Behold, here I am, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it to me according to your word.

Simple thoughts for the Annunciation

All Saints Sisters of the Poor, Convent, Cowley, Oxford. 9 April 2018.

One short poem gets, I think, near to the heart of the matter. It’s by John of the Cross. He wrote:

With the Word Divine

The Virgin, pregnant,

Comes along the road.

If you will, make her welcome.

I’ve deliberately punctuated the last line in that way. It’s not a conditional coming of Mary and Jesus depending on whether or not we welcome mother and child. They come to us, day by day, moment by moment, regardless – constantly. The challenge is that we learn Mary’s mission of hospitality by embracing the model of her humanity: this vulnerable, first-century, Jewish teenager.

On the day we celebrate heaven and earth being changed, she becomes the temporal Container of the Uncontainable God because she said yes to God’s astonishing proposition that Jesus, his own Son, might be born in this world through her cooperation. She risked being exposed, or even stoned to death, to fulfil this crazy mission. God’s way of doing things can seem seriously unreasonable.

Mary’s response is: ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord – Be it to me according to your word.’

Mary is present – she embodies stability: her faithfulness to stay where God has called her, to do what he would have her do, offers us the possibility that we can refuse to run away when things get hard. We can find in Mary’s words ‘Behold – Here I am’ the possibility to find what we are really for, where we really are. It would have been understandable for Mary to abscond, but she faces God down, as someone who hears and is open to his impossible invitation. Mary shows us a pattern of faithfulness and stability where we don’t escape from that to which God has already called us, even if it’s hard, crazy, or unreasonable.

Mary is obedient. That’s not just ‘obeying orders’ as if we’re in a spiritual SS and not personally responsible. Real obedience recognizes that we’re not in this just for what we can get out of it. We are not just independent individuals, but neither are we just part of a tribe: ultimately, we belong to God, and it’s Mary’s awareness of that which makes her ‘yes’ universally fruitful. Mary says yes to a total lifetime of obedience in her response, and an eternal role in Christian spirituality and human history.

Mary displays an assent to constant conversion of life: ‘Let it be to me according to your word’. She is open to whatever God’s beckoning might mean: that adventurousness is what real holiness is. Her ‘yes’ to God is not just a one-off: but an assent to what God will keep on doing in her and in us. Conversion of life in Mary goes hand-in-hand with stability. Mary’s ‘Behold, Here I am’, is an invitation to us to learn her consistent openness to God.

‘Behold, here I am, the handmaid of the Lord – Let it be to me according to your word.’

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[Revd Dr] Andrew Teal Chaplain, Fellow, Lecturer in Patristic & Modern Theology, Pembroke College, Oxford. Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford Warden, Community of the Sisters of the Love of God. ADVANCE NOTICE: Inspiring Service. November 23rd 2018 The Pichette Auditorium, Pembroke College Oxford. A panel of speakers to inspire adventurous and fulfilling service. Speakers: Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a leading lay British Catholic; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Revd Prof Frances Young, leading British Methodist; and The Most Revd & Rt Hon Prof Rowan Williams (Baron Williams of Oystermouth), formerly Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the world-wide Anglican Church.

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