Wombs and Tombs

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Every several years or so, I seem to get reminded from Lord knows where (a phrase that uncomfortably seems more literal sometimes than just a figure of speech) that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation.

It always occurs exactly nine months before the ”Feast of the Nativity” a/k/a Christmas Day. (Go figure.)

The day celebrates the account in Luke’s Gospel of the young maiden Mary, and her surprising visit by the angel Gabriel…and his even more surprising message that she had been appointed to offer human birth to the son of God.

It usually comes in the middle of Lent, a few days or weeks before Easter. It is a time (as said so wonderfully by Canon Rose Duncan at the Washington National Cathedral this morning) of “wombs and tombs, beginnings and endings, births and deaths.”

Regardless of what faith we might profess, or if we follow no organized religion at all, it seems that in every life it is inevitable to face times of real decision, of moving one way or the other, of following a path pointed this uncertain way or that, or maybe just staying put – frozen and hesitant – and making the decision of no decision. And in that sense, the story of Mary and her annunciation is, in absolute fact, a universal human story.

A few years back, I was also totally surprised by the Feast of the Annunciation one March 25. It led me (as these things tend to do) to pour a nice single malt and start writing, and wondering how that same God who beckoned a young girl to change the world forever might also be beckoning me.

( Annunciation 2014 –“…born of the Virgin Mary.” )

“…born of the Virgin Mary”

Two weeks ago the church celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation, a fact that normally escapes my attention most every March 25th, and it almost did again this year. (There’s not much need for me to note “Just nine more shopping months ’til Christmas!”) But 3/25 on the 2014 calendar just happened to come on a Tuesday, and on that particular Tuesday I just happened to make it to the small Tuesday evening Eucharist celebrated each week in my home parish. The Celebrant, The Rev. Lisa Saunders, was quick to inform the dozen or so assembled faithful about the day’s significance.

Gabriel's "perplexing" proposal to a young girl... A lot riding on her answer!

Gabriel’s “perplexing” proposal to a young girl… A lot riding on her answer!

Ever since, Mary has been on my mind.

Maybe I was just taken by the Gospel reading about Gabriel’s surprise visit to this young Nazarene girl. (The term which is often translated to “virgin” simply connotes a young unmarried woman of child-bearing age. Most scholars agree that the term in original scripture says more to being a “maiden” than any statement about sexual “purity.”) Standing before an Archangel, I’m not sure I would react with Mary’s sanguine aplomb if some other-worldly being suddenly appeared before me with a hearty, “Greetings, favored one!” Being “perplexed” would be the least of my reactions. Call me faithless and crazy but I’m thinking Gabe’s reassurance that “The Lord is with you” would somehow strike me as less than reassuring.

Whatever the reason, the term “…born of the Virgin Mary” has now become one of those phrases that just seems to jump out during the liturgy. Her obedience, her surrender, her willingness to walk the unknowable path of the Unknown has taken more and more of a focus this particular Lent.

As she stood there pondering this sudden proposal from some strange messenger claiming to speak for the Omnipotent Creator, Mary could never have known what all was to come. (Indeed, if we as God’s children truly do have God’s awful gift of free will, I wonder sometimes if God actually knew what all was to come?) I love Frederick Buechner’s take on Gabriel’s task in selling Mary on the whole idea…

“(Mary) struck the angel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it…
As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
(Luke 1:26-35)

Peculiar Treasures

I can never know the anguish, angst and anxiety that a mother feels watching her son take a fearful path. I have witnessed it, though, in my own mother, in the lives of some women I’ve been blessed to know in my life, and in the mother of my son. It may not be the pain of nails that pierce flesh and bone, but it is searing pain nonetheless that deeply pierces the heart.

Jesus’ decision to go to the cross was a sacrifice willingly made, thanks be to God. Mary’s sacrifice of watching her child endure that cross was not.