Fourth Advent, Year B – Two images of Mary

Title:Fourth Advent, Year B – Two images of Mary

From left to Left, Top to Bottom
1. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” 2. Lighting of the 4th Advent candle
3. “Candle Glowing” 4. Violin prelude
5. “Soon and Very Soon”

More varied instrumentation – organ, piano, violin and guitar – solos and duets. Thanks to Helmut, Nancy, Catherine, Brad, Karen and the Duke family

By the Rev. Canon Sally French

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” – Luke 1:26-38

The city of Nazareth has two separate traditions around the story of the Annunciation. In one, the version that is most popular in Western Christianity, Mary was at prayer in her parent’s home, devotedly reading the scriptures and contemplating the mystery of God when the angel appeared with news of the incarnation. In this tradition, Mary is – even before the angel Gabriel appeared – a perfect symbol of prayerful contemplation, and a most suitable subject for such an amazing invitation. The other tradition is found most often in Eastern Christianity. There, Mary was not at prayer but at work at the well, drawing the water that her family would have expected her to bring home each day, a perfect example of thousands of young women all over Israel at the time when Jesus was born. You can see these two traditions in icons and paintings. In western art, Mary is often shown indoors, in a library, kneeling at prayer. In Orthodox icons, the Annunciation shows Mary at the well with a water jar, at work when the angel arrived.

Both are lovely images, and both have much to say to us on this the fourth Sunday of Advent, but I must admit I prefer the Eastern image. Our Gospel doesn’t say much about the background of this story, and no doubt each tradition contains elements of the truth, but I love the idea of Mary going about her everyday business, chosen not because she was so very different, but because she was, in some ways, like all of us. If Mary, the Mother of Our Lord could say yes to the good news of the incarnation, then perhaps there is hope for me, after all. If Mary, in the middle of her chores, could find space to stop and listen, to pray, and respond in faith, then perhaps there is hope for you, after all. Perhaps that is the invitation of this time: to pause, to wonder, and to listen. Where is God inviting you, calling you, challenging you? Is there a still, small voice that offers hope? Are there possibilities that – if only, just maybe – God might work in and through you?
It’s here that the Western image of Mary speaks too. Because as wonderful as that first image is, of Mary chosen while at work, the reality is that Mary’s response is the answer that comes from prayer, from faithful study of the scriptures, from seeking holiness. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38) comes from deep connection, from knowing God and knowing ourselves in relationship with God. We cannot respond faithfully; we struggle to say yes to holy invitations if we don’t already know the one who calls us and invites us.

In this season as our advent journey turns towards Bethlehem, may we find ourselves inspired by these two images of Mary the Mother of Our Lord. May we know God through prayer and study so that when God calls, our “yes” comes easily. And may we find God in the ordinary and extraordinary parts of our lives, a source of comfort, hope and joy. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Sally French is the interim east regional canon in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

“What We Can Learn from Zechariah’s Doubt and Mary’s Faith” -Dr. Andrew Swafford

There are a series of parallels between the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and his visit to Mary, all of which allude to an important aspect of faith. For example:

Both are “troubled” when the angel Gabriel approaches them (Luke 1:12, 29).
Gabriel reassures both, saying, “Do not be afraid” (1:13, 30).
Both are given the name of the coming child “John/Jesus” (1:13, 31).
Gabriel says of both children, “he will be great” (1:15, 32).
The work of the Holy Spirit is referenced (1:15, 35).
Both Zechariah and Mary respond with a question (1:18, 34).
Eventually, both Zechariah and Mary exalt the Lord in the Canticle and Magnificat respectively (1:68-79; 1:46-55).
However, Zechariah doesn’t go into his Canticle as directly as Mary does. And this is part of a larger portrayal of Mary in these early chapters as model disciple—one who hears the word of God and acts on it.

Zechariah and Gabriel

In fact, there is a subtle difference between the way in which Zechariah and Mary phrase their questions. Zechariah’s question could be quite literally (if awkwardly) translated as “According to what will I know this?” (1:18); whereas Mary’s question focuses not on how she will know, but simply on how this mysterious birth will come about: “How will this be since I do not know man” (my translation).

In other words, we can detect a subtle hint of doubt in Zechariah’s question: how can I know this or how can I be certain? For Mary, it’s not so much a matter of how can I know—it’s more “I know this is true because I trust my source, but I’m dumbfounded as to how it will happen.”

The angel clarifies the contrast we are drawing, by responding to Zechariah this way: “And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe” (1:20). Elizabeth, on the other hand, proclaims Mary’s faith: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45).

Zechariah’s unbelief results in him being unable to speak; only after John is born and Zechariah confirms the name given by the angel is Zechariah’s tongue loosed, giving rise to his great Canticle. Mary, on the other hand, is unwavering in faith from the beginning, offering her “fiat” on behalf of all mankind: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). Accordingly, she moves straight into her Magnificat, immediately after she has visited Elizabeth.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus draws a subtle distinction between his biological and spiritual family: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). But a distinction does not necessarily imply a separation.

The First in the Order of Faith – Mary and Gabriel

Mary uniquely communicates her humanity to the Eternal Son of God—and so the Person born to her is the Person of God the Son (and for that reason, she is called “Mother of God”). But Mary is also first in the order of faith: it is she who—par excellence—hears the word of God and does it. Right after her fiat in verse 38, she responds “with haste,” going to visit Elizabeth (1:39). Further, St. Luke portrays her as prayerfully entering into this great mystery before her: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). And after losing Jesus and finding him (on the third day! 1:46), the text tells us that “they [Mary and Joseph] did not understand the saying that he spoke to them” (1:50). And yet, in faith, Mary “kept all these things in her heart” (2:51).

Faith is not necessarily understanding everything perfectly. But it does mean bringing our questions before the Lord as a child, in a disposition of trust. We believe—not because we’ve examined everything and found it convincing—but because we trust God. And Mary perseveres to the very end, through the Cross and beyond (see John 19:25-27 and Acts 1:14). Mary is our mother and model disciple, showing us the human face of faith, sanctified by God’s glorious grace.