20 December 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
What are you waiting for?
Are you still waiting to find some time…some place…some way to engage in silence…a time when you can take up all your anxiety and grief lightly set them aside and consent to the stillness of waiting…Are you waiting to hear that still small voice…And what it says “Peace.” “Be not afraid.” Can you hear that? Can you hear…and can you dare to believe that it says to you, “Greetings, favored one…Blessed are you…God is with you.” Because God says that…to each and every one of us…and then waits for our response.
I pray that you’ve had at least a moment or two in these past several weeks to hear that divine messenger whispering those messages to you…and that you are pondering them…in your heart…as Mary does…
I wasn’t aware, until I started prepping this sermon, that Mary—the most famous woman in all of Christendom—has a speaking part in only 4 scenes in all of the gospels (Lk 1:26-38, 1:46-56, 2:41-52 and Jn 2:1-11). Three of them in Luke, and one in John…
Of course one of the things she says in Luke is the Magnificat, which we heard so beautifully rendered this morning…the Magnificat is pretty much a summation of the whole bible in one amazing canticle. It’s like the Beatitudes in its simplicity, comprehensiveness, and directness…and if you ask me where Jesus gets all of the counterintuitive ideas in the Beatitudes, I alway point to the Magnificat and say, “easy, he clearly learned all that from his mother.”
Her other lines in scripture are more quotidian, “They have no wine,” and then “Do whatever he tells you,” in John, and then in Luke, “How can this be?” and, of course, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” Less poetic than the Magnificat, but no less remarkable…
But Mary’s first response is not in words…her first response is silence…”Greetings favored one…The Lord is with you”…Pause… We’re very eager to bound from this initial silence straight to her ultimate—but far from inevitable —“yes.” Plenty of theologians…mostly men…seem to be really anxious about her getting there faster… Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in the 11th century, urged, “Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in hast to the angel,” But Mary is going to do this her way…and this is will not be a rushed encounter. Because, no encounter with God could be, or should be.
How long does that pause last, do you think? In a sense, we are still living in that pause…waiting for a “yes”…waiting for someone, anyone…all of us?…to consent…to letting God in.
Gabriel interrupts her in whatever it was she was doing—medieval artists were fascinated with the Annunciation, loved to highlight this…in painting after painting, Mary is shown with her hand in a book…she’d been reading (apparently), scripture (no doubt), when the angel appears, and so she has her hand in the book, marking it’s place so she can return to it when she’s dealt with this intruder. Only this interruption is not the “excuse-me-do-you-have-the-time-I’ll-let-you-get-back-to-your-book” kind of disruption…It’s the “this-is-going-to-upend-absolutely-every-part-of-your-life” kind. But she doesn’t know that at first—or maybe she does—because the very first thing she does is… pause.
What happens in that moment? Does the book drop from her hand? Does she deliberately set it aside? Does she take a deep breath and turn to face this…whatever it is? In hundreds of artistic renditions Mary at this moment looks bemused, or reluctant, sometimes resigned, in the best she is a mix of all of them. Whatever her reaction…there is a pause—there is a space where I have no doubt that the sound of sheer silence could be heard.
She pauses and then angel reassures her, “Do not be afraid,” and then lays out what God is proposing… Pause…Oh, that pause isn’t in the text, but it has to be there…she has to breathe…and absorb…and what is going on inside of her? From what deep place does she draw the words: “how can this be?”
The angel continues…and concludes, “For nothing will be impossible with God,” Pause…Mary ponders…… and God waits.
Denise Levertov, in her poetic rendition of the Annunciation writes:
“The engendering spirit
did not enter her without consent. God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
…This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
That’s Advent. Us hoping that God will act…praying for God to act…waiting for God to act…And God waiting… for our consent…waiting for us to say, “yes.” Yes to God being born—to Love being born—again and again and again…in us…in our trembling…pondering…joy and grief filled hearts.
“This is what the whole earth waits for,” said Bernard of Clarivaux. “It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed salvation for all the children of Adam.”
God waits for your answer.
“Answer with a word, receive the word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal word.”
Mary pauses…God waits. Mary gives her answer. So now God waits for us.