Thursday, March 29, 2012

Gabriel, Mary and Me, A Spiritual Invitation to Trust and The Spiritual Gift of Imagination posted by Nancy L. Agneberg

     March 25th is the day in the church year set aside to honor the day of the annunciation--the day the angel Gabriel announced to Mary the incarnation of Christ. This post is based on an  essay I wrote several years ago about that event.
First the scripture:
     The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to a young woman named Mary; she was engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, "Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!"
     Mary was deeply troubled by these words and wondered what the angel's greeting meant. The angel went on to say to her, "Don't be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You'll conceive and bear a son, and give him the name Jesus--'Deliverance.' His dignity will be great, and he will be called the Only Begotten of God. God will give Jesus the judgment seat of David, his ancestor, to rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his reign wil never end."
     Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have never been with a man?"
     The angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you--hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God. Know too that Elizabeth, your kinswoman, has conceived a child in her old age; she who was thought to be infertile is now in her sixth month. Nothing is impossible with God."
     Mary said, "I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say."
     With that, the angel left her.  
                              Luke 1: 26-38, 
                                             The Inclusive New Testament, 
                                             Priests for Equality

     I've given my adult children most of their books from childhood, but in the stack of Christmas books there is one favorite I intend to keep: The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas. Mary is really pregnant in these pastel drawings, and I mean really pregnant. You see and feel Joseph's effort as he helps Mary get on the donkey, just as you see the strain in the donkey's expression. I chuckle at the raggedy nature of the characters--quite the contrast to the serene, beatific look of more typical religious art. For example, there's Gabriel with his red, spiky hair and untied, oversized work boots. Gabriel, whose jaggedy, frayed wings were jet-size, compared to his scrawny body. 
     Gabriel and Mary sit at her kitchen table, drinking coffee out of cracked everyday mugs and from Mary's "Who me?" expression and Gabriel's intense leaning forward over the top of the table, you can tell this is no casual "What's happening?" conversation.
     Usually when I read or hear the annunciation story I focus on Mary, her initial shock and amazement and her ultimate faithfulness. But Gabriel intrigues me, and I want to know about the angel who was "sent from God." Gabriel is not described in the Biblical text, but the news he brings makes it quite clear that God needed a trusted colleague to do the job. 
      So who is this Gabriel?
     Many of the angels encountered in the pages of the Bible are not given names. For example, the angel who stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem in 2 Samuel is unnamed, as is the angel who spoke to Moses on Mt Sinai and the angels who rolled away the stone from the entrance to Jesus' tomb as told in Matthew.
     But this is Gabriel, one of the archangels, which means he is a messenger of God, a figure in all three of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He first appears in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible, and later he foretold the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus in the Christian testament and Muslims believe he was the medium through which God revealed the Qu'an to Mohammed.
     This is a big deal angel.
     According to Judaism, Gabriel was also the voice that told Noah to gather the animals before the flood and was the invisible force that prevented Abraham from slaying Isaac and who wrestled with Jacob and finally, was the voice of the burning bush. Many in the Christian tradition believe that Gabriel appeared to Joseph in a dream, confirming what Mary had told him about being with child, thanks to the Holy Spirit, and then later, according to tradition, although not named, Gabriel was the angel who appeared to the shepherds telling them to follow the star and find a babe in the manger. This is an angel who is in the middle of the action.
     Gabriel's Journey 
    In this story, the story of Gabriel's meeting with Mary, it is his movements that frame the story, and I am intrigued by the phrase "upon arriving," which implies to me a journey. Gabriel traveled from the left hand of God to Mary's house. I wonder about the journey--what he saw and experienced along the way, what stops he made, what other messages, though perhaps not as momentous, he might have delivered as long as he was in the neighborhood. Did he make a wrong turn and did he need to stop and ask for directions, presuming, of course, there was not some sort of strange angel code preventing an admission of being lost? Did he get stiff and need to stretch his legs and have a cup of coffee before the last turn into Nazareth? Did any fellow travelers sense the presence of an angel and because of a smile or greeting from Gabriel feel more energy for the journey, feel less discouraged about the detour or the traffic? I wonder if Gabriel has ever been in the McDonalds line behind me at a rest stop on Interstate 80 as I drove from Ohio to Minnesota.
     How did Gabriel feel about the message he was to deliver? Did he say to God, "Whatever you say, I'm on it, even though it sounds a little strange." Or did Gabriel protest, "Oh, God, but I'm busy right now. I don't have time for this trip, and I certainly don't want to go to Nazareth." Did Gabriel need time to think about what he was going to say to Mary?
    I understand the need for time. I well remember trips to Minnesota when the 14 hour drive was just what I needed to prepare myself for what I thought might be needed from me upon my arrival. The time when my father had had a heart attack and was awaiting triple bypass surgery. The first time I would see my mother following her diagnosis of a recurrence of colon cancer, and when I went to see my dear friend Mary in critical condition in the hospital following surgery for ovarian cancer. I needed the transition those hours in the car offered me. In fact, while driving to Minnesota just weeks before my mother died I planned what I would say at her funeral. I invited words and images to come to me and through my tears, mile after mile, I spoke aloud what I might say to share my mother's spirit and my love for her. Perhaps Gabriel had slipped into the passenger seat when I stopped for gas and was my invisible listener. I can understand even Gabriel might have needed time, transition time, to think about how to deliver the news. 
