From Amazing Grace
My only rule: If I understand something, it’s no mystery.
If God’s incomprehensibility does not grip us in a word, if it does not draw us into his superluminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of our homely, close-hugged truths, we have misunderstood the words of Christianity.
“Annunciation” means “the announcement.” It would not be a scary word at all, except that as one of the Christian mysteries, it is part of a language of story, poetry, image, and symbol that the Christian tradition has employed for centuries to convey the central tenets of the faith. The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. A Dominican friend defines the mysteries simply as “events in the life of Christ celebrated as stories in the gospels, and meant to be lived by believers.” But modern believers tend to trust in therapy more than in mystery, a fact that tends to manifest itself in worship that employs the bland speech of pop psychology and self-help rather than language resonant with poetic meaning – for example, a call to worship that begins: “Use this hour, Lord, to get our perspectives straight again.” Rather than express awe, let alone those negative feelings, fear and trembling, as we come into the presence of God, crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we focus totally on ourselves, and arrogantly issue an imperative to God. Use this hour, because we’re busy later; just send us a bill, as any therapist would, and we’ll zip off a check in the mail. But the mystery of worship, which is God’s presence and our response to it, does not work that way.
The profound skepticism of our age, the mistrust of all that has been handed to us by our grandfathers and grandmothers as tradition, has led to a curious failure of the imagination, manifested in language that is thoroughly comfortable, and satisfyingly unchallenging. A hymn whose name I have forgotten cheerfully asks God to “make our goals your own.” A so-called prayer of confession confesses nothing but whines to God “that we have hindered your will and way for us by keeping portions of our lives apart from your influence.” To my ear, such language reflects an idolatry of ourselves, that is, the notion that the measure of what we can understand, what is readily comprehensible and acceptable to us, is also the measure of God. It leads all too many clerics to simply trounce on mystery and in the process say remarkably foolish things. The Annunciation is a good as any place to start. I once heard a Protestant clergywoman say to an ecumenical assembly, “We all know there was no virgin birth. Mary was just an unwed, pregnant teenager, and God told her it was okay. That’s the message we need to give girls today, that God loves them, and forget all this nonsense about a virgin birth.” A gasp went up; people shook their heads. This was the first (and only) gratuitously offensive remark made at a convention marked by great theological diversity. When it came, I happened to be sitting between some Russian Orthodox, who were offended theologically, and black Baptists, whose sense of theological affront was mixed with social concern. They were not at all pleased to hear a well-educated, middle-class white woman say that what we need to tell pregnant teenagers is, “It’s okay.”
I realized that my own anger at the woman’s arrogance had deep personal roots. I was taken back to my teenage years, when the “de-mythologizing” of Christianity that I had encountered in a misguided study of modern theology had led me to conclude that there was little in religion for me. In the classroom, at least, it seemed that anything in the Bible that didn’t stand up to reason, that we couldn’t explain, was primitive, infantile, ripe for discarding. So I took all my longing for the sacred, for mystery, into the realm of poetry, and found a place for myself there. Now, more than thirty years later, I sat in a room full of Christians and thought, My God, they’re still at it, still trying to leach every bit of mystery out of this religion, still substituting the most trite language imaginable. You’re okay, the boy you screwed when you were both too drunk to stand is okay, all God chooses to say about it is, it’s okay.
The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story. I once heard a Benedictine friend who is an Assiniboine Indian preach on the Annunciation to an Indian congregation. “The first thing Gabriel does when he encounters Mary,” he said, “is to give her a new name: ‘Most favored one.’ It’s a naming ceremony,” he emphasized, making a connection that excited and delighted his listeners. When I brood on the story of the Annunciation, I like to think about what it means to be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit; I wonder if a kind of overshadowing isn’t what every young woman pregnant for the first time might feel, caught up in something so much larger than herself. I think of James Wright’s little poem, “Trouble,” and the wonder of his pregnant mill-town girl. The butt of jokes, the taunt of gossips, she is amazed to carry such power within herself. “Sixteen years, and / all that time, she thought she was nothing / but skin and bones.” Wright’s poem does, it seems to me, what the clergywoman talks about doing, but without resorting to ideology or the false assurance that “it’s okay.” Told all her life that she is “nothing,” the girl discovers in herself another, deeper reality. A mystery; something holy, with a potential for salvation. The poem has challenged me for years to wonder what such a radically new sense of oneself would entail. Could it be a form of virgin birth?
