Michael Pasquarello: An impossibly pregnant church
I think of this prayer each Advent season, because its words direct our attention to the presence of Christ and the work of the Spirit in a manner that is very much like the devotion of Mary.
According to the blessings spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the pure in heart are those who will see God. In Luke’s first chapter, Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary are blessed, not because of what they have or what they do, but because of what they hear and see. They are blessed to hear good news of what God is doing in the world, and they are blessed to see what God is bringing about for the life of the world. And what is amazing about all of this is that it takes place among the ordinary people and everyday circumstances of Israel’s worship and life.
There is Elizabeth and there is Mary -- an old, childless woman and a young virgin girl. Both are impossibly pregnant. And what God does with them has strong echoes of the creation story in Genesis: God speaks and the Spirit gives life. Mary’s womb is void until the Spirit of God fills it with the child who is God’s Son. I think this is what Luther meant when he said that God breaks what is whole and makes whole what is broken.
This is what happens when we gather to worship. We place ourselves in God’s presence, hoping to receive God’s self-giving that so moves and empowers us to join Mary in voicing our “yes” to God in the world. And we do this with confidence that our “yes” will be the Spirit’s means of conceiving in us the life of God that was en-fleshed in Jesus and delivered by Mary.
Can you imagine? Can you think of anything that might present more promise or threat of change to the way things are with us and with the world?
I think this is what St. Paul was attempting to put into words as he wrote the Letter to the Romans. The whole creation can be seen as a birth process, a time of pregnant waiting: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in [travail or] labor pains until now,” and he then immediately adds, “but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (NRSV).
Have you ever heard better news? Imagine that when we gather in God’s presence, this sanctuary is a maternity ward, a delivery room, a birthplace for bringing new life into a dying, old world according to the truth of God’s word and by the power of God’s Spirit. Imagine that the pain and travail of life is not a curse but, by the grace of God, the means by which we bring Christ into the world.
Like Mary, we have been called to be fertile, to be a church from which the Spirit brings forth much fruitfulness and life. Like Mary, our vocation is to deliver the Word in the world. And what God desires is our joyful “yes” in response to the word God speaks and our willing receptivity to the life God gives: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary’s “let it be with me” recalls the “yes” of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane -- “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” -- as well as the fiat of God at the creation of the world: “And God said, ‘Let there be ...’; ‘let there be ...’”
Mary’s “let it be with me” can be traced all the way back to the Trinity itself.
The “yes” of our obedience to the Word can be both a gift of God and at the same time our action, because it is the expression of holy love. This is the beauty of Mary, who is the first disciple of Jesus and the model of the church. She welcomes the Son of God into the whole of her life, a receptivity to the Word that extends from his birth to his death on a cross.
For this reason, she is “full of grace.” And this is the beauty of our calling as God’s new humanity restored in the image of Christ. Each time we gather, God is pleased to make Jesus present in the world through our prayer and praise, through our preaching of the Word and through our celebration of Holy Communion. We are an impossibly pregnant church; we are a people “full of grace.”
Let it be, Lord, according to your word.