious adaptations.
It strikes me that the two approaches to newness laid out for us the in the angelic visitations in Luke’s Gospel are choices that present themselves to us frequently today, most sharply for my interests, in the Christian Church. We can approach the presenting change like Zechariah did. We can demand knowledge and certainty and the capacity to argue for or, more often, against a change.
The response to this demand is a silencing. A loss of power and voice in the world. A loss of ability to respond to what and who is at work in the world.
We see the impact on the church of this approach to change. In the face of something we don’t understand or something we can’t explain, we shut it down, deny it, proscribe it, condemn it, demonise it. And then we’re surprised that our voice is not heard nor listened to by those outside the echo chambers of our own diminishing institutions. We are silenced.
Mary on the other hand replies generously to the change, “How can this be?” She doesn’t deny it, refuse it, or demand it be some other way. And with it she finds a whole new voice, a whole new understanding of how the world is, and what it is to cooperate with the work of God in the world as she makes her self, her body, available.
I find myself wishing for a more generous and hospitable response by the Church to what is happening in the world. I wish, and work, and pray for, a more generous and hospitable response from my Church, to what is happening in the world.
It’s a story more often reserved for Christmas time and so it seems somewhat incongruous to read it in summer. I’m thinking of what Christians call the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant.
This story is preceded by another angelic visit, this time to a man, whose name is Zechariah, who would become the father of John the Baptist.
I’ve been thinking about these stories in the heat of the summer as I ponder how to respond to newness in my own life. The newness presented by an ageing body. The newness created by children growing up and leaving home. The newness offered by cultural challenges around language, and identities and belonging.
When Zechariah gets a message that at his advanced age he is to become a father, his response is telling. He says “How will I know?” This new thing defies logic, it’s never been seen before, it is a disrupter of settled order and he needs knowledge, information, certainty in order to process it. In the outcome he is made to be silent, losing his voice in a pregnant pause.
I now see this silence as a grace, ensuring that he would learn through experience the proper response to the mystery of the world.
Mary on the other hand responds differently. Her question to the angel is “How can this be?” This is simple and profound. She is searching for understanding. It is an admission of confusion in the face of mystery. A plea for insight and wisdom. An innocence in the face of profundity.
And unlike poor dumb Zechariah, she finds her voice in the face of the mystery of God. “Here I am..” she says. And what else has she to bring in the face of this new thing that her body knows? No status, no reputation, no wealth, no power other than a self fully revealed.
She has no idea about what this will mean for her except that it changes everything. “This” is happening, and can’t be stopped. There is no taming the wildness of God. There is no knowledge or certainty sufficient to control what happens when God is let loose in the world.
For God is a verb that cannot be parsed.
And Mary’s courage calls out from us a sort of quiet. A hushed amazement that this should be. And a humility to say ‘so be it.’
Link to the audio can be found HERE