By Katherine Sonderegger
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
This morning we stand in the midst of a great silence, an astonishing rupture and pause in the mighty workings of God. Today we overhear an announcement; but also a request, a waiting-upon, that is the angel Gabriel’s mission to Mary, a virgin of Nazareth in the Galilee.
A splendid drama has been unfolded before our eyes in the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke, a bustling narrative of angels and priests and a righteous wife and puzzled congregants; promises and encounters and a tongue that falls silent in the midst of burning incense — all this in a few hurried verses at the opening of the Gospel. But here, a scant few verses later on, we enter another world. Here it seems the grand stage has narrowed to a single house in a small provincial village, a small room in which we find, in the lovely words of C.S. Lewis, “a young Jewish girl at her prayers.”
The entire trajectory of Almighty God’s ways with Israel, his covenant mercy and judgment, his guiding and instructing and saving of his favored people, his raising up of prophets and shepherds and kings, his deliverance to the childless and sheltering of the widow and destitute — all this mighty history and doing bear down upon one small point, narrowed down to one singular life, to a Virgin whose name was Mary.
The Evangelist Luke allows us to enter into this room with Mary, to gaze upon this astonishing column of light that is Gabriel with her, and to overhear these words, so confounding, so terrifying, so magnificent. They are royal words, and Mary in her simplicity has received an ambassador who stands in the presence of the Eternal.
Gabriel tells Mary that nothing is impossible with God; even the kindling of life in old age; even the conception of a Holy Child in an earthly mother under the shadowing wing of the Holy Spirit. This majestic presence; this royal promise; this astonishing announcement of favor, of grace and Lordly kindness; this heavenly display of the creative Power who is God: all of it comes to rest now in the stillness between Gabriel and this woman, Mary. We stand in that silence today.
What will Mary say? Of course it seems natural to suppose that we know the answer — indeed that anyone who understands what we mean by the word God will know the answer, whether they have heard Luke the Evangelist or not. This is God, we might say; of course the answer is yes. What other answer could there be to an omnipotent being, the Maker of heaven and earth? Is there not a kind of bowing to the inevitable here?
Is this not like the onrush of an inexhaustible reality that casts down and exalts, kills and makes alive whatsoever he wills? Nothing is impossible with God: Is that simply another way to say, What God wills, happens, and happens necessarily? Is Mary’s answer empty in just this way, that she acknowledges what cannot be otherwise, the divine will bearing down upon her, a relentless dynamism of the One who is LORD? It seems that it must be so; for our God is sovereign, ultimate, irresistible.
And yet. Yet there is this silence, this waiting-upon, that rings through human centuries; Almighty God waiting upon a mere creature’s word. A word of self-offering breaks the silence. Behold, the servant of the Lord; Here am I, Mary begins. And then, Mary’s astonishing reply: Let it be to me, according to your word. At this hour, Mary is the creature whose voice speaks obedience and praise; hers is the mortal “yes” to God.
We are wrong to imagine Mary passive, and meek, and utterly pliant. This “let it be” is the human creature “fully alive,” as Irenaeus so finely says; it is the fruit of grace, richly poured upon this woman, the one who has found favor with God. To obey, to assent, to acknowledge and welcome, is to do what only a creature of grace can do: to embrace God’s will with courage, with simple dignity, and with unhesitating freedom.
This “let it be” is both initiative and dependence, freedom and election, humility and mortal grandeur. Only Mary’s Son, the Holy Child of God, can do more. Only he can say yes in Gethsemane, and that word of obedience flames out as the world’s salvation. But Mary can say all a mere creature can say. Her yes is the dignity of a human life, freely bent to God.
So in the silence of this great Feast of the Annunciation, may we too pause and turn aside to see this great thing that has taken place among us: that an angel sent by God to a village in Nazareth majestically and respectfully waits upon a Virgin whose name was Mary. May our lives learn from hers; may our speech echo hers; may grace stand before us as a column of light and stir up in us, make possible and holy, a word of acknowledgment and praise; and may we become this day one who waits upon the Lord, even as he waited that day, long ago, in the town of Nazareth, before a Jewish girl at her prayers.
The Rev. Dr. Katherine Sonderegger is the William Meade Chair of Systematic Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.