If animals might nuzzle each other or wag their tales as a sign of recognition when they encounter each other, still, it is only human beings and other persons who can actually be said to greet each other. Even if we weren’t the only ones, still no other being does so with the same variety and with the same range of significance as we do.
Consider just how wide that range is. At one end of the spectrum, there is the greeting that is simply automatic, that either fills a conversational hole or tries to start a conversation, and that requires little or no thought, either to be said, or as a response to what is said. “How’s it going?” automatically gets “Okay,” or “it’s going.” It does it in exactly the same way in English as it does in French where the question/response combination comment “ça va?” gets “ça va,” the literal translation of “How’s it going?”/ “It goes.” The greeting is the same in English or Spanish where “¿Que pasa?” – “What’s happening?” yields “Nada” – “not much” or “nothing.” On occasion, the automatic nature of certain greetings and responses is so unthinking that it actually yields a funny side. There was, for example, the case of the Anglican bishop who mounted the pulpit of his cathedral only to find the microphone out of order. As he fiddled with it, he muttered, “There’s something wrong with this microphone.” To which his welltrained congregation, who could only see his lips move, promptly and automatically responded “and also with you.”
Of course, not all greetings are so mechanical, so automatic and devoid of real meaning. At the other end of the spectrum there are greetings full of significance. Often, in such cases, the form of greeting gives a lot away about what is to come; even if we do not fully know all that it will bring, we usually have some general idea. To a whole generation of young men in the 1940s, it was very clear what sort of thing to expect when one received a letter from the government that began “Greetings!” It was also clear to their mothers and wives what to expect when they received a letter from the same source that began “I regret to inform you...” A colleague of mine from South Africa knew pretty much what to expect in the days of apartheid when a knock came on his door late at night, as it did indeed one night, and so did any number of people in Argentina or Chile when they heard knocking on their doors at night in the days of the dictators. Sometimes, too, we can tell from the greeting that good things will come our way: a high school senior applying to colleges knows that a fat letter or an email from the college of his or her choice beginning with the phrase,” Congratulations!” is good news. I do have to note, though, that we can be fooled, too. A cartoon I recently saw shows a man anxiously peering through the blinds of his living room while two men in a truck marked boldly on its side Publishers’ Clearing House chuckle and say to each other: “Let’s do it again and stop here to ask directions to the freeway.”
But, if on their faces such greetings usually tell us so much of what is to come, that is not always the case. What, for example, would one do with the greeting given by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you?” What could one expect? Luke tells us that Mary herself wondered what kind of greeting this was. Well she might, for angels, who are nothing less than the awesome and terrible powers that rule the goings-on of the world, are not usually to be found greeting young women. What could it possibly mean to be addressed by such a great power, second only to God himself, as “favored,” and to be told that God himself is with you. What could possibly be anticipated from such a greeting?
Now, as Gabriel goes on to tell her, what is about to happen concerns the ancient prophecy that the throne of David would be filled once again. The Lord had told David a thousand years before that there would always be a son of David on the throne of Israel. In the five hundred years between the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent Babylonian captivity and Mary’s day, there had not been any descendant of David on the throne of Israel, for there had not even been a throne of Israel at all. But, that fact did not mean that God was not true to his word; it meant that what God had said to David was a promise and a prophecy. In time, it came to be understood that the prophecy would be fulfilled and that one would arise who would be the cause of the rising and falling of many, and who would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of whose kingdom there would be no end.
That much Mary could understand and she even, perhaps, anticipated it in the most lively way, as did any number of the people who until then had to walk in darkness. They had been promised a great light, they hoped for it, and they looked for it with eager expectation. Such an announcement by the angel, therefore, might have been startling and exciting for all its suddenness, but in the broadest sense it was also anticipated, as well it should have been. Mary was no different than any of her people on this score. But what she could not anticipate, what she could not fathom was what this might have to do with her, what her role in all this might be. Things do not gain in clarity when the angel tells her that she, who, although betrothed, is yet a virgin will conceive a son and that this son, Jesus, will be the one who is to come, the Son of the Most High.
Mary might have anticipated many things in life before this. She was betrothed to Joseph, and since betrothal in ancient Judaism was the beginning of marriage and no mere engagement, she had already begun her life with her husband. She surely anticipated children, she surely anticipated raising them and teaching them, she surely anticipated keeping Joseph’s house, and even simply going with the other women of Nazareth to the town well to get water and talk. She undoubtedly even anticipated the Messiah, and perhaps even fervently did so. But, she surely could not have anticipated what was about to happen to her, and all that was implied in Gabriel’s greeting.
