Fourth Sunday of Advent – 2020
When I once visited Nazareth, it was quite a delight to discover the Church of Mary’s Well. It is an Eastern Orthodox Church and is some distance, on the other side of the town, from the more familiar Basilica of the Annunciation. The reason why this Church of Mary’s Well was of such interest was because of the legend with which it is associated. According to an ancient legend it was at the well, over which the church is built, that Mary first encountered the angel which had come to bear her the news of her pregnancy. However, Mary had taken fright at this initial encounter and ran back to her home, where the angel re-presented in the form of the story that we have just heard.
Taken on its own the story of the Annunciation, the story of the angel’s proclamation to Mary that she would conceive and bear a child, tends to leave us thinking that Mary’ acceptance of the news was rather quick in its response. However, when we put the story alongside the legend associated with the Church of Mary’s well, we realise the intense personal struggle taking place in Mary as she was confronted with the surprising word of God. Even as the text of the gospel passage itself states Mary is deeply disturbed. The word of God that comes into our hearts is, therefore, a disturbing word. It unsettles us. It opens deep questions within us. It breaks open our complacency and our ordinary patterns of hearing and seeing. It opens the place of emptiness within us that awaits it fullness. This, indeed, is the biblical meaning of virginity. The virgin is the one with the barren womb awaiting its fecundity, its life. The virgin motherhood of Mary is a critical understanding for us because it signifies so dramatically how God brings fullness out of emptiness, hope out of despair, promise out of hopelessness, life out of death.
Such transformation is not instant. It is a process of growing recognition of where and how our hearts are empty, where and how a sense of quiet despair works, where and how we are brought up against the experience of dead ends and lifelessness. All the uncertainty of COVID, and the unsettling development of a new outbreak not far from us and so close to Christmas, is such an experience of scriptural barrenness for us. And yet, the example of Mary teaches that in those experiences which deeply disturb us, something unexpected may be given to us. Those experiences hollow us out, so that we might receive something new. When the Word of God comes into the life of Mary her very innocence is disturbed. She is left to struggle with all the ambiguity of her situation. Yet, it is in her deep attentiveness to this new situation that the life of God grows within her. Maybe it is not surprising, then, that the English spiritual writer, Sebastian Moore, writes somewhere that what we need is not so much conversion from sin, but conversion from innocence. We are led by the Spirit of God into a conversion from the misplaced effort to construct a life that’s immune from disturbing questions, from the need to have everything perfect.
In this final week before Christmas, we are given a very particular image in the gospel. We are given the image of a young girl deeply disturbed by what lays ahead of her. We are given the image of a great paradox: the pregnant virgin. In the place of her emptiness the Virgin has hoped. She has said ‘yes’ to the God that she has encountered in her disturbance. And Life has come into our broken world. May it come into our world, in new and unexpected ways, even as we face the anxiety and the uncertainty of these days ahead.