Today is the feast of the Annunciation. The Gospel for the Eucharist is the familiar and beautiful narrative of the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary and offering her to be the Theotokos, God Bearer, although she hardly could have wrapped her head around that at the time. I would suspect she hardly heard half of what the Angel said. How much do we remember of our wedding or graduation or any life changing moment? She was probably in shock. What she did hear was that God wanted her to bear a child. She was probably no more than 14 at best, a virgin, and betrothed to a man she either didn’t know or some older kinsman, and she hadn’t had much to say about that either. What she did hear is that it was God’s will. Yahweh, El, Adonai, Shaddai. How often had she even been in the synagogue, no less the Temple? Although girls as well as boys had classes in religion in most Jewish towns. But this was, well, it was terrifying. Most of what the Angel said referred to her son-to-be, to be named Jesus, as a great king descended from David, who was a real life king for her. Holy, yes, but beyond that did she have a clue? What she did know is that you obeyed God, a thousand times more than you obeyed your father or mother. So she said yes, a yes that resounded through time and the universe, and the story began. For Jesus. A human boy.
But we know that is only half the story. The daily reading is John 1:9-14. John 1:1-5 has just proclaimed that in the beginning was the Logos (Λόγος), which is not just “Word”. It is a whole idea, a statement, an everything uttered by God at the beginning. And that Logos was God and with and in God from the beginning. The Christ named Jesus which the Angel announced to Mary was not only the boy and man, but God. Trinitarian theology 101.
Modern theology, especially feminist and queer theory, but also liberation theology with its focus on the responsibility to the needy, focuses on the incarnate body who was Jesus, a man with a mission, a man who was entangled in Temple and Empire politics, a man who called out the rich and powerful. Plus a few signs. But there is also that spiritual thread in the Gospels which always recognized Jesus as Logos, as God, and after the Resurrection and Ascension something more than what he appeared to be when God emptied himself into the world through Mary’s terrified “yes.” And in all the Gospels Jesus spends a lot of time trying to tell people that, often with limited success.
And so we have today’s John 1:9-14, in which so early in the narrative we are told that for those few who did believe in him, he, the Light, the fulfillment of Salvation, would grant us adoption as children of his Father, our Abba. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” That is the mystical truth about this Christ. Not a glorified prophet or 1st century social reformer. But God.
The Holy One, in wisdom, seems to have entered human history by self-emptying (kinosis) into human form as Jesus at a time when a large part of the Western world was incorporated into a great empire, the Roman Empire, and when that empire was full of those hungry for a god more imminent and more concerned for them than what was normally on tap. Zeus-Pater (Jupiter) never loved anyone, except for a few sexual encounters, and that hardly equals love. Mars never saved a single Roman soldier, no matter how sincere his devotion. As a result, a rash of mystery religions, many from the East, that is, the Middle East, took hold. The worship of Mithras, with its levels in initiation, its self-sacrificing god, who was even called a good shepherd, was open to men. The ecstatic cult of Kybele and her self-sacrificing lover, who killed himself on a pine tree to atone for his disobedience and betrayal of his goddess/lover, and is brought back to life each spring, was favored by women and Kybele’s self castrating priests. And many more. Hardly salvation, and then only to a few, and little love or mercy. Jesus was different.
Let us make no mistake about Christianity. It is a mystery religion. The faith of the Jews, from which it grew, was based on the belief in One God, who chose his people and his gave his covenant and his prophets, and who laid down Laws which had to be obeyed, a God of the tribes of Israel. When God came as Jesus the Christ all that changed, and the mystery of the Incarnation and the covenant which Jesus brought and the gifts which the Cross offered opened faith in the Holy One of Israel to the whole world. Here was a divine mystery for every heart, for every soul. And Jesus came and died and rose again in the midst of the Roman Empire, the Diaspora of the Jews, and the hunger of the Roman world for a Savior. It was his time, God’s time.
So the Annunciation is about a lot more than the mechanics of bringing Jesus into the world to fulfill Jewish prophecy concerning his lineage. We love the narrative in Luke and how it goes on to Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and even Zechariah’s sin of disobedience which ends with his beautiful hymn praising God. But the other side of this coin is vital. It is the portal into the depth of the mystery, the one which guides our life through the Holy Spirit, the one which promises life eternal for those who embrace the Christ in love and obedience.
How, then, do we enter into the mystery. First, of course, is the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, but even that has to be internalized through liturgy, through the narratives of his birth, and his death, which we are now struggling through in the Lenten season. And we have to internalize Scripture, not just the easy stuff, like feed, clothe, care for the needy. Almost every faith or morality based belief system says the same. The Jews had practiced that from the first laws. That is why grain is left in the corners of every field for the poor to garner freely. What makes Christ different is intent. Jesus intended to gather all those who would or could listen and have faith in him, and that means to enter into his mystery, one which has no words, although we all try. One which makes no logical sense, although it fills us with a kind of joyous peace even in the most horrendous moments of our life or death. The Annunciation is far more than a fairy tale about a girl who had a magical baby. Or a devout and obedient Jewish girl who accepted an impossible task from the God she and her people knew and worshiped. The Annunciation is about the transformation of the Universe, a Cosmos made visible in a way that even the simplest could see how God knows, regards, and loves us.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.