The temptation is to tease out a new angle, to take a novel tack, to tell the tale slant, and preach the story like you’ve never heard it before. Perhaps I might lift up some little detail, parse the minutiae, like, let you know that the word we read as virgin could mean that, virgin, or mean a young woman is all, virgin or otherwise, and so, let you know that you may imagine Mary as whichever you wish, as suits your penchant for the miraculous. Or, perhaps I might paint the scene in fresher color – the red flush of the girl’s cheek, the dread grey of the angel: a fresco all but waiting to be. But don’t you like this scripture as it is? Don’t you love this scripture, love it like the smells of grandma’s house, love it as you do the old photo of your mother, glowing in her wedding gown? You love it. And, the way a child knows when she is being cheated of a bedtime story properly told, and will suffer no grown-up’s skipping over parts, and will correct her parents and call them back to the book, so too will you brook no funny business. Because you know this Bible story by heart.
Of course, not all things which live within our hearts live there in peace. The soul of an adult Christian can be a hive of wonderings and whirring questions. For we know, in ways children both do and do not know, that a distinction can be drawn between what is real and what is true, and that they are not always one and the same. For instance, we know that Angelico’s Annunciation, that the painting has a ring of truth to it – with the angel Gabriel seeming to tremble before the girl, as if human openness to the holy were so glorious and breathtaking and rare as to take the wind out from beneath his wings. We know the painting to be true in its portrayal, even as we know its portrayal to be, well, not real, placing, as it does, the scene of Mary and the seraph’s meeting in the 15th Century Italian countryside. Which is to say: laying claim to what is true, and in relation to what may or may not be real, is the joy and duty of an adult Christian; each one of us will need truth and reality to come together, to touch at different coordinates (and probably this will depend on our temperaments, and on what day of the week it is!). But no preacher can serve up faith for you on a platter. Whether a star fell from heaven, a resplendent rush of robe and wing, and bowed in full feathery spread, prostrate before this girl-child, or whether it happened rather less theatrically, or not at all – I dare not say. You, in your praying and pondering, must discern for yourself.
What I will say is that I come to this story as an adult – counting chromosomes and struggling to square the biology and stuck on what really happened. And I come as a child – hoping, wishing with all I am, that Heaven kissed her; my heart would break were that not true. I come to this story as adult and as child: fearing what will become of me if it all proves never to have happened, but fearing more what will become of me if indeed it did, if indeed it did happen, if it happened that Mary was visited by the Holy One. I am sore afraid, for I know now what angels say: Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you! And so if one were to appear to me – because they do that, they really do that? – and say, Hi there; God likes you, I would wither in unbelief and protest. I don’t feel favored. I feel small and soft. And it’s open, it’s still open, whatever wound my soul suffered who-knows-when is still open, and still seeping out self-recriminations and bile, and even though I know I am not, even though I know I am not, Angel, oh, but I AM ugly and alone and not good enough and… if they only knew, they wouldn’t love me. God wouldn’t love ME. I don’t feel favored.
And when the angel sees me, shaken – and all that had been said was Greetings! Hello! Favored one! Beloved! – he will whisper, Do not be afraid, Anthony, and will repeat those first words: You HAVE found favor with God. But I will be afraid anyway, be sore afraid, for I know there is something more frightening still than God’s favor, than God’s love: what God’s love will do to me, how it will have its home in me, how, as it made Mary hot, made Mary hungry, made Mary ill, made Mary bleed, swelling, rending her soul, swelling, rending her skin, so too will God’s love hurt me. God’s favor, God’s love asks itself into Mary and into me, and into you and will not spare what is sick in you, nor what is wretched in you. God’s love will touch shame and self-hatred and sadness, will touch where it is most tender, will rest on open wounds. And you will wince. Surely she did.
If, with the stupendous bravery of a child who knows no better, or the desperation of an adult to whom the days have been unkind, if you can endure the Holy Spirit’s coming upon you, enflaming every soreness, if you can bear the burning, not flinching back, if, though reeling, you share of Mary’s spiritual resilience, this I know to be true: as with the girl, your pain will be your glory. What is true – that God’s love bids us to make sacrifices of ourselves, and that, as we do so, something unfathomably beautiful, and better may be born – what is true of this Bible story you know by heart, must, if it would be real, become real in you; this Bible story must become your story. May it be for you as it was for Mary, cherished by God, changed by God. May it be so. Amen.