Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff
Several years ago I came across Denise Levertov’s stunning poem, Annunciation. You can read the full poem here. Her portrayal of Mary struck a deep chord in me, mostly because the vision of Mary that I was raised with was very different. In the circles I grew up in, Mary’s name was synonymous with the “ideal woman”—one who was soft-spoken, submissive, meek. In all the Sunday school lessons on the Nativity or studies about women of the Bible, never did I resonate with Mary as a model for my own womanhood, perhaps because I tend to be headstrong, opinionated, independent. Far from the “ideal,” I had little hope of ever being like Mary. Meek obedience wasn’t for me.
But to think of Mary as a model of “unparalleled courage” is far more intriguing. There really was nothing special about Mary, nothing to mark her as particularly worthy of God’s notice or favor. In fact, she was rather ordinary—a young girl about to be married to a mere carpenter, living in an insignificant town in a backwater province. Nothing about her life suggested that she would play an integral role in God’s plan for salvation. Yet Mary’s very ordinariness, rather than being a discouragement, is encouraging. Luke’s Gospel is distinct in its insistence that God invites ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Few people can live up to an “ideal,” but everyone can make a choice. Mary’s courage, her choice to say yes to God’s call, opened her to a life utterly illumined by God’s grace.
God’s grace in Mary’s life was a strange kind of blessing. Gabriel greets her as “highly favored” and yet, by our standards, her life is anything but. None of the goals we associate with favor—namely, social stature and wealth—came her way. Instead, she faced shame, dishonor, and public disgrace as she bore a child out of wedlock (Mt. 1:19). As a child, Simeon warns her that Jesus will bring judgment and division, and that a sword will pierce her own soul, too—she too will know the pain of rejection and division (Lk. 2:34-35). She will be forced to flee her home and live as a refugee (Mt. 2:13-23). She bears the gossip and stigma of speculations about Jesus’s mental sanity as he begins his ministry (Mk. 3:21). Ultimately, she will see her son executed as a criminal (Jn. 19). But, as R. Alan Culpepper so aptly reminds us, “acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing.” Were they so, Mary may have despaired. Her life was not marked by these things. The promise of the great king to come did not turn out as Mary may have initially expected. But over and over again we see the same courage that marked her first “yes” as she steadfastly faces disruption, discouragement, and pain throughout her life. She trusts in God’s promise. Her obedience stems from that trust, and her blessing came from the fellowship shared with God as a partner in God’s mission of redemption.
Levertov’s question makes me wonder: Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives? Moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman? Moments when God invites us to partner in God’s mission of redemption, to partner in building up God’s kingdom? The poet suggests that more often those moments are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief. Ordinary lives continue. But I wonder: is ordinary life not the place where we see the greatest courage at work?
I think of the people who embody the courage of Mary, who embody the hope and trust in God’s promise of redemption despite the everyday suffering of life that would seem to belay that promise. I think of the survivor of sexual assault who refuses to give in to despair at the horror she has lived through and instead asks what she can do to minister to others. I think of the young adult who lives her days lobbying for refugee relief and support, despite overwhelming odds against her cause. I think of the man who lost his job, ended up on the streets, wound up in prison, and as a last ditch effort went to a nonprofit hiring agency where he discovered ordinary people who reminded him that he was valuable, a person of great worth, and how he now works every day to bring the same hope to others in the situation he found himself in. I think of the wives, husbands, sons, and daughters who care every day for loved ones experiencing illness and disease, for whom there is no cure in sight, who give the gift of dignity at the end of life. I think of the social workers, and teachers, and guardians ad litem who give their time, effort, and energy to care and advocate for children who have no one who cares for them. I think of all those who offer their time and ability to take care of the “least of these.” I think of the people in our congregations who are willing to risk entering into relationship with someone who is completely unlike them, in order to share the love of God. I think of ordinary people who are willing to obey God’s claim on their lives, who say yes to the seemingly impossible, who open themselves to a life utterly illumined and undergirded by God’s own grace.
There are annunciations of one sort or another in most lives. The grace of God, and the ability to partner with God, is offered to us in everyday moments, in everyday situations. Like Mary, we are each offered the choice integral to humanness. May we be as courageous as Mary in our response to God’s call: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.