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The Big Story: Annunciation

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

So far this Lent, we’ve thought about creation and disconnection and anticipation, and on Sunday we thought about annunciation. After those big themes, the angel Gabriel showing up to tell Mary that God has chosen her to bear his son may seem an oddly specific moment to pick, but I think it’s one that is not often given enough focus. We hear the story at Christmas, but it’s really just the set up for the main event. I think that has a lot to do with the way the Protestant church has reacted against the Catholic veneration of Mary by pushing her very much into the background, but I think we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And besides, it was the Feast of the Annunciation on Monday, and it was Mothering Sunday yesterday, so I couldn’t really miss that prime opportunity to think about the role of Mary the Mother of God in the big story.

I don’t want to think just about the moment of the annunciation, but I do want to start there because it is a remarkable scene. Of course the angel and the announcement of the coming child are fairly remarkable, but there is something else happening here that I think is worth remarking on, that perhaps isn’t remarked on enough, and that is Mary’s response to it all. I led a theology discussion group for some very thoughtful teenagers while we were in Leeds, and the first thing they wanted to talk about was Mary. They were concerned that there was a lack of consent in this story, that God uses Mary in a way that is abusive, but as we looked more carefully at what happens between the angel and Mary, we saw that there was something much more subtle and much more powerful going on.

The angel’s declaration is quite emphatic, but it is also future tense. This is not yet a done deed. And Mary is not passive in accepting the news, but expresses her own desire that it may be with her as the angel has said. She has voice and agency and absolutely gives consent. The importance of this becomes even clearer when we remember that at the time, women were afforded very little voice or agency, and their consent was pretty much irrelevant. The fact that Luke records Mary’s yes, when very few would have worried about its absence, says that it was important. More than that, I’d say it was necessary. Perhaps God chose Mary because he knew she would say yes, but still it is because Mary says yes that what the angel has said will happen does happen. God does not issue demands but invitations, calling us to say yes to all he has imagined for us.

Saying yes to God is a powerful thing. I spend a long time working out my call to ministry, but the thing that finally made my mind up about training for accredited ministry was a conversation with one of the regional ministers in Yorkshire. She talked about ordination as a way of covenanting with God and with the church, and as I thought over this as I stood doing the washing up back at home, I thought if God is inviting me to covenant with him like this, then I want to say yes. And as I said the word yes in my head, I burst into joyful tears and I knew that was my decision, and it was saying yes to God then that brought me here now. Saying yes to God is a powerful thing. I wonder when you have known the power of saying yes to God, or what he might be inviting you to say yes to now.

I’ve been waiting to preach on the annunciation for a few months now, and the reason I’ve been so keen is because of the image below, from a woodcut by Ben Wildflower. I absolutely love this depiction of Mary as a strong and powerful revolutionary figure, surrounded by the words she sings when she visits her cousin Elizabeth to tell her of the angel’s visit. Often the pictures we see of Mary are of her looking beautiful and young and delicate, but this sits in the same tradition as the 13th century illustration that shows Mary punching the devil in the face. It recognises the fearsome strength it took for Mary to say yes, knowing the dangers of childbearing, and the even greater dangers of bearing an apparently illegitimate child. And it recognises the revolutionary power of Mary’s song, reminding us that not only was hers the body that carried Christ, but hers was the voice that sang out in prophecy.

We don’t often think of Mary as a prophet, but she absolutely was, and her words have continued to hold power down the centuries. She declared that God has brought down rulers and lifted the humble and fed the hungry and sent the rich away empty, and in doing so she not only remembered all that God had already done but also foresaw all that he was about to do. She created hope for what have been called the wondrous reversals that Christ would bring about as he ushered in the kingdom of God.

The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Mary’s song, also known as the Magnificat, “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung”, and I was amazed to learn that it has been banned from being recited or displayed publicly on at least three occasions - under British rule in India, in Guatemala during the 1980s, and by the military junta of Argentina - because it was deemed too subversive. The fear was that Mary’s words would inspire the poor and oppressed to believe that change was possible, and would seek to bring about that change. They were right to be afraid, because these are words of mighty power. How wonderful to be reminded of the power of the gospel to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to give us imagination for new ways of being and doing, to incite us to revolution in a world that so desperately needs to be turned around.

I love the idea of the Magnificat as a protest anthem, but I also love the way this image abbreviates Mary’s words to present them as a series of commands. There’s a wonderful ambiguity there which opens up all sorts of possibilities. Of course we know that God does all of things, but so does Mary as she works with God to bring Christ into the world. And so must we as we take up our part in the big story, continuing what God began in Christ through Mary. There is still a need to level out and even out, to hold rulers to account so that we might lift the humble, to curb the greed of the wealthy so that we might feed the hungry. I wonder what would happen if we took up Mary’s words as instructions, if we adopted her song as our protest anthem and our vision for the future.

My enthusiasm for the Magnificat may have begun with this picture, but my interest in Mary began long before. We don’t know how old Mary was when the angel visited her, but given that betrothals happened young in those days, it is generally thought that she must have been a teenager. I was once a teenage girl too, and so that fascinated me. More than that, it empowered and encouraged me. I remember being at youth group one evening, and looking around the room and thinking if God could use one teenage girl to so radically change the world, what could he do with a room full of us?

This is where I want to think about annunciation in slightly broader terms, because it is quite simply the act of announcing, and God is still announcing and still doing it through the bodies and voices of teenage girls. You may recognise the girls in the pictures below. Greta Thunberg is the sixteen year old Swedish political activist, who staged a school strike for climate change outside the Swedish Parliament last year, and has now spoken about climate change around the world and inspired children internationally to stage their own school strikes. Malala Yousafzai is the Pakistani activist who at the age of fifteen was shot by the Taliban in an attempt to silence her campaigning for the right to education, and at the age of seventeen became the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

They both have profoundly important things to say to the world, and things that I think are entirely consistent with the heart of God and the way of Christ, whatever their own religious beliefs and whether they would be comfortable expressing it in that way or not. We really should be listening, especially to their particular viewpoints, as a member of the generation that is going to most feel the effects of what we do know, and as someone who nearly died in order to stand up for what she believed. And more than that, we should be doing. We should be following Greta in acting and campaigning to reduce and reverse the damage we are doing to the environment, and following Malala in recognising the importance of education and working to ensure all have fair and equal access.

“God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” Teenage girls may be foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, but God can and will and does choose them to teach the rest of us. I’ve focused on teenage girls because Mary was a teenage girl and she was our starting point, but there’s a wider point here. We should be ready to see the face and hear the voice of God in every person that we meet, because God doesn’t play by our rules, and he doesn’t choose the people you might expect. I wonder what we might learn from God, what we might hear him announcing, if we were ready to listen to all his children?

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