By Dan Martins
I love Advent. It has a shape that is completely irrational, but, somehow, when it all plays out, it just works beautifully. We began, three weeks ago, you might recall, at the end, with the end of time, the Second Coming of Christ. Then we were shot as though from a sling into a strange dimension of time, where we hung out for two Sundays, with one foot in the wonderful prophecies of Isaiah, which Christians have always interpreted as foretelling the coming of the Messiah, and the other foot in the “rude and crude” figure of John the Baptist, preaching on the eve of the adult Jesus’ arrival on the stage of public life.
This morning, we are finally encountering scripture readings that are recognizably part of the familiar Christmas narrative. We have the Annunciation—an angel named Gabriel shows up at the home of a young woman named Mary and informs her that she’s going to have a baby—only the baby is not going to be conceived in the usual manner and is, in fact, going to be the Son of God and the savior of the world. Kind of a lot for a young woman, probably still a teenager, to take in, right? It would be a lot for any of us to take in. It’s still a lot for us to take in, even now.
The way the incident is presented to us, at least, it’s shockingly brief and to the point. Angels apparently don’t make small talk. Mary was not really set up in any way for the news she was about to receive, and Gabriel didn’t hang around afterward to make sure she was OK and was processing her feelings in an appropriate manner. The Annunciation is presented to us naked and undecorated, simply and starkly for just what it was. That very simplicity and starkness makes it a compelling sign. Signs give directions; they point to something beyond themselves. The Annunciation is a sign that tells us something about the character of God and how God behaves towards us. The Annunciation tells us that it is God who takes the initiative in acting for our redemption. Yes, we talk about God responding to our prayers, answering our petitions and granting our requests, but in the final analysis, what we experience as God responding to our prayers is only the working out of the details and implications of His prior initiative on our behalf. St John tells us that we love God….why?….because He first loved us. St Paul tells us that we know the extent of God’s love precisely because, even in our undeniably sinful state as a human race, Christ died for us. All of this is encapsulated in the Annunciation. God takes the initiative revealing Himself and His love. God takes the initiative in accomplishing our deliverance from the vise grip of sin and death. It is God who is the initiator, and we who are the responders.
Now, this is hard for us to wrap our minds around because it runs totally contrary to our default assumption. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary—evidence such as is provided by the Annunciation—we think we’re the ones who have to take the initiative in putting ourselves right with God. We think this individually, especially in America, where we cut our teeth on the ideals of individual freedom and personal responsibility. I am responsible for getting myself right with God. We also think it collectively, as a race of human beings. Some have defined religion itself as the record of our search for God. Christianity says otherwise. Christianity says religion is a matter not of our search for God, but God’s search for us. God is the initiator; humankind is the responder. The Annunciation reminds us of that essential fact.
If we don’t get this right, if we persist in thinking of ourselves, either personally or communally, as the ones who are responsible making the first move, taking the first step, breaking the silence in our conversation with God, we will find ourselves in a most uncomfortable place. We will find ourselves more or less consumed with anxiety, blindly striving after something or someone, but not knowing what or who it is. You may be aware of the terribly ironic environment in which Christian churches and other forms of “organized religion” operate in this culture of ours. Mainstream churches, like the Episcopal Church, are either stagnant or declining, even as the population is steadily increasing. We’re losing what the business world calls “market share.” At the same time, though, Americans are demonstrably hungry spiritually. The word “religion” evokes a response of boredom and irrelevance, but “spirituality” is a hot property these days. Even the venerable Christian practice of spiritual direction has been co-opted by those who have not only no Christian commitment, but not even any formal religious commitment of any sort. In a paradoxical way, perhaps, I believe we can see the evidence of pervasive spiritual hunger—albeit misdirected, as in “looking for food in all the wrong places”—I believe we can see the evidence of pervasive spiritual hunger even in the excessive consumerism that seems so widespread, especially in the area of video games, which have become a shockingly sophisticated form of alternate reality in which millions of people have literally lost themselves. I might also mention the voyeurism that is pandered to by so-called “reality shows” on television. These are all tangible signs of what happens when we fall victim to thinking that finding God—finding purpose, finding meaning, finding ultimate reality—is all on us. These are signs of what happens when we forget the message of the Annunciation—that it is God who takes the initiative in loving us and saving us.
Indeed, the Annunciation points us in quite another direction. It teaches us that God has noticed that we are trapped in a mess of our own making, but trapped nonetheless. We are bound by a force that impels us to do things and say things that we know are not good for us or anyone else, but we do them and say them anyway. We are bound by the awful reality of our own mortality, and the gnawing anxiety that the prospect of our own death haunts us with every day. God sees us in this mess, but He doesn’t leave us in this mess. He takes the first step, makes the first move, primes the pump for our salvation.
God does this first on our behalf collectively, as the human race. This is precisely what we as the Church celebrate in the “incarnational cycle” of the liturgical year—from Advent through Epiphany. Then, within the context of what He does for us collectively, God takes the initiative to act for us individually. He sends us His Holy Spirit to move in our hearts and turn us toward Himself. All God asks from us is our active cooperation—which is nothing other than what he asked from Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. What was her response to the angel? “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Mary provided an environment—her own body, in fact —for the Word of God to be “formed” in her, and then, when the time was right, she gave birth to that Word, an event that we will celebrate a week from now. Our calling is to emulate Mary, to provide an environment in which the Word of God can be “formed” in us, and then to “give birth” to that Word in our lives. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martin is the XI Bishop of Springfield, Illinois.