Luke 1:26-38 “The Eternity of a Pause”
My best friend, Sarah, and I have a lot of things in common. We have similar tastes, similar commitments to our families and to the work we do. We vacation well together – a true test of friendship, I think. We have a lot in common, but one of the ways we really differ is how we make big decisions. I tend to go with my gut, and Sarah makes lists. I visited three colleges, but when I visited the University of Iowa, I knew instantly that is where I wanted to go. I stopped looking and applied only there. Sarah visited 12 colleges and made pro and con lists, and spreadsheets mapping out price, financial aid, and scholarship opportunities, and she applied to all 12. Luckily, she picked Iowa too, that’s where we met. When I bought my house, I walked in and knew it was mine instantly. I made an offer within an hour of my tour, and the majority of that hour was filling out the paperwork. Sarah looked at dozens of houses, decided to build in a new development, and spent HOURS on the phone with me agonizing over every detail. I accepted the offer from every job I have had on the spot, Sarah asks how long she has to decide and takes every minute.
Sarah and I have a lot in common, but how we make decisions, big and small, is incredibly different. Some may call her indecisive, others will call me rash. Both are right. I make quick decisions, trusting my instincts and relying on my stubbornness when my decisions turn out to be the wrong ones. Sarah examines things from every angle but when she makes her decisions, she sticks by them (our stubbornness is also something we have in common). And I think the difference about how we make choices is why she and I think of the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary so differently.
The conversation took place in my car back when I lived in Maine. She had visited me for Thanksgiving and the day after we took a trip to a coastal town for some site-seeing and shopping. On the drive home the popular Christmas song, “Mary Did You Know” came on the radio. I am sure many of you know it, but if you don’t the song is basically a series of questions to Mary: “Mary, did you know your baby boy will one day walk on water?…Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?” On and on the song goes.
As the song played on the radio, Sarah turned to me and asked, “What did Mary actually know when she said yes?” “Yes?” I asked. “Did Mary actually know what she was getting into when she agreed to carry Jesus?” That is what Sarah wanted to know – had Mary read the fine print? Sarah, I should point out, always reads the fine print. I explained to Sarah that Mary didn’t know much – she knew the Jesus was to be the Son of God. But the details, no, she didn’t any know that. Sarah wasn’t satisfied. What a thing to agree to without having all of the facts before hand.
I couldn’t help but think of that conversation in the car years ago with my thorough best friend when I considered our scripture lesson for today. Sarah was right, it is an extraordinary thing that Mary is agreeing to. She doesn’t argue. She asks how it could be, as she was a virgin – a totally fair question. But she doesn’t tell Gabriel it is not possible. She doesn’t try to prove him wrong. She asks her question and listen again to how Gabriel responds: “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. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
“’For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I…’” The Christian Church loves this moment. We love Mary’s faith. We love her innocence and easy trust in what Gabriel was saying. We love the way she agrees to shelter God in her womb. We love her unwavering, instant yes to God. But I wonder now, just how instant was that yes? What was going through her mind in that brief pause between Gabriel’s explanation and Mary’s response? The scriptures just give it one word, “then.” “For nothing will be impossible with God. Then Mary said, Here am I.” “Then.” A single word, the briefest of pauses. Perhaps her faith and trust were instant, perhaps nothing went through her mind – she just gave herself over to God, whatever may come.
But I can’t help but wonder if an eternity passed for Mary in that pause. You know the eternities I mean – when you are about to make a decision, especially a monumental one, and even if you know in your heart, or gut, or whatever that it is a right one – in that briefest moment before you say yes, your brain is on over-drive. The possibilities, the what-ifs, the fears, and excitements – everything that could happen as a result of your ‘yes’ passes through your mind. How many eternities have we all lived in that pause? How many eternities did Mary live in that brief pause between Gabriel’s words and hers? The question of the song, “Mary Did You Know?” takes on new meaning when you consider that eternity she lived in before saying “Here am I.”
There is a painting by Botticelli entitled ‘The Cestello Annunciation’. It depicts this conversation between Mary and Gabriel. Gabriel is on one knee, looking up at Mary, almost as if he is pleading with her, or perhaps bowing in awe and devotion. But it is Mary who is far more dynamic. She is standing, and Botticelli has painted to look as if she has taken a step back, almost like she is stepping out of the frame of the painting. Her left hand is held up as if saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’. But her right hand is reaching out as if to touch Gabriel’s out-held hand, and the upper portion of her body is leaning towards him. Botticelli has depicted Mary to look as if she wants to flee from what is being requested of her, but is compelled towards Gabriel, and towards what God is calling her to do. Looking at that painting is like watching Mary in the eternity of the pause between the question and her answer. You can see the struggle and the faith. The doubt and the hope.
Poet Andrew Hudgins, in looking at this painting, describes that brief eternity in the poem he wrote about the painting. It is also entitled ‘The Cestello Annunciation’:
The angel has already said, Be not afraid.
He’s said, The power of the Most High
will darken you. Her eyes are downcast and half closed.
And there’s a long pause — a pause here of forever —
As the angel crowds her. She backs away,
her left side pressed against the picture frame.
He kneels. He’s come in all unearthly innocence
to tell her of glory — not knowing, not remembering
how terrible it is. And Botticelli
gives her eternity to turn, look out the doorway, where
on a far hill floats a castle, and halfway across
the river toward it juts a bridge, not completed —
and neither is the touch, angel to virgin,
both her hands held up, both elegant, one raised
as if to say stop, while the other hand, the right one,
reaches toward his; and as it does, it parts her blue robe
and reveals the concealed red of her inner garment
to the red tiles of the floor and the red folds
of the angel’s robe. But her whole body pulls away.
Only her head, already haloed, bows,
acquiescing. And though she will, she’s not yet said,
Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord,
as Botticelli, in his great pity,
lets her refuse, accept, refuse, and think again.
I wonder if Botticelli and Hudgins have it right. That in the brief moment Mary refused, accepted, refused, and thought again. I wonder if that would help my friend Sarah understand this scripture better. I wonder if thinking how the struggle and the faith, the doubt and the hope all jumbled together in her head, even if just for an instant, makes us have even more awe for Mary’s ‘yes.’ And I wonder if in that eternity of a pause Mary remembered one of the first things the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid.”
Let us pray:
Loving God – as we approach the day of Christ’s birth help us to throw wide the doors of our hearts in preparation. Help us to sense the importance of what happened so long ago when Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, to remember the words of the angels and the prophets and the teachers of old, and to celebrate all the promises that you made through them. Help us to take firm hold of the meaning of all these things and to know in the depths of our being that even now you are seeking to work in us and through us to fulfill the promises you have made.
God – may this Advent season be for us and for those around us a season of healing, may it be a season of hope and of love and of joy, may it be a time of true sharing and of rejoicing in all the earth.
We pray O God for those in need around us: for those who need a second birth, for those who need a tender touch and a healing word.
We pray too, O God for the children of our world – and all those of tender faith, all those who have no home to call their own, all those who are hungry and thirsty. Bless we pray the innocent of the earth and all those who trust in you. Bless the humble and the powerless and bring down from their thrones those who are full of pride and those who are indifferent.
We ask these things O God, with hope and praise in our hearts, our minds, and our souls, through Christ Jesus our Lord, who taught us to pray together by saying…Our Father…