“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving,” observed Pope Francis. “If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it.”
Strangely we can find it so difficult to receive. Children don’t. Certainly in two days time my grandchildren will give me a masterclass in how to receive. Sadly it’s something we grow out of all too quickly.
But Mary knew how to receive. Maybe the main reason why God chose her.
This week, in my preparations for Christmas I have been using BRF Guidelines, which follow the theme of the spirituality of motherhood, written by Sarah’s former Director of St Mellitus NW, Jill Duff. Excellent.
So the angel Gabriel visits Mary, as the countdown to the first Christmas begins. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. (Luke 1:28)
“Mary was an unlikely choice for the ‘mother of my Lord.’ It seems that God does not bestow his favour as we might advise him to; and indeed, accepting God’s’ favour is not as straightforward as we might think.” (page 121)
We can so easily find being at the receiving end of incredible generosity incredibly difficult.
It’s what happens when we give a friend a League 2 Christmas present only to discover that they have given us a gift straight from the Champions League. It’s embarrassing and we feel awkward.
But Mary knew how to be loved and valued. No need to win God’s favour or pull herself together to make herself acceptable. She received with a simple Yes: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
“Mary was asked to have faith in a way that was without precedent, surpassing any expectations.” (Page 122)
The Hebrew scriptures are filled with people chosen by God for what seemed an impossible mission: confronting Pharaoh, facing up to Goliath, rebuilding a broken city. In each they are promised the resource of the Holy Spirit .
But with Mary God is working in an altogether new way, a totally different order. Never before or since has anything like this happened in the history of the universe: the incarnation. ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
Such is his love, his remarkable love, that we see God at work in this astonishing way, the God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. “ (Ephesians 3:20)
So Mary just says Yes. She says to God that she trusts him. Thoughts may be rushing through her head; she can see the problems ahead. But even so: Yes.
“It’s very striking that Mary’s instinctive response to the angel’s epoch-shattering news is to spend three months hidden away in an unnamed town in the hill country of Judea.” (page 123)
Sometimes is just takes time to process what is happening, to make sense of what God is doing. And here God uses her relative Elizabeth to affirm and support Mary as she gestates her awesome responsibility.
Moses, David, Paul, even Jesus. All needed time and space, away from the action in order to prepare for God’s call. For myself I can’t wait to get going.
But often God calls us to stop doing and for once just be. Such waiting doesn’t come naturally but time spent in preparation is never wasted.
And more: saying Yes to God does not mean it is going to be straight-forward. The very opposite, in fact. It just takes one ambitious Caesar to disrupt our plans; just one insecure tyrant and we become asylum seekers. No one said obeying God was going to be easy.
So as Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms, Mary was
left in no doubt. “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35).
There were going to be some deep cuts in Mary’s life – losing her 12-year-old son for three days and then later losing confidence in his ministry (Mark 3:21 is the most surprising verse in the Bible). Jesus at one point even seems to disown his mother (Mark 3:33).
And most agonising of all, Mary sees her son nailed to a cross: betrayed, disowned, exposed, disgraced. A sharp sword indeed.
But as we celebrate each Sunday, the cross is never the last word. For the last we see of Mary is her waiting with her fellow disciples for the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:14). She knew of Jesus’ resurrection. Her faith, her simple trusting faith, had been vindicated. Her Mission had been accomplished.
“Love will cost you dearly.
And it will break your heart.
But in the end, it will save the world.”