Mary’s Yes

Luke 1:26-56
Did you ever say a Yes that changed your life? I remember Jonathan, the guy in the horn section who was really a piano major, asking me over for a lunch of homemade spaghetti. I liked home cooked food, so I said yes. The sauce was so good, I thought, I have to figure out how to get more of this marinara. Little did I know I would marry the guy.

Or my friend Lynn, teaching English in Japan, who, on a lark, said yes to interviewing for an anchor position with NHK, the prestigious Japanese public broadcast network. She’d never been in the news business and was unexpectedly offered the job. She didn’t end up taking the position, but it planted a seed for what became her career as a TV news reporter and anchor.

Saying Yes can change your life, and it seems to me, that often we say yes without realizing all the Yes will entail.

And so I wonder about Mary’s Yes in our gospel lesson. Luke introduces Mary as an ordinary young woman who is engaged to be married. She is from Nazareth, a small town in Northern Palestine, far from the political, cultural, and religious center of Jerusalem. She is to marry a man from a notable lineage, the house of King David – but that was 14 generations ago, a tale of faded glory.

But this day is anything but ordinary. For Mary is interrupted from her daily routine by an angel who tells her that she will bear the Messiah. “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 he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of this kingdom there will be no end.”

How would you answer such a proposition? Mary said Yes, but what was the tone of her voice? Was it a confident Yes! with an exclamation mark? A naïve Yes, with bowed head and reverence? Or perhaps a qualified ….Yes…? ending with a question mark?

I think it is safe to say that Mary’s Yes took some courage. Being pregnant out of wedlock brought more than a whiff of scandal: it brought shame to her family, and to Joseph. The news of her pregnancy could end her engagement, and possibly even mean being disowned from her family. Not to mention that she had not even touched Joseph, so pregnancy was clearly not a possibility! All of this surely flashed through Mary’s mind when she heard the angel’s words. No wonder Luke says Mary was perplexed.

And yet, in the midst of such a spectacular visitor, it was hard for Mary to deny the divine nature of the message. It was clearly the work of God. This didn’t change the fact that Mary said yes when she didn’t really know what she was saying yes to. What would it mean to be mother to the Son of the Most High God? It is one thing to bear the baby who would one day become king, but what about all the growing up years? How would he take the throne when she was a peasant and her husband a day laborer? To say this Yes would mean so many other Yeses down the road, things she could not foresee.

That part sounds familiar to me. I think perhaps we are all a bit like Mary, called upon to know how and when to say Yes. We may not have encounters with angels, but we are presented with opportunities – times when we need to decide to say Yes or No. It is a question of discernment, of determining God’s call in our lives, a call to use our gifts in service to God and in love toward others.I think it is important to note a few things from this story. The first is that God does not coerce Mary. God sends the angel with the news of God’s intention to bless the world through Mary, but God leaves room for Mary’s reply. It is an invitation and a conversation, one in which Mary has a say.

Likewise, God’s work with us is also an invitation – a conversation. I don’t know from the story what would have happened if Mary had said no, but from my own spiritual experience I can honestly say that when God wants something for us and we say no, the invitation comes again, in a different guise. God waits with patience until we are ready to say Yes.

The second thing I note is that Mary asks questions. How can this be? she wants to know. Perhaps Mary is being practical at this point, knowing that babies don’t come from storks or angels. But the question is also a spiritual one. Throughout the scriptures, people question how God will act. Like Mary, we often cannot see how God will accomplish God’s purposes. We are not, however, called upon to see the whole road ahead. We are invited to say yes to one step and to trust that if we are willing to take one step, the next will be revealed at the right time.

I guess for me this is where the story becomes most poignant, because I know how it ends. Mary will see her son hang on a cross and die. He will rise again, and the whole world will shift on its axis. But that man is still her son. Mary said Yes without knowing what was coming. She knew she didn’t know what was coming, but she said Yes anyway.

That, to me, is the heart of Christian obedience – not obedience that way I used to think of it: subservient, grudging, duty. Rather, obedience as trust. Trust that God wants the best for me and will indeed do what is best for me. The amazing thing is, that what is best for me is also best for God’s big picture. In God’s economy, there are no winners and losers – all rise together. Therefore, I can trust in God’s purposes for me, and when I get those promptings presented repeatedly to me, I can willingly say Yes to God. Sometimes it’s just one small step in that direction, in faith that God will lead the way.

In the eucharistic prayer before Communion in these weeks of Advent, we have been praising God for Mary’s openness to God’s will. And that is where I land today. As I contemplate Mary’s Yes, it is her trust in God that inspires me. Whether she had a question mark after her Yes or an exclamation point is beside the point. What matters is that she was open to God’s work in and through her.

Perhaps Mary’s greatest spiritual asset is ours, too: the greatest gift we can give back to God is our openness to God’s will. May our gift this Advent be a decision to set aside resistance, to trust in the slow, sure work of God, and to take the next step.

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