Sermon for the Annunciation of Our Lord Jesus Christ - By the Right Reverend Mark S. Sisk, XV Bishop of New York
Solemn Pontifical Mass
Isaiah 7:10–14, Psalm 40:5–10, Hebrews 10:5–10, Luke 1:26–38
I hesitate to take issue with a prayer of the Church, much less quibble with the title of a feast as ancient and venerable as is the Feast of the Annunciation, but I fear I must at least raise a question.
Our collect for this feast opens with the line, “Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary.”
To begin with, we might think about just what exactly is an announcement anyway. According to the dictionary the first meaning is: “the act of making known publicly.” For example, in this political season the candidates who are before us “announced” their candidacy. They didn’t ask our opinion they just did it. An announcement by its very nature is a monologue. It is an act of one-way communication. There is the announcer, and there is the audience that hears the announcement. This is not an occasion for dialogue. But that is exactly what happened in the Gospel account that we have just heard.
True enough the Angel Gabriel made his announcement, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But it seems that Mary, in her very polite way wasn’t given to being announced to. She had questions. She wasn’t so sure. St. Luke says, “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Mary was cautious. She was pondering, she was considering: “why was she favored?” How was she being favored? What form would this favor take? What did all this mean? By inference the question appeared to leap out at her: was something about to be asked of her? What was it?
Clearly Mary was no passive, acquiescent little girl. She knew enough to know that there were deep issues afoot and that she had a decision to make. She was bold enough to change the monologue into a dialogue, and she did so in the subtlest and most courageous way. She was silent. In the presence of the great Archangel, she said nothing.
Think what that took. When Gabriel made his announcement, she didn’t gush about how pleased she was, or how unworthy she felt at this great honor. She was silent. She was silent. It’s so easy, especially in a one-on-one situation with a great and powerful person, to agree, or seem to agree, with whatever they say. To demure to be silent that takes self-confidence. That takes courage.
It was then that Gabriel shifted from announcing to explaining. What he says sounds like a combination of comforting reassurance and a sales pitch. He says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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 forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But still she had a further question, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Only then, after hearing Gabriel’s expanded answer, did Mary give consent in words that have echoed through the ages, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The importance of their dialogue, and that’s exactly what it turned into, is the fact that it took place at all. The significance of that simple fact cannot be overstated.
The reason that it is so important is that it demonstrates that Mary was a willing participant in carrying out God’s will. She was not simply a passive vessel helpless before Gabriel’s overwhelming presence.
What this story tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that God does not force the Divine will upon us. What this says in the boldest way possible is that God respects us. We are, and will always be actors, active participants, never simply helpless passengers as God’s will plays itself out.
God not only waited for Mary to agree of her own free will, but in fact her agreement was crucial. The possibility couldn’t be ruled out that Mary might have said “No.” In fact it is possible that Gabriel had made that same journey at another earlier time and had been turned down. Of course we’ll never know, but it could have because God has put such freedom, such authority into human hands. The story of the Annunciation makes it abundantly clear that God does not force the Divine Will on us, or for that matter on Creation itself.
God has chosen to work through the natural order of things. God has chosen to work through, and therefore with, us. The implications of this are enormous. God respects Creation. God respects us as partners in the Divine enterprise.
What we do matters. We are not interchangeable pieces in some Divine puzzle. We are not bit players mouthing the words of a scripted text that has been written for us to memorize. We are integral to the working out of God’s will. We have been given the freedom to say “Yes” or to say “No”—or to turn a deaf ear to the Divine invitation and, consequently, fail to respond altogether. What awesome freedom is ours. What transforming power has, by God’s grace, been placed in human hands.
Pray God that, like Mary, we may ponder in our hearts the invitation that God has planted there. And pray as well that, like Mary, we may find the courage to say our own “Yes” to our invitation. It is that “Yes” which will truly open us to the pain and the joy of the Divine life that is ours, living within us, today, tomorrow and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Copyright © Mark S. Sisk.
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