The archangel had had a busy season. Nothing is heard of him for the greater part of the Bible, but now within six months he has visited Zechariah in the temple to announce the advent of John, who would become the baptizer; and now he is in Galilee, telling Mary that she, a young woman without the experience of a man, will bear a child, Jesus.
For Zechariah and Elizabeth, the announcement was the end of years, of decades of waiting. Elizabeth said, “Now the Lord has taken my shame from me.” And yet for Mary, the thing itself was shameful, or would be if anyone but God suggested it.
Zechariah must have prayed every time he entered the temple for his shift, to find favour with God, finally to complete his family; in those days, the choice to remain childless was not even dreamt of. Joseph, on the other hand, faced with the prospect of Mary’s pregnancy, would be hard pushed to find it as a sign of God’s favour. Gabriel ran one more mission there, to visit him in a dream, tying up loose ends.
This annunciation, then, was not the answer to a plea or persistent prayer, but the definitive and independent divine action of a God who was ready to act in love, and who was looking for a willing partner.
And she didn’t fall out laughing, like Sarah. She didn’t burst out singing, like Hannah, at least not right away. She didn’t say, “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on!” like poor dumb Zechariah, or hide herself away like Elizabeth. Instead, perplexed, she pondered the angel’s words, wondering what sort of a greeting this might be.
When we think about prayer, we often think in terms of our own words, our own desires, even if they are on behalf of another; we ask God for guidance, for help, for mercy; we seek reassurance, a response, a reply, even if it is no. We want, we wish, we pray.
How often do we stop to wonder what it is that God is actively seeking to do, out of the love of God, and seeking partners to accomplish, looking for the one who will stop to ponder the will of God, to wonder how they can bear God’s will into being?
We often talk about Advent as a season of waiting: how attentive are we, really, to waiting on the will of God, waiting for the annunciation, the announcement of the new thing that God wants to do, is waiting to do, if only we will allow ourselves to fall in with God’s love?
There’s a poem, “Annunciation” by Edwin Muir, that describes the meeting of the angel and Mary as a pause in the dischronicity between heaven and earth. It reads in part:
The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space
The eternal spirits in freedom go.
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time…
Chapters into Verse : Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible Volume II: Gospels to Revelation, assembled and edited by Robert Atwan Professor of English Seton Hall University, Laurance Wieder Poet and Instructor Dowling College (Oxford University Press, 1993)
Earth was the only meeting place, our mortal lives the only space into which God can speak and reach us, because we have not yet learnt to reach beyond the stars to the place where the archangels dwell. Only here can we wait, and listen, and reflect on the face of God borne to us by messengers of grace.
Only here can we wait and expect to meet God, incarnate, made and born of flesh and blood, one of us, Jesus, born of Mary, who didn’t fall out laughing or singing, or send the angel away with a flea in his ear, or hide herself away as though she were ashamed of the blessings God bestowed on her. We could learn a lot from Mary. Not that there’s anything wrong with song, or with laughter.
But the ability to sit, perplexed, to sit with the mystery of a sunlit afternoon broken open by an angel, a messenger of God, a plea for partnership with the Creator of all that is and will be, to do a new thing. The ability to ponder, and wonder, and wait.
Edwin Muir’s poem ends,
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way
That was ordained in eternity.
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.
It is not too late, this Advent, this season; it is not too late to take some time to stare into eternity, to ponder what God might want to bring into being, if only we will agree to partner willingly, “Let it be to me,” as Mary said.
It is not too late to take some time to pray not for ourselves, but for God. If that seems odd, then consider that relationship is a two-way street, and if we claim our prayer as a conversation with a living and loving God, then the words and the wishes and the will cannot all be ours. We must leave something for our prayer partner to add, to tell us, to ask of us.
It is a challenge, in the dying days of Advent, to find the time to stare into eternity, but it is only on this earth and in this life that eternity can find us, waiting, because we have not yet found the way beyond the stars. Our time there will come; but what will we do in the meantime?
I wonder what words of grace each of us might hear, if we took a moment this afternoon, or tomorrow, to wait, be still, to stare into eternity. Would we hear the God who loves us send an angel to say,
“Hail, beloved, full of grace. God is with you.”