The Gospel appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year* (Lectionary Year B) was Luke's tale of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel's visit to young Mary to announce that she will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit.
Last night I was talking to a friend who attends a different parish, which had their Christmas pageant this past Sunday. It was a hilarious story of confused children and general chaos; things definitely did not go as expected. "It was a complete zoo," he remarked, and then both of us suddenly remembered that Jesus was born in a barn in the middle of the night, and decided that probably hadn't been exactly what Mary had envisioned, either.
This set me to thinking about Gabriel's announcement. The angel tells Mary that her son "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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
What must Mary have imagined that would look like?
I'll bet, as she knelt and said, wonderfully, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord," that it never occurred to her that nine months later, after having endured a long, arduous journey in the last days of her pregnancy, she wouldn't even be able to give birth in a house, but out in the stable, surrounded by animals, and they'd have to sleep outside. Could she have imagined having to put her newborn into a trough for his first cradle? What must that have been like for her faith? Did she say to herself, as she reclined or squatted in the hay and the mud among the stalls, "Oh, who cares, I'm giving birth to the Savior!" or, perhaps, did she feel a sense of frustration and resentment? "The angel didn't say anything about this!"
Did it give her pause? I suppose the fact that she got pregnant while still a virgin gave her sufficient proof that God was at work in her life in a pretty spectacular way, but she must have wondered why God would want or even allow the future king of Israel to be born in such inconvenient and somewhat shameful circumstances; as St Ambrose wrote in his famous Advent hymn, "Marvel now, both Heaven and Earth, that the Lord chose such a birth." Did she perhaps think maybe she was entitled to a slightly easier time of it, having agreed to carry God's son in her womb for nine months? The Gospel of Matthew tells us that for a time Joseph considered divorcing her, and we can only imagine what the reaction from her family and friends might have been. Did they lie and say the child was Joseph's? Or did she say, "No, an angel visited me and told me I would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and, voila!" Would her friends and family have believed her? It was probably a very difficult time, and now, after putting up with all that, here she is in the mud, in the cold, no comfortable place to lie down, no place to wash up. Ugh.
"The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever."
How did Mary imagine herself, as mother of the king? Did she envision Israel free from its Roman occupiers, free from the corrupt, violent, illegitimate Herodian rulers? Did she see herself living in a palace -- in Jerusalem, or maybe on the coast? Did she imagine a future life of peace and prosperity, with her son reigning into his old age, the father of an unbroken dynasty of Davidic kings? In her darker, weaker, frustrated moments did she say to herself, "Someday, you'll be in the palace"?
Instead, she got a son who was, certainly, wonderful in many ways, but must also have been a source of worry and frustration. He just sort of wandered around, and while he was a great teacher and healer, he didn't seem to be getting himself ready for the promised kingship. As the years wore on it must have gotten harder and harder to imagine that Israel would ever be free from the Romans. Every popular revolt against them was mercilessly and bloodily crushed. How was her son who was maybe in Capernaum today, maybe in Samaria, maybe in Bethany, going to end up being chosen king? No one even knew who he was. Was he somehow going to figure out how to lead an army into Jerusalem? His friends certainly weren't going to be much help; a couple of fishermen, a former tax collector and others of uncertain backgrounds. Bunch of slackers, all of them -- heck, James and John actually left their father in the boat and went and followed Jesus around the countryside.
The one time he did come home to visit, he went into the synagogue and told the assembly that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy; the villagers were so outraged they nearly pushed him off a cliff and chased him out of town. Mary and her other children went to go see Jesus where he was teaching, and when told that his mother, brothers and sisters were here, he could only say, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?"
"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God."
Well, he has a funny way of showing it.
And then came the end, suddenly, out of nowhere. One day you hear a rumor that he's headed for Jerusalem, and then a message -- maybe a friend or relative, maybe one of the apostles. "Jesus was arrested late last night and taken to Pilate."
That could only mean one thing.
There was no habeas corpus, no bill of rights. Commentators over the centuries have marveled, like Pilate himself, that Jesus didn't seem to want to say much in his defense. But truly, what could he have said that would matter? It was a show trial, a pretense of justice. No appeals. No right to a jury, no attorney. And by the next afternoon, he was dead.
And not just dead; arrested in the dark of night, dragged before the officials and an angry mob, summarily condemned and then beaten, viciously. Flogged. A crown of thorns mashed onto his head. Spit on, hit with reeds and poles. Forced to carry the instrument of his own execution through the city streets. His friends, terrified for their lives, had mostly abandoned him.
But there, on that gory hill, was John, Mary Magdalene, perhaps a couple of other women (the Gospels have different accounts), and his mother. There they watched him stripped and nailed - nailed! - to a cross, where he hung for a few hours among criminals, and then he died.
"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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
One of the most famous recurring images in religious art is the Pieta, depictions of a grieving Mary holding the body of her son after he has been taken down from the cross.
What must she have thought?
Had she misunderstood? This was not what she was promised. Had God been defeated? Had God deceived her? "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God." How? How is this favor? He's dead! He's not king. Far from assuming the throne of David in a liberated Israel, he was brutally murdered by its occupiers and Jewish collaborators. He's dead. It's over.
"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior." How empty and bitter the remembrance of those words must have seemed. "All generations will call me blessed." Ha.
But we, on the other side of Easter, know that Gabriel's announcement and God's promise were true. In this last week of Advent, we recite or chant or sing the Magnificat every day: "For he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever."
Many of the appointed lessons in the Advent season are apocalyptic in tone; as we prepare for the celebration of Christ's first coming into the world, we anticipate the second, and we imagine what the coming reign of glory will look like.
If Mary's experience is any guide, we haven't got a clue.
* Turns out it is also the Gospel appointed for today in the daily lectionary! Because the Sunday cycle is three years and the daily cycle is two years, it only happens once every six years that this passage will be appointed twice for the same week.