by Chienyu "Jade" Yi
The passage that Sara just read for us is well known by its name, the annunciation of our Lord. According to the year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, this story is read on the 4th Sunday of Advent, right before Christmas. The fact is that we don’t just hear this story every 3 years, but also every year on March 25th that normally falls in Lent and sometimes during Holy Week. You might have known that as early as the 3rd century AD the spring equinox March 25th was regarded as the beginning of creation. Therefore, it makes sense theologically for Christians to tie the beginning of creation on March 25th with Jesus’ conception, and to connect the fall of Adam with Jesus’ crucifixion in Holy Week, and then to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday as the new creation.
For Christians especially those who have been used to the rhythm of the Church calendar, it seems not too awkward to swing from the mood of celebration for the annunciation of our Lord to the mood of mourning for Jesus’ crucifixion, and then swing back to the mood of celebration once again for Jesus’ resurrection. But for not-frequent-church-goers or non-Christians, it’s really odd. One of my Chinese friends who is not a Christian called me last week to ask me what my family had planned to do during Spring Break since she wanted us to get together. I told her that we would be busy because of “Holy Week”, a time to remember Jesus’ death and then to celebrate our risen Lord on Easter Sunday. She was puzzled by how we Christians adjust our feelings and emotions toward these church events.
She is right! In real life it isn’t easy to swing our moods in the way we follow the church events, especially a time like this. For instance this year it takes only 10 days from March 25th which is today, to Holy Week, then to Easter April 4th. Have you ever had an experience of hearing good news on a particular day; but within a few hours or within a few days, this so called good news was dramatically changed into a bad news?
I’ll never forget the day when I was told to go home to pack some baby clothes and diapers after my doctor announced that my baby was ready to come. That was good news to celebrate. After 6 hours’ labor, my son was born, but died an hour after his birth. Within a week my husband had to register our son, so he went and came home with two documents – one is a birth certificate and another one is a death certificate. Even though I knew my son was with God; and I knew my son would be part of Jesus’ resurrection; my mood was frozen.
As I was preparing today’s sermon, I was wondering how we could honor what Mary was experiencing. For us it takes only 10 days, but for her…it’s a nine month pregnancy ahead of her to Dec…and 30 some years later watching her Son suffer and die …and another 3 longest days in her life to mourn until the good news of Jesus’ resurrection…
Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American artist, painted this in 1898. As you can see, there are no wings for the angel Gabriel but a sense of holiness; and there is no halo/ for Mary either. Her two hands clasps together and her head slightly leans toward one side with a questioning expression on her face. She looks so human. Unlike some many paintings that tend to highlight Mary’s extraordinary nature, Mr. Tanner captured the momentous event of the annunciation. Mary’s ordinariness precisely is her extraordinariness; that’s the Mary whom we want to get to know, a member of the “priesthood of all believers, and a “favored one” who goes through an unimaginable journey that brings her joy, worry, sorrow, and celebration.
From today’s passage according to Luke, we get a glimpse of what the beginning of her journey was like. God is about to give a unique gift for Mary to bear. A gift that is going to change the course of human history, a gift simply is given by God who has ordered a special destiny for this child that Mary didn’t ask or pray for as the recipient of this special gift.
A Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf, is a professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He wrote a book called, “Free of Charge” where he elaborates about our God as a gifts giver. He affirms that God gives simply because God delights in us like God delights in Mary. He proposes 4 elements that are crucial for our faith journey being from a self-centered receiver to a generous giver.
These four elements are faith, gratitude, availability, and participation. He says that “Faith” helps us to see God’s gifts as gifts; it’s a way to honor our relationship with our God. The “gratitude” helps us to receive God’s gifts well; because we understand our own inability and depravity; and we can never give what we got from God back to God, that’s our life and everything we have. The third one is “Availability” that obliges us to be God’s instrument. However, we as God’s creatures and as God’s redeemed creatures endowed by God’s Spirit shouldn’t stop as gifts receivers for we are not the destination of God’s gifts. Therefore, through “participation” we are transformed into the channel that allows the outbound movement of God’s gifts to flow.
I think that along her journey Mary recognize herself as a God’s gift receiver as well as a God’s gift giver. Through “faith” Mary sees God’s gifts as gifts; through “gratitude” Mary receives the gift well. And because of her “availability” she was able to embrace her identity as a bearer of God to the world. She recognizes what we all Christians need to recognize that God’s gift is meant to be passed on. Being a free and active instrument in relation to incarnation, her “participation” transformed her into a gift giver.
We all were like “virgins” once who were unable to bear God to the world. Only through “faith” can we recognize God’s gifts as gifts; only through “gratitude” can we receive God’s gifts well; and our “availability” makes us the bearer of our God to the world; and then through “participation”, we are reoriented from being gifts receivers to gifts givers so that the eternal life of Christ can flow ceaselessly.
In the time of trial like in my case, I once asked, “How could this be? How could I celebrate the life of my son without getting to know him and without him getting to know me?” Until the days I started praying for any pregnant women I met, until I sat next to those who lost their babies just like me, I realized that caring and praying for those in needs is one of many gifts God has given to me. I learned to make myself available to whom I encounter and learned to participate in God’s gifts giving events. My sorrow becomes good news. This may only make sense to those who have tasted the fruits of giving like Mary.
The times of trial for Mary were many; but the most excruciating one might be the one when she saw her son on the cross. The days when Jesus was resurrected and the days when the communities of faith were formed by Jesus disciples, Mary tasted the fruits of giving. It’s good news.
You and I have received many gifts. We know some of our gifts very well because we have been using them, practicing them, and passing them on; some of our gifts are still hidden. Some of these hidden gifts could be affirmed and encouraged by people around us, like professors, mentors, pastors, friends, or family members who function like messengers. The phrase “Favored one” used by the Angel Gabriel in Greek is a single word that is related to the noun “grace”. It means “You, the recipient of a gift”. This greeting entails that God is about to intervene with a remarkable demonstration of beneficence and power. Yes, we are ordinary human beings; but with faith, gratitude, availability, and participation, we are extraordinary; and God delights in us.