By Jennifer Strawbridge
Much of the world around us is obsessed with the language of waste. We are told waste is a terrible thing, like food waste and plastic waste. We worry about things that might waste our time. We try to avoid things that might waste our finances. And we criticize people who in our opinion have made a choice that wastes their lives, their talents, their perfectly constructed plans.
And yet in the gospel this morning, we bump into a story that fits right into this latter category and completely fits our definition of poor choices, wasted time, and wasted lives. For what elicits this response in Mary of “here I am” is the story of a mighty angel of God at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, who has already done great things in the past and who makes his final appearance in the whole of the scriptural narrative, and his task is to have a conversation with a poor unknown girl in Nazareth who is clearly not expecting him. And we could so easily say, what a waste. What a waste of this angel’s time and authority. Was the most powerful angel — the angel who in the Old Testament interpreted dreams and destroyed whole cities — really needed to come down from heaven for this conversation?
But we could also say, what a waste for the rest of this story. What a waste of the life of this poor unknown girl, whose life was already planned. Mary is engaged to Joseph, she’s preparing for marriage, her plans are in place and her future secure, and giving birth to God’s son is certainly not part of them. Her life is turned upside down, turned to waste, some might claim, by the angel’s message. And yet, those who know how God’s call works, and those who know Mary, will also know that this description of the events doesn’t quite work. Such a focus doesn’t work for those who pay attention to Mary in this gospel story.
Mary who is greeted as favored. Mary who is greeted as one with the Lord. Mary who is the only female in Scripture to engage in conversation with the angel, to push back, to be perplexed, to ask questions: what kind of greeting is this, she wonders with good reason — and how can any of what the angel tells her be possible? Moreover, this is the Mary who could have said no to the angel’s message. The Mary who in the Magnificat we encounter today sings about justice and the poor. This is the Mary on whom nothing is wasted. This is the Mary who bears the savior of the world; who, in the words of one great saint, is God’s gate, the mother of Heaven’s king (Bede’s Hymn in The English Hymnal, IV.20).
Mary is described as many things within Scripture and in our tradition, and none of those descriptions are that her life has been wasted. Some of the more unusual titles attached to this morning’s reading, and that work within the context of this celebration, are the descriptions of Mary as the woman of the Eucharist, the Mother of the Eucharist, the queen of priests, and even, controversially, virgin priest — titles given to Mary in the intimate moment of her encounter with the angel.
This connection between Mary, the angel, and the eucharist can be traced back to at least the fourth century. This connection is most powerfully made in images of Mary and Gabriel. In a sixth-century basilica, Mary is wearing a chasuble and pallium, vestments which denote the highest priestly order, as she stands before a kneeling angel. In an 11th-century depiction, Mary is not only in the vestments of a priest, but stands before the angel with her hands in the orans position, the way a priest’s hands are held in prayer. In the 12th century, Mary is robed in a stole and chasuble as the Holy Spirit overshadows her. And in the 15th century, Mary is shown in full vestments, with one hand clutching the Christ child and the other holding consecrated bread, distributing Communion.
Such images were banned by the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century, some say over a fear of arguments for women’s ordination, but 1,500 years of such images remain. (See Karen O’Donnell, “The Flesh of Mary and the Body of Christ: Typological and Artistic Depictions of the Marian Priest” in Representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary in World Literature and Art, ed. E.V. Shabliy. [Lexington Books, 2017]. See also: “The Priesthood of Mary,” St. Chrysostom’s News and Views, March 17, 2010.)
And controversial as such images are, we can see the connection with Luke’s gospel narrative. By saying yes to God — by speaking the words “Here am I, servant of the Lord, be it with me according to your word” — Mary makes Christ present in the world, through her consent, through her body, just as Christ is made present at the altar every time we gather in this place.
For as the Holy Spirit is invoked to overshadow the gifts of bread and wine, this gospel reminds us that Mary was overshadowed by that same Spirit first. And both are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through her union with God, through her bearing of God to the world, Mary offers up her own flesh and blood to be the bread of life, such that she can claim: this is my body given for you, and this is my blood. For the flesh and blood crucified for the world’s salvation was fully God’s Son, and fully Mary’s child.
Such language, and such images push against the way that we so often read this story of Annunciation from the angel. They challenge the views we hold of Mary as meek and mild with the idea that in Mary’s submission to God’s will, in her answering of God’s call to bear God’s Son, she becomes a model of the call we all have to bear God within us.
And yet as good as this sounds, this is not an easy task. We don’t expect God to break into our lives. We don’t expect God to interfere in our worlds. We don’t expect people will ever look at us and see the person of Christ. Saying yes to God as we ask questions about where God might be leading us in our work, in our relationships, in our lives, is not easy. Saying yes to God is countercultural. Saying yes to God is sacrificial. It changes the way that people see us and the way that we engage with the world.
And yet as a great mystic once wrote, “We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.” (Meister Eckart, quoted in Christianity , 27.) Most of us, I suspect, know something about this. Most of us have some sense of our calling, of our life’s meaning, of some great thing about our life just waiting to be given life, something we may not be able to speak easily because there are no words, or we are afraid.
And yet as we witness God’s call in Mary, and as we ponder in our hearts how it is that we are called to bear Christ’s love to the world, our original question remains: in divided world, full of cynicism and judgement, is this all a waste? Is the message that God is present, around us and within us, simply too much to bear? It is no small thing to be called favored when you clearly feel that you should not be (adapted from the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Brother, Give us a Word). It is no small thing to speak hope, into a world that is so anxious. It is no small thing not to be afraid, in a world where there is much to fear. It is no small thing to believe that God is calling you.
And the reality is that God does call us in the midst of our daily lives to bear God’s Son, to bear God’s love. We might not all be confronted by an angel or burst out into immediate song as Mary. But we are called to be bearers of Christ, and what this looks like will be different for each of us. It may be that we are to be a voice for those who are voiceless; or to work for justice and to fill the hungry with good things; or to speak out against self-centeredness and racism and xenophobia; or to listen to our neighbours; or to be more aware of our needs and doubts and struggles before we impose them on others; or to trust that God is with us.
The giving of our lives to God is not a waste, just as Mary’s yes to bear God’s Son was not a waste. And so, as we celebrate Mary, as we celebrate the gifts of this parish in this place at this time, may we step boldly into that hope which God calls us to embrace in our broken world. May we pray for an openness to the ways we are being called to bear Christ to the world. And may we go forth in hope, rejoicing in Mary’s yes for our salvation.
The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Strawbridge is associate professor in New Testament at Oxford, Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College, and associate priest at St Andrew’s, Headington.