Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mary -- Drenched in the Speech of God

This is that special season when we sing carols, hear scripture, and say “excuse me” and “pardon me” as we elbow the other shoppers aside. In spite of that, we sometimes lose sight of one of the major miracles of Christmas. And that is that the central figures of the Christ event were people just like us.

Not that you would know that by the different depictions that pass our way this season. We see it portrayed serenely on Christmas cards, in Christmas plays and songs, and in living and plaster Nativities all around town. In them , the Christmas scene is idyllic. It’s the very picture of a 1st century nuclear family – mommy and daddy and new baby.

But the fact of the matter is that the first Christmas was far from idyllic. Because it wasn’t being staged by arranging paper mache figurines, it was being acted out by real people on the stage of life. Joseph, the Shepherds, the Magi and all the rest, even mean old Herod, were real folks in real time living real lives and trying to make sense of it all. And into their lives comes the miracle of God’s Son – Emmanuel, God with us, come to lead us back to God. And one of those characters of Christmas was Mary – a real, flesh and blood, teenaged girl.
Hildegard of Bingen’s “Antiphon for the Virgin” reminds of this --

Pierced by the light of God
Mary Virgin
drenched in the speech of God,
your body bloomed,
swelling with the breath of God.

For the Spirit purged you
of the poison Eve took.
She soiled all freshness when she caught
that infection
from the devil’s suggestion.

But in wonder within you
you hid an untainted
child of God’s mind
and God’s Son blossomed in your body.

The Holy One was his midwife;
his birth broke the laws
of flesh that Eve made. He was coupled
to wholeness
in the seedbed of holiness.

This poem takes us out of the Christmas we’ve created it in our image and reminds us of the miraculous nature of the coming of Jesus. We often confine our understanding of the miraculous to that of God becoming a baby – which is indeed a miracle. But there is more. There is something, I believe, miraculous about the boldness and obedience behind Mary’s “Yes” to God.
This was no easy “Yes.” This was hard and carried a societal stigma that makes the one we used to force on unwed mothers easy to bear by comparison. What God asked of this young woman was about the most difficult thing she could accede to.

To be sure, as the Bible reports, when Gabriel comes and says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” Mary “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Who wouldn’t?

Gabriel continues “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.”
Her response to this is remarkable, or maybe miraculous. Where in almost every other instance of encounters with heavenly messengers the receiver of the message asks for a sign to verify that it is from God, Mary simply asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She doesn’t try to talk her way out of it. She doesn’t explain her unworthiness. She doesn’t ask “Why me?”

Mary, a simple (in a positive sense) trusting young woman simply looks into the face of the eternal and said “Yes.” How can she do that? Hildegard’s poem gives us a clue how – and I believe it is found in the line “drenched in the speech of God.”

What a powerful image.

“Drenched in the speech of God.” It’s a phenomenon with which we should all be acquainted, yet I fear too few of us are. Mary can say “Yes” because she has heard the voice of the Divine, felt it rain over her, and knew in her heart that it was God speaking. It reminds me of a more modern parallel in the Quaker tradition – George Fox’s hearing of a voice saying “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition,” and whose heart, upon hearing it, he says “leapt for joy.”

While Mary’s words from God came from the mouth of the angel Gabriel standing beside her, and Fox’s came from inside his soul, both were unmistakably from God to the ears of these listeners. And joy was the result.

Who can imagine what Mary felt when she first stood in the face of the mystery of the eternal? What might her thoughts have been? Surely she knew she was risking society’s, family’s and Joseph’s disapproval. But did she also know the supreme joy she would have cradling the baby in her arms? Could she even begin to dream of shepherds abandoning their flocks or wise men bringing gifts from afar to come and worship the baby king? Was there even a slight shuddering premonition of the cross that awaited her beloved baby boy?

We can not know Mary’s feelings, other than what we read in the scripture passage today. When the angel speaks she stands in reverence and awe and says “Let it be to me according to your word.”

For Mary, drenched in the speech of God, once her “yes” was said, she moved forward joyously with it. Her obedience and willingness to serve is something she embraced with a joy and serenity. This obedience and willingness came because she heard God’s voice, something that we would do well to prepare ourselves for in this season and year round.

Fox heard God’s voice because he prepared for it – reading scripture, talking with people of faith, praying. We don’t know what Mary did – the Bible doesn’t tell us. But we can guess that she was a person of deep spirit and prayer. When the angel comes, she’s not afraid or doubtful but only “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

And then, “drenched in the speech of God
“… in wonder within you
you hid an untainted
child of God’s mind
and God’s Son blossomed in your body.”

It is then that the wonder of the incarnation, God come down in human form to live among and bring his people back to him, begins – with the simple “yes” of Mary – a yes made possible by being “drenched in the speech of God.”

-- Brent


Colleen said...

Beautiful post. Thank you. I am often in awe myself over how Mary just said - Let it be done to me according to God's word. Wow. Wish I could say those words - and mean them - more often than I do.

Anonymous said...


this is an especially wonderful post......!!!!!!

I think I'll link to it!

peace and good,


Brent Bill said...

Thanks, Colleen and Todd. I'm glad you liked this post. I especially like Hidegaard's thought of being drenched in the speech of God.