Introduction: Let it be with me according to your word
Written By Ryan Turnbull
We’re almost there. Here on this 4th week of Advent we stand on the very precipice of the changing seasons, from fall to winter, Advent to Christmas, 2020 to 2021. On Wednesday we watched as Manitoba front-line workers received the first dose of the new Covid-19 vaccine and felt, for perhaps the first time since March, that there just might be an end to this time of pandemic after all. The time we are in is pregnant with anticipation, so it is fitting that our gospel reading today should rest on the story of Mary and the pregnancy that would forever change the world.
At the beginning of Advent, I pointed us to our end, to death, and here at the end, I point to our beginning. We stand with our neighbours, with our city, with Mary, with all Israel; here at the end on the precipice of life. But we stand on this precipice with a good deal of uncertainty yet ahead. The angel Gabriel’s words to Mary rush to meet us on this precipice, “Do not be afraid!” For there is surely much to fear or be anxious about in the time ahead, indeed, the transition from endings to new beginnings is always marked with ambiguity and confusion. Mary’s response to Gabriel’s annunciation of her pregnancy gives voice to this confusion with her question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Gabriel’s answer is mystifying yet strangely comforting, “nothing will be impossible with God” and “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Is this an explanation or merely an acknowledgment that what is taking place defies explanation? Regardless, Mary responds with a simple, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
It would be a mistake, I think, to hear Mary’s quiet response as mere resignation to forces of fate. Mary is not a stock example of “good” female docility under the patriarchy. Mary’s response is the response of the prophets and leaders of Israel. In Mary’s “Here am I” we hear the faithful response of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Mary’s “Here am I” is the tentative response of Moses before the burning bush, of young Samuel in the night, of the great literary prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, responding to the Word of the Lord. In short, Mary’s response is the faithful summing up of all the faithful responses by the Children of Israel to God’s gracious call.
Mary’s response comes at the precipice between the end and the beginning of history. She is the inheritor of all the faithfulness and failure of Israel, but in her, the power of the Most High has come. The question, long ago put to King David “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” is answered in Mary’s “Here am I” as indeed it was promised by the Lord so long ago, “I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place and be disturbed no more.” That place is here, now, in the wombed child, and Mary is here, saying, “Let it be with me according to your will.”
We have followed Israel, this autumn season, from the Mount of Sinai at the giving of the Law, into the land of Israel before Joshua’s armies, and on down through the history until now, here, at a time when Israel, while in the Land of Promise, is once more dominated by foreign powers and the prophets that once led and gave hope to Yahweh’s people have long fallen silent. But here, at a time nobody could have predicted, through the narrow gate of a virgin’s womb, the Messiah is entering history.
We’ve been warned through the voice of the prophets this Adventide that the coming of Messiah would entail a reckoning. The mountains will be brought low, the valleys filled, the paths made straight. It should be no surprise, then, that Mary gives voice to the prophetic tradition in which she stands, breaking forth in the song we have come to call the Magnificat:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Mary sings because the Almighty has remembered the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever. The Lord who could not be contained in a house of cedar has indwelt the virgin’s womb, taking on our flesh, our blood, our frailties, failures and follies, and in so doing, has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
It is the tradition of the Church to sing Mary’s song, the song we call the Magnificat every evening as part of the service of Evening Prayer. But in these last days of Advent, this time on the precipice between endings and beginnings, it has been the custom of the church to add to Mary’s song all the reverberations of her faithful declaration “Here am I”. For in these last days of Advent, the church rehearses yet again the many names by which God has revealed himself to the long list of Israelites who also responded, “Here am I.” In this final week of Advent we pray the ancient O Antiphons, each one drawn from the history of Israel, each one a window onto that moment at the end of history when Messiah might come.
O Sapientia, we pray, the “Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.”
We call out, O Adonai, that Lord “and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.”
O Radix, thou “Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.”
O Clavis, that great “Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”
O Oriens, that eastern Morning Star of old, “splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”
O Rex Gentium, you “King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.”
O Emmanuel, God with us, “our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.”
Conclusion: Ero Cras
So “Here am I” and here we all are at the end of Advent, pregnant with anticipation for a Christmas that we are still unsure of whether and how it will arrive. Yet arrive it will, for as our Holy Mother sang, God keeps his promises to Abraham and to all of Abraham’s children. And it is through one of Abraham’s children, that child that swells the belly of the blessed Virgin, that we Gentile Christians come to be grafted-in children of Abraham as well and heirs of the promise. As we pray the O Antiphons in these last days before the Nativity, we discover that there is a place for us that has been established forever. For the God who would not deign to dwell in houses of cedar, preferring instead a tent made of skins, has taken on our skin and is Emmanuel, God with us. God is with us here, here we are, standing at the precipice between endings and beginnings, but as we declare our hereness, our place here, we rehearse again the many names of the God who wills to be with us here. And in that great rehearsal of names, we find a promise, for the names, taken in their Latin form, create an acrostic poem, and as the great mystic monks of old discovered, this poem contains for us one last message of hope, Ero Cras, tomorrow, I come.