Wondering at the many things that the story of the Annunciation might mean, I take refuge in the fact that for centuries so many poets and painters have found it worthy of consideration. European art would not have been enriched had Fra Angelico, or Dante Gabriel Rossetti for that matter, simply realized that the Annunciation was a form of negative thinking, moralistic nonsense that only a modern mindset – resolutely intellectual, professional, therapeutic – could have straightened out for them. I am glad also that many artists and poets are still willing to explore the metaphor (and by that I mean the truth) of the virgin birth. The contemporary poet Laurie Sheck, in her poem, “The Annunciation,” respects the “honest grace” that Mary shows by not attempting to hide her fear in the presence of the angel, her fear of the changes within her body. I suspect that Mary’s “yes” to her new identity, to the immense and wondrous possibilities of her new and holy name, may provide an excellent means of conveying to girls that there is something in them that no man can touch; that belongs only to them, and to God.
When I hear remarks like the one made by the pastor at that conference, I am struck mainly by how narrow and impoverished a concept of virginity it reveals. It’s in the monastic world that I find a broader and also more relevant grasp of what it could mean to be virgin. Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, describes the true identity that he seeks in contemplative prayer as a “point vierge” at the center of his being, “a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of absolute poverty,” he wrote, “is the pure glory of God in us.”
It is only when we stop idolizing the illusion of our control over the events of life and recognize our poverty that we become virgin in the sense that Merton means. Adolescents tend to be better at this than grown-ups, because they are continually told that they don’t know enough, and they lack the means to hide behind professional credentials. The whole world confirms to them that they are indeed poor, regrettably laboring through what is called “the awkward age.” It is no wonder that teenagers like to run in packs, that they surround themselves with people as gawky and unformed as themselves. But it is in adolescence that the fully formed adult self begins to emerge, and if a person has been fortunate, allowed to develop at his or her own pace, this self is a liberating force, and it is virgin. That is, it is one-in-itself, better able to cope with peer pressure, as it can more readily measure what is true to one’s self, and what would violate it. Even adolescent self-absorption recedes as one’s capacity for the mystery of hospitality grows: it is only as one is at home in oneself that one may be truly hospitable to others – welcoming, but not overbearing, affably pliant but not subject to crass manipulation. This difficult balance is maintained only as one remains virgin, cognizant of oneself as valuable, unique, and undiminishable at core.
We all need to be told that God loves us, and the mystery of the Annunciation reveals an aspect of that love. But it also suggests that our response to this love is critical. A few verses before the angel appears to Mary in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, another annunciation occurs; an angel announces to an old man, Zechariah, that his equally aged wife is to bear a son who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The couple are to name him John; he is known to us as John the Baptist. Zechariah says to the angel, “How will I know that this is so?” which is a radically different response from the one Mary makes. She says, “How can this be?”
I interpret this to mean that while Zechariah is seeking knowledge and information, Mary contents herself with wisdom, with pondering a state of being. God’s response to Zechariah is to strike him dumb during the entire term of his son’s gestation, giving him a pregnancy of his own. He does not speak again until after the child is born, and he has written on a tablet what the angel has said to him: “His name is John.” This confounds his relatives, who had expected that the child would be named after his father. I read Zechariah’s punishment as a grace, in that he could not say anything to further compound his initial arrogance when confronted with mystery. When he does speak again, it is to praise God; he’s had nine months to think it over.
Mary’s “How can this be?” is a simpler response than Zechariah’s, and also more profound. She does not lose her voice but finds it. Like any of the prophets, she asserts herself before God saying, “Here am I.” There is no arrogance, however, but only holy fear and wonder. Mary proceeds – as we must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead. I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés, the popular but false wisdom of what “we all know”? Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “yes” that will change me forever?