We have now come to the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, which traditionally focuses on Mary, the Mother of God. More specifically, today we might reflect on the ways in which Mary said “yes” to God -- “yes”, in response to the startling news brought to her by the archangel, and then continually throughout her life.
We have all said “yes” to various things in our lives that we consider significant. Some of mine are probably different from yours, such as when I took my ordination vows, but others I share with many of you. For example, 7 years ago, on this very day and I think almost at this time of day, I said “yes” to Will as part of my wedding vows. Then when we had our three children, each time I pondered and said yes to the mystery and responsibility for a new life entering this world.
Human relationships, especially the familial ones, are perhaps, the most obvious symbol, or even a sacrament, of our relationship with God, of a continual saying “yes” to your commitment once made, even as your life goes through different phases, adapting to new circumstances and learning more and more about yourself after each turn your journey takes. I wonder if this is partially the reason that God chose to complete his self-revelation to humans by entering this world in the exact same way as each one of us does – owing to someone continually saying yes to life’s greatest commitments.
Commitment does not mean hurrying into a decision without ever asking a question. If you recall the events leading up to the birth of Jesus as laid out in the first chapter of the Gospel of St Luke, you’ll notice that it begins with not one but two families confronted with the news that demanded an answer. The news found them in very different life situations, but both of them had the same initial reaction: that is, to ask a question, namely “how can this be?”
The first family was elderly and of high social status: Zechariah was a priest, and Elizabeth was born to a family descending from a priestly line. At the time, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was still functioning (it would be destroyed by the Romans 70 years later). Each week, one of about 8,000 available priests would be chosen randomly for the task of burning incense inside the sanctuary, which would probably mean that each of them got to perform this duty about once or twice in a lifetime. So it was a special day and place for Zechariah when the archangel announced to him that in spite of their old age, his wife would become pregnant for the first time. Several Old Testament stories come to mind when a previously barren woman was suddenly able to have a child, and each time it signified a new turn in the history of Israel. So, he had every reason to rejoice in the news; Elizabeth did too, though of course she might have been worried about the physical burden that a pregnancy, birth, and caring for a newborn and later an active toddler would impose on her aging body.
Six months later Mary, a relative of Elizabeth, was given similar news. Her situation was exactly the opposite: still but a child, born to a father of lower social status; the bride price for her was already paid, but the baby she was now going to have was not fathered by her fiancé. Joseph was not thrilled. We may wonder whether that was the reason for her sudden flight over some 70 miles away from home to Elizabeth’s door, which is where we’ve met the two women in our Gospel reading for today.
Both children were a miracle (though which baby isn’t?); both sets of parents were led to a place where much joy would eventually be found, yet where they did not necessarily want to go, each for their own reasons. And so both Mary and Zechariah had a question: “how can this be”? But the difference was that Zechariah asked for an additional sign to support his faith in God, while Mary said, “let it be”. And so even as both eventually burst out in a song of praise to their God who raises up the lowly and fulfils all his/her promises, they took very different roads to become at peace with God.
It is for this reason that Mary has a special standing in the Christian tradition: she was the one who was most content with having faith, rather than demanding assurance. She said yes -- not only to the conception of her child, but to the pain of her delivery in the stables, to the sleepless nights tending to a newborn, to her flight to a faraway country with the hope of saving her child’s life, to his first assertions of independence manifested in toddler tantrums and teenage sulking, and to raising him in the Jewish tradition and knowledge of the scripture to become who he was.
Eventually, she had to say yes even to the hardest part of being a parent: i.e., to letting him go. She began catching a glimpse of this when she found him staying behind in the temple, and as she grieved over the loss of him not once at the foot of the cross, and yet again at the time of his ascension. Mary is called “the joy of all who sorrow” in the Orthodox tradition, and we learn from her about how your own sorrow opens your heart to a greater compassion for others.
All of us have watched our commitments to our children, partners, parents, and friends evolve through various phases of life. The true meaning of loyalty is to hold on to your love for the person, not to a way of life with the person, and to allow both them and yourself to become who God intends us to be. To what or to whom you are holding on right now? What do you need to be saved from by the birth of this child, this time around?
Ponder, tuck away things in your heart -- keep a journal, or paint, or take photographs, or write poetry -- use any way that works for you to help treasure memories and learnings. Learn from the scriptures and from each other: notice the ways others around you continually say yes, even as they ask questions, and do not always have faith or certitude. So encourage each other to “not be afraid" and to sing a song of praise to God together. We are all active participants in the mystery of the incarnation -- God’s work in the world -- your “yes” changes the world, one life at a time.