Today is the feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the encounter between the Archangel Gabriel and the young maiden Mary, when Gabriel announced that Mary would conceive the child Jesus.
Whether the Annunciation be a miracle or a myth, it’s a powerful story that is well worth our consideration. It’s a story about call, about vocation, about how our individual destinies or life purposes are knit together in a larger, grander, cosmic story. I’m reminded of the song “Terrapin Station” by Grateful Dead: “The storyteller makes no choice, soon you will not hear his voice; his job is to shed light, and not to master.” Certainly this was the kind of energy that Gabriel brought to the peasant girl: the archangel did not imperiously decree that she would submit to this fate chosen for her — “you’re going to do this and you’re going to like it” — so much as simply stating the situation (“you’re going to have a baby”) and imbuing it with mystical light (“God has found favor with you… nothing is impossible with God”). It was Mary’s fiat — her affirming response: “let it be with me according to your word” — that functions as the dramatic capstone of the Annunciation. God may have issued the call, but it was Mary’s call (pardon the pun) as to whether or not she would receive her vocation with joy, with serenity, with faith.
We can get lost in gender politics here, and this story certainly can be interpreted as an unfortunate chapter in the history of the silencing of women. But I think such a reading downplays Mary’s dignity. Mary didn’t have a choice in whether or not she would conceive, true enough. But she did get to choose how she would deal with it. Frankly, by the dictates of common sense, Mary should have been freaking out on an epic scale: as an unmarried pregnant woman, she would have been a likely target for social ostracization or even murder (what they matter-of-factly called “stoning” in her day, now perversely described as “honor killings”). Mary’s fiat was a dramatic twist, an ironic moment that flew in the face of convention and social propriety. God may have surprised her with a miraculous pregnancy, but she surprised God back by choosing to go with the flow, mindfully and consciously.
So I wonder if this Feast Day shouldn’t be renamed the Feast of the Fiat, or perhaps the Feast of Mary’s Declaration. I remember a preacher once saying that what was remarkable about Jesus was not the resurrection — any self-respecting deity should be able to raise himself from the dead — but the crucifixion, to which Jesus offered his own fiat. Every one of us has the opportunity to declare our willingness to embrace our purpose, our destiny, our call — or even just the unfair challenges that tumble down into our lives. Thankfully, such a call will not always entail embracing a miraculous unplanned pregnancy or facing a cruel, painful death. But that’s not to say the call will always be fun or easy. After almost 18 years, I’m still trying to figure out how to say fiat to my calling to be the stepfather of a seriously handicapped young woman, without indulging in anger or bitterness or other shadow emotions that lurk in the more stressful moments of our shared family life. When the angel comes to you or to me to make the annunciation, who knows what we will be told? Feed the poor. Consume less energy. Befriend the person who votes differently, or whose sexual ethics are unlike your own. Stop judging your parents (or your children). Get help for your drinking problem. Join an intentional community. Devote an hour a day to silent prayer. Accept the fact that you will never walk again, or that you will be dead in six months. And on and on the list can go.
Once the annunciation is made, then comes the silence. Soon you will no longer hear the storyteller’s (angel’s) voice. In that open, luminous space, we make our declaration to life, to God, to the cosmos. We can say fiat or we can begin to whine and argue or make excuses. If you’re like me, chances are you’ll do some of both: you’ll say “yes, but” which is , I suppose, part of being human in a less-than-perfect world. That’s okay. But I don’t want to let us off the hook, either. For our declaration, whether irenic or combative, will not only shape our own experience of our destiny, but will also color how we live out our lives in relation to others. Cue the serenity prayer: saying yes to the things we cannot change, and being wise and heartful about those things we can, will make all the difference. There’s plenty of room to chart our own course even in a world where big things happen that we cannot control, big things that will shape our lives in horrible (or glorious) ways.
Cleaning the cobwebs out of our own minds (through the discipline of contemplation) is always a good place to start.