Sermon for The Feast of the Annunciation, in the time of pandemic, Wednesday, March 25 2020, 9:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
In the older paintings, she is reading a book when it happens. She is usually in a room with a desk, and often a vase of lilies. I have seen her, too, as a teenage girl in a hoody and rubber boots; as a college student woken from sleep by a column of light. Over and over, she is painted and drawn, as we try to imagine this moment.
The church has done Mary no favours. I spent years trying to come to terms with Mary, and was able to do so only when I realized that the Mary of the church, a doe-eyed woman of apparently limitless mildness and passivity, has essentially nothing to do with the Mary we meet in the scriptures, whose every appearance speaks of an extraordinary strength of character, a powerful combination of deep thoughtfulness and fierce determination, from the annunciation right through to Pentecost.
There are many stories of miraculous conceptions in the Bible, but all the others involve women who are married, aging, and usually desperately wishing for children. The child restores the social order, gives the woman a proper place again, resolves the discord. This story is utterly different—this is about an event which creates discord, which disrupts the social order. From the first seconds of the human existence of Jesus, the world is being turned upside down. Mary is a young, probably very young, unmarried woman. She does not want to be pregnant at this time. And it is not just an inconvenience; it is a potential catastrophe. This girl stands to lose everything, even her life, for pregnancy outside of wedlock was punishable by death. In a best case scenario, she might have been able to run away, and make a sort of living as a prostitute in the next town over. We know, because we’ve also read Matthew’s gospel, that her life will be saved by Joseph’s decision—also quite radical and unexpected—to stand by her. But she doesn’t know that when the angel comes to her.
And yet, she is amazingly calm. This intrepid girl remains self-possessed as the angel makes his strange announcement to her. She thinks about it, and asks questions—she doesn’t treat this as inevitable or predetermined. And the angel gives her a serious answer, although every other character who asks angels questions in similar situations is dismissed or, sometimes, punished, like John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, struck dumb for asking questions of angels.
And then she takes her stand, this girl, in the face of all the risks. She speaks as someone who knows the weight of what she is saying, who understands that she is taking on something both great and terrible, but who is undeterred. She says yes. She did not ask for this, she did not want it. But she will believe that it can be turned to good, and not only to good, but to the saving of the world.
She makes this her choice, not a fate imposed from outside, but her own decision. She claims this as her own, knowing all the dangers, knowing all that she could lose. She claims it. And she has the audacity to announce, later, in front of her cousin Elizabeth, that God has already triumphed, and that this triumph begins in her, in the life she lives and the life she carries, however much it may seem otherwise.
We live in Mary’s moment—in the already and not yet of God’s kingdom. And even more now than we have in the past. What we see around, what we hear from other places, is frightening, beyond frightening. We do not know where we are going. A world is dying, and a world is being born, and we must be, in our often small and hidden ways, a part of shaping this strange future.
There are always many givens in our lives. We are thrown into a context we cannot control, we are born into a society, a family, which we had no hand in making. We are born into contexts of violence and social sin and complication. And we are born into bodies, bodies with particular desires and needs, weaknesses and limitations, synapses of the brain and chemical processes which make us, to such a large exent, who we are. And now, we are given this time of pandemic, when we can choose to speak, to move, to act, with compassion and with grace, when we can choose to imagine the world into kindness, in all our small and, at least sometimes, patient ways. We can find ways to tell this truth, that we are all part of one another, that the health and life of each one of us depends on the health and the life of all.
We did not choose any of it. But, like Mary, we can claim it. We can claim that context, we can claim the mud and the blood, the problems and broken places, and we can, like her, declare them the place of God’s work. We can declare them—declare ourselves – to be the channel by which Christ will enter this world.
Let these bodies make justice, let them make the space which may save the lives of strangers, let them step back gently, learn to defer, learn to share. Let these bodies, even physically separated from each other, still rejoice in each other, and create, and love. In our time, in our place, in our own faltering lives, let the kingdom of God be born.