In one sense all of us are meant to be like Mary, and this is especially true at this time of the year. But you might have thought that our Gospel today would have told us something of the journey to Bethlehem, a long 60 miles on the road that any heavily pregnant woman would find difficult, or the arrival in the little town to find it full to bursting with visitors, and so no room at the Inn and only a stable to rest in. But, actually, much of that story is not in the Bible at all, because for the writers of the Gospel what is much more important is how Mary came to be expecting this baby in the first place, which is why that is the story in our Gospel today (Luke 1:26-38)
The first thing to notice is that when God calls us he is already with us. We think of God as a power outside us, and so he is, but he is also already within us. So the angel greets Mary, and instantly reminds her of this truth “The Lord is with you.” And being told this we, like Mary, ought to be “deeply disturbed”. Why? Because, even we practising Catholic Christians prefer to think of God as at a distance from us. We want God with us on our terms. A power we can turn to for help and encouragement- Yes. A power we can thank and praise for the many good things in life – Yes. But we don’t really like the idea of a power that is within us, disturbing and challenging us, when we would prefer to be doing our own thing.
Those of you who are women who have borne children have the advantage of understanding Mary better at this point than the rest of us; and of course, those of us who are men will never know the physical disturbance that is part of this story – to conceive and bear a child. But we do know how disturbing this is from observation, and those who have been, or are, fathers with very young children, know how it transforms and takes over life once the child is born. As one pair of young parents said to me recently, “We are learning what sacrificial love really means, especially in the middle of the night!”
The point however is, that whatever our physical experiences are or have been, spiritually we are called upon to live our life like the pregnant Mary, bearing God within our very being, however disturbing that may be, and being prepared not to keep God to ourselves, but to share him with the world. And this is even more true for the Church as a whole, and not just for us individual Christians within it. The Church, in one sense, is called to be Mary to the world. That is why we often speak of the Church as her, as our Mother the Church, because she, the Church, is called to hold within her the presence of God, to realise the mystery of this calling, to ponder in her heart what this means, and to offer to the world what we have been given, however hard and painful that may be.
Notice that this includes asking God difficult questions. Mary says “But how can this come about?” The idea that we should accept God’s will without question is not here in this story. That is perhaps an invention by some people who sought unquestioning obedience. Mary’s example is quite different, for after being disturbed, she responds with a tough question, and we should surely be prepared to do the same. Think of little children once they learn to talk. It is delightful, if a bit infuriating, that they ask endless questions. God made us that way, and we should never be ashamed of continuing to ask them, even questions to which we know there is no complete answer.
Mary’s question is like that. God does not explain how this is going to happen within her. All he does is tell her of what is already happening in her cousin Elizabeth. The Jesus who is already a tiny embryo within her is, as St Paul says in our 2nd Reading (Romans 16:25-27) “a mystery kept secret for endless ages”. For however much science can and does explain the process by which new life is created, it is still in another sense a mystery. A young and fairly sceptical father once said to me after witnessing the birth of his first child. “After seeing that miracle take place, I just had to believe in God.”
Yes, we think, especially when we are young and strong, that we have our life in our hands. Discovering that life is not like that, is an endless journey. We believers say that this is a journey into God – a journey in which we learn that we are called, like Mary, to a great responsibility, to give birth to God, to co-operate in God’s work of creation and re-creation for the good of all humankind. I would like to end therefore by reading to you a little of St Anselm’s great meditation on Mary
“To Mary, God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God, who made all things, gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He, who could create all things from nothing, would not remake his ruined creation without Mary. God, then, is the Father of the created world, and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Saviour of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.
Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance.”
We are called as individuals, and as a Church, to be like her. And Mary said “Let it be for me according to your word.”