Luke 1: 26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.” 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
One of my father’s earliest childhood memories can be precisely dated to May 10, 1940, when the German Army launched its invasion of Holland, Belgium and France, early in the Second World War. My father was just 4 years old then. The Swora’ s and various many relatives were living in a largely East-European immigrant community of Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, and Hungarians in the town of Eisden, Belgium, in the extreme northeast corner of the country, near the border with Holland and Germany. Work in the coal mines of that region had drawn them there.
When my father, also named Matthew, heard the booming of artillery, of houses and other things exploding, and the loud, fiery bursts of anti-aircraft fire in the sky, he ran out into the street, jumping and twirling for joy, shouting, “Fireworks! Fireworks!” He thought it was a holiday. Just as debris and razor sharp, red hot pieces of shrapnel began flying and falling around him, my grandmother, Helena, the one who bought me my fiddle, ran out into the street to grab my father by the hand, and dragged him back indoors, kicking and screaming.
“Aw, Mom, do you always have to spoil my fun?” I’m sure he thought.
Once indoors, she pushed my father up against an inside wall and stood behind him, leaning against him, hard enough to keep him from getting loose and running back outside. That was also to protect him against any shrapnel or bullets that might fly inside the house. She was willing to take them, rather than her son.
Unlike my father, Grandma Helena knew war. She was only a few years older than her son was when World War I brought Russian and Austro-Hungarian troops to fight over her Carpathian mountain homeland in what is now Slovakia. My father began to understand war when he found a piece of shrapnel that was so sharp that just picking it up cut the skin of his fingers.
Sometimes I wonder, what if Grandma Helena had not had the love and the courage to brave the flying and falling shrapnel and debris in the street to drag my father back inside the house? Would my father and his ten biological descendants of three generations, myself included, even exist?
Without his mother, would Randy Travis, the Country/Western singer exist? This is what he sang about his mother in his song, When Mama Prayed:
Seventeen and wild I hit the bottle
Doing anything I dang well please
Burning down life’s highway at full throttle
While mama burned a candle on her knees
Then one night I came home half sober
I saw mama kneeling in the den
As I listened she and Jesus talked it over
And I knew my restless days were ’bout to end.
When mama prayed, good things happen
When mama prayed, lives were changed
Not much more than five foot tall
But mountains big and small crumbled all away When mama prayed
It isn’t like every one of them got answered
But the times they weren’t it seems to me were rare
You almost felt sorry for the devil
‘Cause heaven knows he didn’t have a prayer
When mama prayed
Likewise, would we be here, worshiping God today, without the love and courage of a mother in our family of faith, and her equally loving and courageous prayer of Yes to God? Would we have the hope of eternal life, the assurance of salvation, the comfort, communion and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, if Mary had not said to the angel Gabriel, “Behold the Lord’s handmaid; may it be to me according to your word?”
For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, God does his work in the world with the participation of our prayers. I don’t think God needs our prayers in order to exercise his power and accomplish his purposes. And yet there’s a river of prayer running through the Bible that tells us what God’s people have prayed for at every critical juncture of God’s work in history, how important those prayers were, and how we might pray with them. Come the Advent and Christmas seasons, the Bible passages we hear and read often feature prayers of our fathers and mothers of the faith: fathers like Zachariah, father to John the Baptist, and Simeon, the prophet who prayed over the baby Jesus in the temple; mothers too, like Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, Anna, the woman prophet in the Temple, and, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus.
What if instead Mary had said to the angel Gabriel, “You talkin’ to me? Who do you think I am? I am not worthy of this! A part in God’s plan to redeem the world? Not my circus; not my monkeys. Talk to the hand!” If so, would God have had a Plan B for bringing the Savior of the world into the world? Answering that question is above my paygrade.
It took courage because Mary was talking to an angel, not a cute and chubby cherub like what we see on Hallmark cards, but a celestial being of light and spirit, awesome and terrifying for the pure breath of uncompromised holiness that accompanies him from the throne room of heaven. It also took courage because there would be no hiding Mary’s premarital pregnancy from her fiancé, from her family, her community and her synagogue. How is she going to explain that? Some may wish to take upon themselves the prerogative from the law of Moses, to stone her to death. The angel said nothing about how that was going to work out, nor how she should deal with that.
In our culture’s militaristic mindset, we usually associate courage with war and victory over an adversary or adversity. Mary did indeed display tremendous courage, but only through victory over herself and her fears. In effect she triumphed through surrender: surrender to the call of God. Surrender of whatever hopes she had for her life with Joseph, her betrothed. Surrender of certainty and security over her fate and her future.
I see courage like that in so many stages of life, on the part of so many people who will never make the news headlines nor get a Presidential Medal of Freedom, nor a Congressional Medal of Honor. Mothers who go through with a pregnancy without the support of a husband or father; or parents who carry a child diagnosed with genetic challenges to term and raise him or her. People coming to terms with a dreaded diagnosis of a chronic or terminal disease. Parents of children making choices and persisting in behavior that makes a trial of their own lives as well as those of their family, and the parents and siblings continue loving them. Or when a moral stand is met with caustic and costly blowback, like real estate agents not that long ago who got fired for showing black clients the same homes in the same neighborhoods as those they showed to white clients, and who then were blacklisted by other real estate companies, sometimes even getting their licenses revoked by their states. If they didn’t want to move somewhere where such redlining and block-busting were illegal, then they had to accept lower-paying jobs with longer commutes. As certain neighborhoods thus became more segregated and ghetto-ized, they were also neglected and exploited. Now you know what happened to much of Detroit, Michigan.
All of those examples exhibit the kind of courage that Mary showed, not in triumph and victory over other people, not in contest and conquest over others, but in surrender: the surrender of security, certainty and status; the surrender of oneself to God and to God’s inscrutable will and work. That’s why I call Mary’s prayer a prayer for all seasons; for all the seasons of our lives.
But there’s another thing I want us to know about Mary’s Yes to God. It didn’t come out of the blue. Mary’s Yes to God was made possible by God’s Yes to her. She could not have said Yes to God if God had not effectively said, through the angel Gabriel: Yes, I see the motherhood of my Son in you. Yes, I see in you the Christ-bearer. Yes, I see in you the faith, hope and love to see this through, even when you don’t understand the half of what is going on. Why would I not see such things, if I had not cultivated them in you, yes, beginning with your birth, and your childhood, and your growing up as a devout and devoted daughter of Israel, of a family and a community that nurtured you in the hope and the holiness of the Law and the Prophets, praying the prayers of your mothers like Hanna, mother of the prophet Samuel, or of King David, your grandfather many times back. Those are some of the ways in which you are, as the angel said, “highly favored.” Highly favored not only by who you are and what you have done, but highly favored by what I have done for you, in what I have encouraged and cultivated you to be and become. Those are some of the ways in which I have highly favored you.”
God says the same Yes, for the same reasons, to each and every one of us here.
Mary’s prayer of Yes, to God is possible because of God’s Yes to her. And so the theologian, Karl Barth, described Christian faith as: “The courage to accept that we are accepted.” Let’s paraphrase that to say that Christian faith is the courage to say Yes to the God who says Yes to us, and who says Yes, about us. Whoever we are. If we can do that, if, in any seasons of our lives, we might pray, “Behold the Lord’s servant; may it be to me according to your Word,” well, don’t be surprised. It runs in the family. We got that from our parents in the faith, including our mothers, like Mary.