     Did he consider saying, "Hi, I'm Gabriel, an angel of God, and have I got news for you. God wants you to know you are special, but that doesn't mean you get off easy. Here's the deal."? I wonder if Gabriel had a Plan B in mind, in case Mary waved her broom and said, "Shush, go away." 
     I am comforted imagining that perhaps even Gabriel felt daunted by what he was about to do, for how often have I thought, "Me? No, I can't do that. I'm not smart enough, wise enough, good enough." Perhaps other angels had been sent to other Marys who when presented with the 'good news' had said, "Not me," and slammed the door. Perhaps Gabriel himself had been on the other side of the slammed door, and he didn't want to mess up this time. He was determined to bring God news of his success. "She'll do it."
     Meeting Mary
     Gabriel did find the right Mary. This Mary agreed. Not that she wasn't amazed, even "deeply troubled," but I am rushing the story. First, Gabriel greets her, flatters her. "Blessed are you among women." Instead of being taken in with such compliments, for Mary is, in fact, no dummy, she is "troubled by these words and wondered what the angel's greeting meant." Perhaps to stir up his own courage he urges Mary not to be afraid and then tells her the news. Nope, he doesn't ask her, "Hey, Mary, how would you like to be the mother of God?" Instead, Gabriel tells her the plan, using his carefully practiced words, "You'll conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus. Deliverance. His dignity will be great, and he will be called the only Begotten son of God. God will give Jesus the judgment seat of David, his ancestor, to rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his reign will never end." I imagine Gabriel spilling all that out in one breath and then quickly looking down into his coffee mug and taking a long swig. "Now I've done it," he thinks to himself.
     This is amazing news. 
     The only begotten of God? Rule over the House of Jacob? Forever? But that's not what Mary focuses on. She seems to understand the result, the outcome. Her son the son of God. That she seems to get, but instead she questions the conception. She is concerned about the process. "How can this be, since I have never been with a man?" 
     And it is in the process where I get stuck so often, too. When I knew my mother didn't have long to live, I wanted to know what the steps would be along the way. How much time does she have? Will there be lots of pain? And more than that, I wanted to be reassured that I would know what to do and that I was capable of doing whatever was asked of me and needed from me. It all seemed more than I could bear. How can this be? 
     Luke says, "The angel answered her. " I love that. Gabriel actually responds to her question. Perhaps not clearly, not completely, not in a way she can fully understand, but he doesn't say, "None of your business. don't ask. Just listen and accept." In fact, Gabriel even tells her a bit about the process. "The power of the Most High will overshadow you." Not that that makes anything clearer, but there is some reassurance that Gabriel seems to know how things are going to work. "There is a way, trust me."
     Then, almost without taking a breath, Gabriel jumps into more astonishing news: Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth is having a baby , too, even though she is old, too old. Perhaps Gabriel wants to gloss over the "overshadow you" business and thinks this additional news will trick Mary into not thinking about herself. But perhaps Gabriel is saying, "Yours is not the only miracle. There are other miracles, others who are experiencing major surprises, even dilemmas in their lives. You are not the only one. Nothing is impossible with God."
    Asking the Question and Listening for an Answer
    But here's where the story really becomes Mary's. Not only does she ask the tough question, but she stayed at the table and listened to Gabriel's answer. How often do we ask a hard question, the essential question, but then before the answer is even offered, reject it, and walk away?
    It was one of those perfect summer days at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, warm, but not too hot; the sun was shining, and there was just enough breeze to prevent sweat from forming on your forehead. A large group had gathered in the afternoon to listen to an Episcopalian priest talk about spiritual practices; tools to help us grow closer to God and to understand who God created us to be. The talk itself was thought-provoking and inspiring, but the question and answer period was even more stimulating. An older gentleman went to the microphone and eloquently asked about how to get through the pain, go through and beyond the pain. He was obviously suffering emotionally, spiritually, perhaps even physically, too. He took a huge risk, exposing his vulnerability in front of this large group of strangers, but the audience sat in respectful, even awesome quiet, awaiting the speaker's response. I could see the speaker physically gather herself together, having listened with the ears of her heart and wanting to offer encouraging wisdom for him. She prepared to be his Gabriel, but the man who dared to ask, did not dare to listen. As she began to respond to him and his pain, he walked away from the microphone, turning away from this angel of the moment. By the time he got to his seat, the next person was asking a question. The opportunity, the encounter, was over.
    My family dared to ask the tough questions and then to listen carefully to answers, the guidelines and markers, our hospice nurse explained about the dying process. We were grateful, indeed, but we also listened to the promptings of Gabriel, for it was in the daily miracles that we drew our strength.  The miracle of many more days of quality living for Mom than what we imagined. The miracle of the birth of her first great grandchild, Maren, bringing life as we anticipated death. The miracle of family standing together supporting and loving each other every step of the way. The miracle of Mom's last words, "I am so blessed."
    Truly, "Nothing is impossible with God."
    Mary listened to Gabriel's answer and then responded with faith and trust and strength and self-confidence, too. "I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say." Can't you just hear Gabriel's sigh of relief? "Great. Check that job off the list. No need to disappoint God."  
    "With that, the angel left her."        

No comments:

Post a Comment

All respectful and relevant comments are welcome. Potential spam and offensive comments will be deleted