By Jessica Martin
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
“The Lord is with you.” Gabriel’s greeting blazes into the life of time and hangs between him and the girl to whom he is speaking. It is not a promise. Promises are about the future. This is now.
The angel who came to Abraham, back near the beginning of God’s story with his people – he uttered a promise. That angel said, “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah was not in the room – not standing before the angel but listening from behind the wall of a tent, and she heard his prophecy with the kind of despair which makes people laugh – you will know that rejecting laugh that wards away sorrow, and keeps you safe from pain? – that was Sarah’s response to God’s promise. And the angel heard the despair, and overturned it, saying, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” And in due season she had a son.
But this angel, Gabriel, the messenger of God, speaks no promise. There is no narrative trajectory forward; no future fulfilment. Although Mary converses with him, and although her obedience to the way of God is discovered through what she says, the pinpoint of the present moment seems to spread out over the whole encounter. So that it becomes hard for us, hearing what happened, to say when the moment was that God entangled himself into the life of her flesh and became a shining particle of the world he himself had made. Does Gabriel’s greeting itself bring the life of God into her? “The Lord is with you.” God has spoken those words across the centuries, the millennia before this moment: “I AM with you” he says to Moses at the burning bush; he speaks his presence through the prophets innumerable times; he affirms it in song and story, the great covenant assurance which yearns for our answering embrace, and which so quickly finds us slipping out from under the everlasting arms and heading perversely into the darkness.
But there is no yearning here. This is a piece of the everlasting joy which Gabriel speaks – not words, but an act which brings the Word that makes all into the little room in which they stand, and fills it with himself.
So Mary’s question asks only to understand what is already with them, already happening. “She pondered what sort of greeting this might be,” writes Luke. But the gift is already given, the favor already granted. “The Lord is with you.”
It is always possible to draw back from the presence of God. He will never overwhelm. The brightness of his presence is always mercifully shadowed by cloud, and the questions he asks can always meet with refusal. But in this encounter the only mismatch is in understanding, in the faltering of the intellect before the impossible actions of God. “How can this be?” asks Mary. The answer is the same answer as for Sarah: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” The difference in the two meetings is not a difference in God, but in the varying kinds of human response he met with – the one almost beyond hope, and the other illuminated with hope’s promise and open to the fulfilment which comes to her in Gabriel’s words.
And, like Sarah, with the joy comes pain – but the completeness of Mary’s embrace accepts the pain with the joy, and rejects nothing of what God brings. She will neither laugh nor turn away, but ponder all that comes to her without defense.
Gabriel goes on to speak to Mary of what shall be. “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Even then she could, as anyone could, say “not me.” But she would have to push away the delight of what has already been in the nature of God’s greeting. In the actions of love it is very hard to say when fulfilment comes; it is there as much in the moment of understanding, the moment when you know that love speaks in the other’s presence, as ever it can be in the embraces which will follow. And this is a love affair, where God will dare his own diminishment into absolute weakness, and all for love. The immensity of his intention floods his encounter with Mary, and she allows herself to be soaked in its life. It is as if she knows herself fully for the first time, just as in every love affair the heart of it is the sense of being fully known.
“The Lord is with you,” says Gabriel. Not “the Lord be with you” but “the Lord is with you.” And, hearing that, she knows what to say. “Here am I.” Here am I, the person who carries the Lord, because the Lord is with me. And the I that I am shines with his presence because he spoke himself into my frail and ordinary life, until it shone with his light and I saw who I was transformed by it. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”
And the word itself was already spoken at the very beginning. “The Lord is with you.”
The Lord is with us. His promise is already here and we stand on the edge of Christmas contemplating the birth of God’s helplessness, the solid truth of his speechless presence in our arms. We stand before an everlasting joy, until it spills into our own present, into this now of the end of 2017, reverberating there as it reverberates across all the whole of time, the everlasting in a little room, love who hurries towards us, love who is at the door, love who is already here.
For nothing is impossible with God.
The Rev. Canon Jessica Martin is the Canon for Learning and Outreach at Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England.