“Pour thy grace into our hearts”: Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Source: Prayer Book Society of Canada Facebook page. Available here.

(Luke 1:26-38)

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your Word.”

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

When I say the word “love,” what comes to mind? Cozy romantic feelings? A bad tennis score? Hard-won bonds of marriage, family and friendship? Talking about love in Church is difficult, partly because of the many different meanings the word has gained in our culture. And a lot of those meanings centre on desire, especially sexual desire and those cozy romantic feelings that Hollywood likes to cram into as many stories as it can, just to sell tickets, Netflix subscriptions, Blu-rays and merchandise.

But I think love is difficult to talk about for a more important reason, namely that it is so all-encompassing in the Christian story, from the very beginning to the very end. We really do believe that relationship, commitment and enduring presence with another is central to who God is. We really do believe that this “outward movement” to and with another is the place we need to start. And so, as startling as it may sound, we really do believe that the love of God created the universe. That when the Spirit of God overshadowed the chaos of nothingness, and the Word of God commanded, literally, “let light be,” the Triune God began to create an existence outside of Himself with which He could relate, to which He could give Himself, with which He could endure.

And the pinnacle of the Creation accounts in Genesis was when God declared, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” God made a creature that could respond back with reason, with a free will: people who could receive His love, return that love back, and share that love with others. We could be with Him, and He could be with—tabernacle with—all of us. Now with Gabriel’s visit to Our Lady that we celebrate today, love’s work of creation is complete. The great work of love—our Divine starting point—reaches its climax in the perfect union of creator and creature. That same Word that declared, “let light be,” now declares, “I have become flesh,” become one with the humanity that I created.

Just as the creation of heaven and earth was something God began on His own, the Annunciation to Mary and the Conception of Christ “is not a response to [Mary’s] yearning but a surprise initiative by God that neither Mary nor Joseph could have anticipated.”[1] But it is something to which Mary needs to respond. Because the birth of Christ is not something God does to Mary or for her: it’s something God does with her. Gabriel greets her as “highly favoured,” or “full of grace.” The angel promises that the Blessed Virgin will give conceive and give birth to the Son of David. But more than that, he declares to her that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” just as it overshadowed the waters at creation. “Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Mary is being invited to devote herself, commit herself, to God’s work of healing, of completing or making whole, the creature that He “fashioned from clay,” of new creation and new birth.

And her response to this invitation tells us that Gabriel’s greeting was true: that she is indeed “full of grace,” prepared beforehand to respond to this invitation with her whole self. In her words, words that opened humanity to eternal life: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Please “let it be with me according to your Word.” She knows what John the Evangelist knew, when he told us that “in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” To the very Word that declared, “let light be, let life be, let us make humankind in our own image,” she responds, “let it [now] be with me according to your word.

Luke presents Mary’s obedience as a fairly straightforward response, a commitment about as immediate as the disciples’ choice to join in Jesus’ ministry. For some people, the ease and immediacy of her Yes to God seems like a lofty and unattainable ideal for us to follow. That’s may be true to a point: she is “full of grace,” her preparation and ability to respond is total, from the moment of her conception until she is received before the throne of her Son. Very early on, Christians began to think of Mary as being as special as the Ark of the Covenant, or the Tabernacle and Temple itself, as places prepared by God to receive His presence, and then placed devoted to bearing His presence. It’s probably more accurate to say that they began to think of the Ark and the Temple as being like Mary and her womb, as the location where God came to dwell among, redeem and perfect His people. So yes, her preparation was total, her devotion to God was total, and as Christ is the fullness of God’s saving presence, Christ’s mother as the location of that presence has a special role in salvation.

This full, loving commitment to God reminds me of a surprising but profound statement by Augustine in his Confessions. Addressing God, he proclaims, “he [or she] loves You too little who loves anything with You, which he loves not for You.”[2] I’ll try to word it more straightforwardly: if we love someone or something alongside loving God, but we don’t love that person or thing primarily as part of our love for God, then our love for God is diminished. And I don’t think our friend Augustine would mind if I added a further claim, that our love for that person or thing is also diminished when we love them for themselves first and not for God. He has made us for Himself, and we are restless, incomplete, until we find our rest in Him. Christians gather in church and in society because we are truly ourselves, and truly love others, if we truly love and worship God.

But what about when we don’t truly love God or our neighbour? Again, the totality and immediacy of Mary’s response seems lofty and unattainable, in part because we’re so intimately familiar with the restless reality of sin in our own lives. Sin separates us from God’s perfect will, keeps us from committing to God as we have been created to do: in short, it keeps us from really being ourselves as God made us. And so our delays and fears do distinguish us from Mary’s immediate response of love. But her response isn’t meant to simply show us what we’re “expected to accomplish,” as if God’s call to us comes from some stern and uncaring taskmaster. The Incarnation of Christ is all about God’s intimate closeness to us and with us, the initiative of God’s first movement toward us. Mary’s response shows us what it looks like to be opened up by this creating and perfecting love, freed by God’s intimate closeness in and through us to truly be ourselves. “Pour thy grace into our hearts…”

You see, the Good News—that is, the very Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ—is that we have been prepared to love God in this way. We were all created to be the creatures whom God loves and who will love God in return. And when Christ took on our flesh in the Virgin’s womb, took on our humanity to dwell and abide with us, then that very flesh that He “wonderfully created,” He “more wonderfully restored.” Her special role in salvation is to be the way that Jesus shares in our humanity. God becomes part of Mary’s loving family as her son, so that Mary’s family—all of humanity—can become the loving family of God as we were all intended to be from the beginning.

And this leads me to my final point: we’re tempted to think or feel that Mary’s love for God, and our love for God, will destroy our own hopes and desires. Some people fear that if they commit to serving God and submit to His service, then they aren’t allowed to hope, aren’t allowed to like things or even have common human desires. That isn’t what Augustine is saying, and that certainly isn’t what we see in Mary’s response. Mary’s “yes” to God, her love for God, is nothing less than a confirmation of who she truly is as the creature created to love God (“I am the servant of the Lord: let it be with me”). And Augustine’s point isn’t that we can’t love people or things: it’s precisely that God wants to take our natural love and desire for things, purify them and lift them up into our love for Him. And so I can add that we love other people more fully when it’s part of our loving service of God, because we’re loving them more fully as ourselves. And it’s what Christ means when He says, “Truly I tell you, just as you [served and cared for] one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The Christian life is not something God does to us, but someone God is with us. Our most deeply-held desires, hopes and dreams—things that reside at the core of ourselves—are therefore the most important ways that our loving God empowers us to serve Him as we serve, care for, pursue, suffer with and be present with others, as we work to build up His Body the Church, and seek the welfare of the human family and of creation as a whole. Because if He created us, then our deepest hopes and desires come from Him in the first place. Sin, again, is a denial of that source, and it’s the presumption that we can act on our desires and our fears, to the detriment of our relationships with God and other people. But when we submit to His service, when we let Him cleanse those desires and hopes, His Spirit overshadows us and brings them to life.

Creating Word of God, you have made us for yourself. Save the creature that you fashioned from clay.

(An earlier version of this reflection was delivered at Evensong at St. Paul’s, L’Amoreaux on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017.)

[1] Raymond E. Brown, A Coming Christ in Advent (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 1988), 62.

[2] Confessions X. 29.

Published by Matthew Neugebauer

MA in Theology, Anglican, Star Wars #Prequelist, Toronto FC Supporter

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