Wandering around St Augustine’s last Sunday morning before the service, I noticed the place where the Catholic community leave their votive candles burning after their 9 am Mass. I’m sure there is a special Catholic word for it, but I’m afraid I’m ignorant of these technicalities.
In front of the candles is a kneeler and small rail. On the rail are some cards containing the texts of prayers. Prominent among them was a prayer to Mary written by the current Pope. Of course as I read it I realised it was not addressing Mary in prayer in the way you would God. It was asking Mary’s help in approaching God, and in the ways of discipleship.
Nevertheless, my Protestant bones got nervous! And maybe a number of us still do at the mention of Mary, despite warmer relations with Christians of other traditions.
Yet whatever reservations I want to enter about traditional Catholic attitudes to Mary, it’s entirely wrong just to be negative about her, which is the Protestant error regarding her. Mary is a great example of Christian discipleship herself. Remember she was at the Cross and among the disciples praying in the lead-up to Pentecost.
And she is an example of Christian discipleship here, too, in the famous story of the Annunciation. How so? In ways that are fundamental to all followers of Jesus. Her life – even here, at the tender age of about thirteen – is a testimony to Christian basics.
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women,’ say our Catholic friends. They are quoting this very passage. To quote it from the reading, Gabriel says:
‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ (‘Blessèd are you among women’ is not in the best manuscripts.) (Verse 28)
The difference I have with Catholics is that Mary is not the giver of grace but the recipient of grace. ‘Full of grace’ means she is the ‘favoured one’. God has favoured her. There is no indication of any reason why she has deserved this. Rather, this is the sovereign choice of God in deciding to favour one of his children. There is no requirement that Mary is sinless, it is about the sovereign grace of God.
But what kind of favour is it? God has chosen her to bring his Son into the world. In one respect, that is the most enormous honour. It is an incredible decision of favour towards Mary. What could be more wonderful than to carry the presence of God in her womb for nine months? What could be more incredible than to be the one who brings God in the flesh into the midst of humanity?
So you could say that we have a similar privilege. God’s favour towards us is that – while we do not carry Jesus physically as Mary did – we carry his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and we have the missionary privilege of bearing his love into a broken world. God honours us, too, then: he makes us what Paul calls ‘ambassadors’, but not only in representing Christ to the world. We take Christ to the world. God chooses every follower of his Son do this. It shows his favour towards us.
But it is a favour in the form of a double-edged sword. For Mary to accept the call was to risk scandal or even worse. In a society that held strongly to its morals, pregnancy outside marriage would bring shame. Adultery, of course, was punishable by stoning. It was potentially costly in the extreme for Mary to embrace the favour of God. She did so, taking a huge risk. Certainly there is ancient evidence of stories being put around that Jesus was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier. Receiving and accepting the favour of God meant she could be reviled and despised.
And the favour of God is a challenge for us, too. Yes, it is a privilege to bear witness to Christ in the world, but we know that sometimes comes at a price. Snide comments, ridicule and on other occasions worse things than that. Yet the early church considered such opposition their badge of honour. Mary’s willingness to take on all that the favour of God would mean for her is an Advent reminder to us that the favour of God in Christ carries a price that is worth paying.
One of the things I most like about Mary is that she asks questions. ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ she asks (verse 34). I’ll say something more about her questions in the final point, but for now let’s notice the angel’s reply:
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ (Verses 35-37)
Mary, you don’t have to abandon your morals to accomplish this. You don’t have to worry about doing the impossible. The impossible is God’s department, says Gabriel. Mary, you cannot fulfil your calling under God except by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And this too becomes an important reminder for us about the nature of Christian discipleship. There is so much we do and maintain in the church and in the world purely on the basis of our own strength. Our criteria are whether we think we can do something, rather than asking what God has called us to do, and then depending on the Holy Spirit.
