The Free(ing) Gift

 This is the irrational season

When love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

There’d have been no room for the child.

 –“After Annunciation” by Madeleine L’Engle

The life of Jesus is God’s gift for us, and the gift is meant to be received.  This season of Advent reminds us of God’s remarkable initiative, stirring us anew to consider the dimensions of God’s grace, and how we receive it.  I have often thought of Jesus’ birth as a kind of  “loving invasion” of the world.  While that image has its limitations (specifically, the inference that God has somehow been absent), it is relevant as it relates to God’s breaking into the dominant flow of human history.  The gift is not shaped by human demands; its definition flows from who God is.  We are talking about for-giveness here.  Importantly, as a result, we have choices to make in how we respond to what God is freely doing in our midst. Madeleine L’Engle’s poem gives expression to such receptivity.

The birth narrative in Luke’s gospel illuminates God’s liberating wisdom.   “Hello, favored (gifted) one, ”  the angel greets the startled young woman; “The Sovereign One is with you (Luke 1:26, SENT).”      Young Mary of Nazareth has life as she knows it  interrupted by God, in a way perceived until now as “inconceivable.”  God is with her!  The giving is manifested in more than proximity. Mary is chosen to receive the seed of God’s new life for the world.  She will carry the promise inside of her, let it grow and be nourished, and bear it into the world God so loves.

Before Joseph or anyone else is aware of what God is doing,  Mary is being graced in terrifying wonder.  Her’s is a place of vital importance  in God’s realm!  It is no wonder that this is astonishing to her. Her life until now has been hidden–no, buried– under the weight of what the world has been willing to “give” (and take).  The limited future that has been “possible” for her up until now  is one that has been prescribed and requires the authorization of others.  Conversely, this rush of startling giveness reveals Mary’s identity and value as  bestowed by God.  It reveals her.

But even as we ponder the “blessed” details, let us not fail to realize that it is the stunning, overturning, up-rising nature of God’s deliverance for the whole world (that which Mary’s Magnificat will extol) that first begins very personally within her life! “Don’t be afraid, Mary”  is recognition that this humble young woman has her wits about her.  What God is authoring will be nothing less than scandal to the world in which she exists; and that which is life-giving and saving for the world will unfold in a vulnerability that puts Mary in tremendous peril.  Is this not how grace is realized in the world?

The God revealed in this story  is the God who gifts unreservedly, who loves without negotiation,  who indwells, who makes space for new life where space has not been perceived (or has been prohibited), who links our lives inseparably with everyone else, who nurtures,  who astonishes us with the invitation to join fully in welcoming an emerging future.  Even so, it is with some trepidation that I suggest that Mary is being gifted with liberty to act beyond fear and coercion, out of her own faith (I define that term relationally, faith as her experience of relationship with God).  God is indeed granting her a freedom that the culture and the house of worship do not afford her.   God’s declaration of her new location necessarily dislocates countless other plans.  I’m not sure even the word “radical” can do full justice to what we witness here.  Nevertheless,  the world’s deck remains stacked before her, at least in traditional terms.

Perhaps the term eurisko in Luke 1:30, translated “found”  (“You’ve found favor with God”), can be helpful.  My Greek lexicon defines eurisko as :   (1) to learn something previously not known, frequently involving an element of surprise (2) To learn the location of something either by searching or by unexpected discovery.  The first definition resonates powerfully with this story, as does the reference to “unexpected discovery,” especially when the location that you discover is your own!

In practical terms, this might mean:

— Having us “find our voice” in the midst of a key relationship or a critical situation.

— Discovering gifts we did not realize  were part of us or that we have left unexamined.

— Coming to embrace a vocation we would never have imagined on our own.

–Having our eyes and hearts opened to perceive  new location and possibility.

–Risking for-giveness with someone else as an outgrowth of God’s drawing close to us.

–Living beyond ourselves, in countless ways, with the knowledge that we are not alone.

The  “something not known” may be something about God; it may be something about us; it is likely both, as we are created in God’s image.  The word regularly translated as “favor” is “charis”: grace, or gift.  We are finding, discovering, being shocked and surprised by God’s gifting ways.

Madeleine L’Engle’s poem emphasizes what follows God’s action, what comes after the annunciation. This is the territory of receiving, and response. How does Mary claim her re-defined life? In what ways is she intent about receiving the life God gives?  In what ways does she move into the new space that God has declared?  My earlier trepidation came not from any doubt of what God is doing nor from limited perceptions of Mary’s considerable capability; rather, it was from my reluctance to be telling Mary how she “should” respond to God’s initiative.  After all, the free gift frees.  And  Mary’s freedom blesses abundantly!

—   “How will this be?” (1:34) is the honest articulation of what it means to grapple with the dimensions of a new life–unboxed and no longer to be lived in a straight line!

–Her profession of faith (1:38), “May it be with me according to your word,” follows her fresh statement of self-understanding.  The personal, social, and political landscapes have been radically reordered before Mary even takes a physical step.   She is living in a new world,  in the very midst of  Nazareth’s stale air.  The Christmas story says that what faith is really all about is our accepting God’s trust in us!

— Mary travels south to her cousin’s house to find community (Luke 1:39).  This may be a signal that Joseph did initially “dismiss her quietly.”  It is anything but a final word.  Rather, the story takes new shape and body because of how things have unfolded.  In this case, resistance and abandonment contribute to making the next chapter possible.  And all of this before a visible birth!

–With each movement, Mary “makes room” for the embodiment of new life.

These first steps are humble, to say the least.  So they are good encouragement for us in the midst of our Advent season.  For we behold Mary receiving, responding, her eyes and ears fully open, her spiritual legs getting stronger beneath her, labels of subservience and illegitimacy being washed away by God, her life becoming good news for the poor, even as her head spins and her heart hurts.  Having her wits about her in God’s realm means no longer being captive to the often-deathly “reason” of the world.  Hail “the irrational season where love blooms bright and wild.”  The irruption of the impossible.

The direction of human history changes because in a little town hidden on some ancient maps, in what would have been a completely inaccessible part of the world to anyone living on this continent, a young woman is visited by God and entrusted with living creatively toward God’s future amidst scorn, with risk, and in great hope. She takes this heartstopping, life-altering, seemingly inconceivable development that opens up stunningly in the midst of her life, and responds to it as a gift from God.

What might all this mean for us?