ISAIAH'S PROPHECY OF LAST SUNDAY RINGS OUT AGAIN TODAY: "the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." But we are farther along on our Advent journey, drawing closer to the true meaning of Isaiah's words. We hear them fulfilled in today's Gospel, the Annunciation of the good news to Mary. Surely the story sounded less than good to Mary's ears, and even frightening. Who is she, a peasant girl, that an angel of God should appear before her? Who is she, to bear the Savior God promised to Israel? Why should this great blessing, and burden, come into her humble life? Unlike Zechariah, however, Mary believes. For her question to the angel is not, "How will I know?" but, "How can this be?" She has already accepted the truth of what the angel tells her.
But Mary still has to assent to it, to answer "Yes." And on that our salvation hinges. Will the door open, or remain locked? Will we be subject to evil and death forever, or be led out into freedom? The answer depends on Mary, and it depends on us. As Denise Levertov writes in her poem "Annunciation,"
Aren't there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
The questions God asks us are always questions of being, rather than of knowing. And simply recognizing those moments, stopping for a moment because something, or someone, wants our attention, can matter. Chances are, we will not see or hear an angel—and if we do, beware; remember the desert monk who defeated a demon that appeared before him as an angel of light, by saying, "I haven't done anything to deserve an angel!" But it will be clear that we are being asked to say either "Yes" or "No," to embrace or ignore what God has set before us.
Like the ancient Israelites in the desert, we can long for the security of the world we knew in Egypt. Slaves, after all, have the security of knowing their place in the world. Or, like Mary, we can say "Yes" to the new, uncertain reality that promises true freedom. Saying "Yes" to God will always mean more than we can possibly imagine, both for us, and for others. Walls and stumbling blocks that seemed impassable crumble suddenly, as we let our fears go. Like Mary, we have no way of knowing any of this. We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.
O Key of David, O royal power of Israel,
controlling at your will the gate of heaven:
Come, break down the prison walls of death
for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and lead your captive people into freedom.