December 21, 2014

Advent 4B

The difference between Mary and us, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, is that we know what’s coming and Mary has no idea. It’s about this time every year that the angel Gabriel shows up in our lectionary readings, but for Mary this is a once in a lifetime experience, in fact, it’s a once in the history of humanity experience. 

Gabriel appears to Mary and gets right down to business, with words that might startle a young woman even if they did not come from an angel: "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women!" But notice the way Mary responds. Luke says she was "much perplexed and pondered what manner of greeting this might be." She was perplexed. She was uncertain. She was confused. She didn’t quite get it. She didn’t know what to believe. What does this mean? What is this about?

Over the centuries Mary has been praised as a great exemplar of faith. She is the one who received Jesus as a gift from God even before he was born. In a sense, Mary was Jesus’ first disciple. But Mary’s story doesn’t begin in certainty. It begins in perplexity. It doesn’t begin with affirmations of faith. It begins with unanswered questions to ponder. 

She was "much perplexed… and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." Pondering takes time. No one ponders quickly. Even multi-taskers can’t ponder quickly. To ponder is to brood over something for a while. It entails taking your time. So Mary was perplexed, she had questions, there were things she didn’t understand. She had to brood over her uncertainty. She had to ponder.

Later in Luke’s narrative, when the shepherds visited Bethlehem everyone was amazed to hear what they had to say about how they had been visited by angels and about what had been made known to them concerning this child in the manger. Then Luke goes on to say that, "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart." Mary was a ponderer. "Ponder" is a word that isn’t used anywhere else in the gospels, but twice it is used to describe Mary’s response to what is happening in her life and the life of the one to whom she gives birth. Even after the birth of Jesus, even after what the angel Gabriel told her had come to pass, she was still perplexed, still uncertain. After all, no one ponders certainties or questions that are easily answered. We ponder things we don’t fully understand. We ponder mysteries. And Mary was a ponderer.

It is wonderful to be able to look to Mary as an example of faith. But I’m particularly grateful that she was perplexed, that God chose someone who was confused to bear the good news because, it affirms our own sense of perplexity. Aren’t we uncertain much of the time? We don’t have all the answers. We’re confused. But if the mother of God got to be perplexed, you can be, too. And so can I.

As a priest, I am sometimes asked to address perplexity. Often this is in response to serious illness or tragic circumstance. Someone will ask, "Why has this terrible thing happened in my life? What does it mean? I don’t understand. How could God allow it?" We so want explanations. All of us do. But I’m learning not to offer them. I don’t offer explanations because I don’t have them. That is, I think I’ve learned not to say more than I know. Instead, I am learning how to approach a tragic circumstance with a kind of reverence that honors the depth of it, the mystery of it, that doesn’t try to explain it away. That is, I am learning to live with perplexity.

And sometimes other people are perplexed by something good that has happened. "Could it be coincidence?" someone will ask. "It seems more than coincidence. How could this have happened? Do you think this is God’s hand at work?" And as tempted as I may be to say with certainty that, yes, this is God at work, I try to bring the same reverence to the good that happens and say: We may never fully understand it. Instead, let’s stand in awe of it. After all, this is not so much a puzzle to solve as it is a gift to receive.

I don’t need any help in being perplexed. I can do that well enough on my own. What I need help with is learning how to live with perplexity. I am, by nature, impatient with unanswered questions. The German poet Rilke could have been addressing me, when he wrote to a younger poet saying, "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. The point is to live everything, live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers." 

Obviously, Mary knew how to do that, to live in perplexity, to be patient with unanswered questions. Sometimes it just helps to know that you don’t have to have all the answers, that God visits the perplexed and can even favor them and bless them, as God favored Mary and blessed her.

I appreciate the insight of Lillian Daniel who observed: "Sometimes, it’s in admitting we don’t have all the answers, that suddenly we can hear a whisper from another place. Sometimes, in admitting that we don’t get it, we open ourselves up to get something from God. Sometimes when we stop talking and stop ourselves from giving answers to our own questions, we allow ourselves to be filled up with something new. With Jesus even. God chose someone who was confused to bring him into this world."

And Mary also reminds us that you don’t have to wait for understanding to act in faith. She closes this remarkable conversation with Gabriel by saying, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Mary is still perplexed, mind you, still pondering. She doesn’t say, "Oh, now I get it. I was confused there for a moment." She doesn’t say anything like that. She is still perplexed, still pondering, but she also says, "Let it be just as you say."

As T. S. Eliot put it, there are "only hints and guesses, Hints followed by guesses; and the rest Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is incarnation."

So as we wait and watch for that most joyous of occasions, the coming of the Christ-child, may we offer our perplexity to God and say, “Let it be, just as you say.”