It’s the latter which is true discipleship, not the former. We are the agents of God’s impossible ministry, and it is accomplished not on the basis of our abilities (however important it is to dedicate them to God). Nor is it achieved by force of strong personalities. God’s work is achieved by our co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
So when Gabriel tells Mary, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’, he doesn’t just tell her the mechanics of what is to happen in the near future: he foreshadows the way in which God will send the Holy Spirit on all the followers of Christ.
A wag once said that if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church, then ninety five per cent of all church activity would continue just the same. That may be a trifle unfair, but the point is probably a sound one. We have got so used to running the institution of the church that somewhere along the line many of us have just assumed the presence of the Holy Spirit, rather than lived in active dependence upon him [her?].
So let’s not confine the Holy Spirit to an annual remembrance on the Day of Pentecost. Advent is a time for remembering that the work of the Holy Spirit is three hundred and sixty five days a year, twenty four hours a day. As we celebrate the Annunciation to Mary today, will we recommit ourselves to seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to do the will of God, rather than confining God to the limits of our abilities?
Yes, today is a day to say, ‘God, we give you permission to stretch us. Challenge us to something beyond our capabilities, and we shall rely on your Spirit to accomplish your work.’
Now here’s the point where I want to bring back the fact that Mary asks questions. That might not be what you expected me to highlight when talking about her faith. You might have thought I would have gravitated to those wonderful words of hers, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (verse 38). Certainly those are words of faith. Taken on their own, they might depict a serenity of faith to which many of us aspire.
And in contrast to that, some might think that when she questions the angel, saying, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ (verse 34), that those words reflect doubt, lack of faith, or even unbelief.
But I submit to you that Mary’s question is not an act of doubt or unbelief. If you had read Luke’s Gospel from the beginning, you would have come across an example of that, where Zechariah hears the angelic announcement that his wife Elizabeth is to bear a son, John the Baptist. Zechariah’s unbelief leads to his being struck dumb until the child is born.
Gabriel doesn’t react that way here. He gives an explanation in response to Mary’s question. I suggest the difference is because Mary feels secure enough to ask questions from within the framework of faith. Having faith need not mean we don’t have questions. The Old Testament is full of such faith. Read the Psalms, where so many of the Psalmists complain to God from a standpoint of faith. Mary isn’t even complaining, she’s just asking ‘how?’.
What’s the difference between faith with questions and unbelief? That’s in Mary’s willingness to obey. You can question but still obey, and that’s what Mary does.
One hymn I hate and will not choose (not that it’s in any Methodist books any more) is ‘I vow to thee my country‘. I take particular exception to the line, ‘The love that asks no question.’ Not only does the hymn require a devotion to country that outstrips our loyalty to God (whatever the final verse says), I’m not sure I even offer God a ‘love that asks no question’. Certainly Mary didn’t. And there’s no reason why we should, either, just so long as we are willing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
When I began my career in the Civil Service, I had to spend four weeks away on a training course. I shared accommodation with someone who had a Philosophy degree, and whose dissertation had been written on the subject, ‘Logical disproofs of the existence of God’. Knowing I was a Christian, he asked why I believed in God. But at the end, he made it clear he had no intention of taking it seriously and only did it for a joke. His questions were those of unbelief, not of faith.
Similarly, there are some within the church whose questions can be little more than scorn, rather than honest exploration in the service of Christ. That is hardly a questioning faith.
The key point is that faith has legs. Questions and concerns are fine, just so long as we retain a basic commitment to say ‘yes’ to Christ. Because that’s what a disciple is. Someone who imitates him. That’s going to require a faith that isn’t merely theoretical, but shows itself to be real in obedience. Provided that is at the heart of our faith, we can ask all the questions we need. God is not threatened by them.
Mary, then, is not some unattainable, semi-divine figure. She is a human, vulnerable follower of her Lord. As such, she can be an inspiration to us as we seek to walk in the way of faith.
Like her, let us accept the gracious favour of God to share Christ with the world, and accept the cost we may have to pay.
Like her, let us depend on the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of all that God wants to do in and through us, rather than continuing to go through the motions.
And like her, let us bring our questions to God and yet press on in the obedience of faith.
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Verse 38)