For, with that greeting, her life changed from the ordinary to a life of encountering deep and sometimes terrifying mysteries. There were, of course, the mysteries of joy that she soon experienced: Jesus’ birth with the adoration of shepherds and kings; the strange and wondrous recognition of the child in the Temple by the prophet Simeon; even the joy of watching him as a boy debate so well with the teachers in Jerusalem. But, there were also the mysteries of sorrow to come. We who have children are anxious enough when they are out late at night and the phone rings. Can we imagine what her life was like when she witnessed her son’s brutal, unjust humiliation and crucifixion? And who, after that, could possibly imagine the mysteries of glory to come: the Resurrection, the Ascension, the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost? Who could have anticipated any of this? Yet, all this was what was meant in the angel’s greeting. Small wonder that Luke tells us she was much perplexed. Who could have understood or anticipated?
Yet, after this greeting, after being told that the prophecy was being fulfilled and that she, even though a virgin and seemingly insignificant, was to conceive and bear the Messiah in her own body, her response to the terrifying and mysterious announcement was simply and quietly: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary is often referred to as the first of the New Testament saints. With respect to time, that is, of course, true. In a rather obvious way, she was the first to acknowledge the Messiah now come. But she is also the first of the New Testament saints in another sense; namely, that she is the model for faith. All Christian faith follows her example.
Of course, people come to faith in any number of different ways. For some, faith begins as it did with St. Paul, that is, by being knocked off one’s horse or some reasonable equivalent thereof. It is an earth-moving experience. For others it is a quieter and more drawn out process. I remember doing supply preaching several times in a small country church in Illinois where there were ten members – and one elderly gentleman who had been coming without interruption for thirty years but hadn’t made up his mind yet as to joining. There are others like St. Augustine who, in his Confessions, recounts the story of how he moved from being an ambitious and sometimes dissolute youth to being inflamed by a love of philosophy, to finally accepting God’s will as his own. Still others have simply been born in the faith and grow in it, while others are born in it, leave it, and then come back. But what each and every one of these people have in common is what they have in common with Mary: they have in some way said in their heart of hearts, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” We all have it in common when we simply pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Once we say that, then the unanticipated begins. St. Paul, the infamous persecutor of the church, becomes the apostle responsible for bringing the gospel to the Gentiles and becomes the gospel’s foremost interpreter. Augustine, one-time rake and heretic, becomes the bishop of Hippo Regius and the one known in the history of the church as the Doctor of Grace.
Or, consider my South African colleague whom I mentioned earlier. He grew up rather like any number of us, that is to say, in a Christian family; his story of how he came to faith was really no different than most of ours, although he lived a very different sort of life as a South African black under apartheid. He was baptized, he was confirmed, he went to church and he prayed. But that knock on his door in the night that came from the South African secret police was very much the result of his having said somewhere along the way, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Why? It was his involvement in the church’s struggles against apartheid as a Christian--heresy that had brought him to the attention of the race police. So, the resulting imprisonment and torture was a result of saying that. But so, too, was the time that he later spent in Princeton at the Center of Theological Inquiry as a notable theologian, and so, too, was his role as Moderator of the Black Reformed Church in South Africa, and so, too, was his position as an important figure in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in that country which sought, and rather successfully, I might add, given what everybody expected, to make life livable and just for all people in that country. So, too, was his appointment as Rector and Vice Chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa’s premier university a result of having said “Here I am.”
Paul, Augustine, and Russell Botman all had that phrase, “Here am I” in common with Mary, and they have it in common with us.
There is one other thing that we also hold in common with Mary. For all those who do say, sometimes even under their breath, because they know how awesome a thing it is, “Here am I,” they, like Mary, become pregnant with Christ himself, the very Word of God.
Augustine used to talk about what he called the “inner word.” By that, he meant the word in our souls, the word that we really mean, the unspoken word that stands behind all our spoken words, the silence behind all the noise that our mouths make. Now, for many people, their inner word, no matter how smooth and elegant their outer words might be, is not a thing we really want to hear. But for those who live in faith, that inner word, Augustine claimed, is no longer really theirs at all, for it has become by their consent, God’s own Word, the Word become flesh. And it is at that point, when our inner word is the Word of God that we, like Mary, although in one sense the parent, will be led throughout life by the child that has been conceived in our souls.
As we now come to Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, the Feast of the Word made flesh, let us then pay careful attention to Mary, for what we celebrate is not just the birth of a baby, the son of Mary and Joseph Christ, but, also and literally, the birth of the Word in us. May we, like Mary, also on this day, be so bold as to say to the unanticipated greeting of God, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”