The annunciation, the scene where the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she is to bear a son is surely one of the best know iconic scenes in the New Testament – or so you’d have thought.
I remember being on a bus in Israel – I’d been a Christian for about a year I suppose and was part of a group leader’s recce to the Holy Land, so the bus was full of clerics.
One of them turned to me and said how excited he was to be going to Nazareth to see the place where the annunciation took place. And I said “What’s that?”
He said “You’re joking” but it was almost immediately apparent that I wasn’t joking and this stunned high churchman just slumped back into his seat.
To be fair, my church was more concerned with discipleship, charismatic renewal and the book of Acts and we certainly never mentioned Mary unless we absolutely had to, like on Christmas day but I suppose that is a testimony to the fact that you can be a Christian and yet have a vastly different cultural hinterland to another Christian.
As you know I stepped out of my churchmanship comfort zone and trained at a monastery to specifically gain an insight into catholic form and belief and there I was plunged into a very different scenario where Mary was not only mentioned an awful lot, but “venerated” and the “Hail Mary” was said every day. But more than that some of the more extreme Anglo-catholic students worshipped her and gave her a title of co-redemptrix – a term which means that not only Jesus redeemed the world but Mary does too.
I remember all too well being at a service to celebrate a Marian feast where I was almost physically sick at the sight of all this Marian devotion. If I’d had more of a backbone I’d have walked out of the service I experienced such dis-ease with this anti-Christ display.
So I have experienced both ends of the spectrum with regards to Mary. I think a healthy and theologically correct and true representation of Mary which is in accordance with the Biblical evidence is this;
Mary is two things to me. First, in the annunciation she is the recipient of pure Grace and secondly in her very being she is a symbol of Christian discipleship. I’ll explain both.
In the gospel story the overriding theme is one of God’s sovereign action. God chose Mary. Mary had to say yer but the fact is God chose Mary. Why did he choose Mary and not someone else. Was it because she was better or more pure than anyone else – no. That is the point.
“Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you”
Mary did not deserve to be the mother of God’s son any more than any other woman. Luke describes her simply as a young girl who was engaged to be married. Luke says more about Joseph than he does Mary. Even in the case of John the baptist’s parents, Luke says they were righteous and blamesless, and they kept God’s commandments and they prayed to God (1:6-7,13), but not a word about the virtues of Mary.
Essentially this is not a story of virtue rewarded but of God’s sovereign Grace. God chooses who God chooses. So the annunciation is primarily about Grace – unmerited love.
But it is in the response of Mary that I say she is a symbol of Christian discipleship.
Mary simply says “Yes, let it be to me according to your word”
There is no quenching of the Spirit here even though saying yes could plunge her into disgrace in the eyes of her community.
Mary did not fully understand what was going on but she treasured them and pondered on what their meaning might be in her heart, but even though she did not fully understand or know where this might lead her she said yes anyway.
This is the first step in Christian discipleship. Saying yes to God and giving Him sovereignty in your life.
And after saying yes to God and allowing the Holy Spirit into her life over a period of time, nine months to be exact she eventually gave birth to Jesus physically.
When we say yes to God after a period of time, a gestation period that may take perhaps a lifetime, we are called to metaphorically give birth to Jesus in and through our life by being Christ for others.
Mary is a powerful icon, an icon of Grace received and fearlessly acted upon. She allowed herself to be used as a vessel of God’s action in the world with is the vocation of every Christian.