Reflections by Jerry Webber

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mary and the Grace That Really Is Radical

I've posted the thoughts below on my Advent blog, A Daily Advent The Scripture text is the Gospel reading for today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

The Church, both historic and contemporary, has talked a great deal about "grace," but usually in ways that have not been "graceful."

We ("we" because I'm a part of the Church) have talked about grace with our lips, but been more concerned to punish "sinners" and those who do not measure up to some artificial standards.

We have spoken of "mercy" and asked liturgically for "mercy," but have not witnessed to mercy in our life together.

On the whole, those who follow Christ have little experience of "grace" as a practiced way of living. For most, it is an empty concept, just one of those church-y words devoid of impact, something the pie-in-the-sky crowd talks about on Sundays.

Maybe the words below can speak a bit more about the radical nature of grace as an alternative way of ordering life. It is intended simply as a piece for daily devotional use.

Luke 1:26 - 38

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." . . . "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."

Mary was perplexed and pondered the words. I imagine myself receiving this greeting, this statement of being favored by God.

What did I do to deserve this?

Why am I favored?

I immediately want to make the "favor" about something I've earned, a reward for some kind of good I have done or something I have accomplished.

"I've been faithful in my little bit . . . so now I'm receiving some favor." There is a deep well of that kind of deserving that lives within me.

The Church didn't help us with this one through the centuries, making up an elaborate back-story about Mary and her lineage with the intent of showing how perfect Mary was, how spotless and sinless she was. The point was to suggest that Mary was chosen for this role because she deserved to be chosen by God . . . that this was a reward for her meticulous and morally perfect life.

The implicit message was that you could only be chosen by God if you were morally perfect. You could only be "favored" if you were sinless. You could only bear God's Son in the world if you measured up. You could only receive God's grace if you were completely blameless.

Many of us have lived underneath these overt and subtle messages from the Church for a lifetime. We have heard the messages and internalized them, so that now the message of deserving and perfection comes not only from the Church, it also comes from within us.

Followers of Christ everywhere have lived under these false, "anti-grace" messages for centuries.

If indeed the choosing of Mary by God was a graced choosing, then the Church's imaginary back-story has to be thrown out.

You get a hint of the radical grace (the language of "favor") in the story by noticing Mary's reaction to the "grace-greeting." She was perplexed. She had to ponder it. Apparently, she couldn't find any rational reason for the choosing. She couldn't understand what she had done to deserve this "favor" or grace.

If the Church through the centuries had really allowed this to be a story of grace, the back-story about Mary might have remembered that she was a rebellious teenager, often in trouble with parents and authority figures, and living counter to the social (and religious!) norms of her day.

In fact -- though I have no evidence for my imaginative re-interpretation -- the scenario I have suggested may be closer to Mary's truth . . . which would explain, perhaps, her perplexity at Gabriel's greeting, and what she had to ponder in her heart.

Because in the end, for whatever her actual history, the "favoring" did not rest on Mary's merits, but on the God who extended the "favoring."

Likewise, when I enter the passage and hear that I, too, am favored, this favoring does not exist because of what I have done or who I am; but rather it comes to me (and you!) because of who God is. That's how it always is.

I don't need to understand it or analyze it or pick it apart. I am invited simply to rest in it. Like Mary . . . "Here I am . . . let it be to me as you have said."

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