It’s Advent, and I’m thinking about Mary. I’m fascinated by Mary’s “yes” to God. In response to the angel’s visitation, she says in Luke 1:38: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Maybe it’s because she gives that yes seemingly without reservation, without the usual human punctuation of if, and, or but, that I’m drawn to her. Even the patriarch Jacob of long ago, he who would be Israel, didn’t manage that. God spoke to him in a dream and made promises to him, but Jacob said “If God will be with me (and keep me safe and give me food and water and clothes and so on and so forth, and, oh, if I get to see my parents again), then the Lord shall be my God (and I’ll worship him and tithe to him)” (Genesis 28:20-22). Jacob was making a vow to God–an acceptable practice in biblical thought. But Mary just said yes. She placed no conditions on God’s future dealings with her. Mary unreservedly gave her yes.
I’m also intrigued by the way that Mary’s past leads up to her moment of yes. In Luke’s gospel artistry, Jesus’ genealogy falls between his baptism and his temptation in the desert (Luke 3:23-38). It’s Luke’s way of signalling Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s destiny. Where the nation of Israel grumbled and stumbled in the desert, Jesus emerges victorious and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Where Israel strayed as God’s chosen son, the apple of God’s eye, the Father says over Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 32:10; Luke 3:22). What’s more, the chain of begats linking Jesus’ earthly lineage is so very human. Matthew makes this especially clear in his telling, for instance by underlining that Rahab the prostitute was Jesus’ distant ancestor (Matthew 1:5). But the message is just as clear in Luke’s version of the genealogy: there’s a whole lot of missteps and bad decisions and sin. We don’t know near enough about their stories, but we know something about a few of the names on the list: that Lamech was obsessed with revenge, Jacob was a trickster, David was a philanderer (Genesis 4:23-24; Genesis 27; 2 Samuel 11). That’s the material that God works with across history to get to Mary’s yes and the birth of the Savior: the on-again-off-again, bumper car arena of human life.
All of this speaks to our experience as individuals. We have these moments, in the plural and the present, in which we like Mary can say “yes” to God–this despite our missteps and bad decisions and sin–that have led up to where we are now.Which I suppose testifies to God’s compassion, God’s heart for second chances. But there’s something more. You see, many of us experience a dissonance in our own stories. There are scenes we might like to edit, whole chapters that we would prefer to cut. We’ve made decisions, said things, done things that we later come to regret. Everyone experiences this, though not everybody’s willing to own up to it. I’m always puzzled by people who claim they “wouldn’t change a thing” about their lives. Because I would. And the things we might change aren’t even necessarily all bad. Sometimes, they’re just forks in the road that we never gave up wondering about. What if? We chose a path, and then all of those days came tumbling out on top of one another, falling in unexpected configurations. One decision begat the next until we arrived at our here and now, the genealogy of our present self.
Strangely enough, that’s what God works with. Our lives are the descendants of a long, helical chain of stories. Mary’s yes claims that history for good, Jesus at the end, Jesus in the beginning, Jesus through and through. Whatever had come before, her’s was the true possibility of responding in obedience and trust. Thus our lives. Whatever came before, the present moment is the hinge. We can say no. Or yes. “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Where will that yes lead? Mary didn’t know. Her words were open-ended: “Let it be with me according to your word.” The future is unformed, and it probably won’t look like what we imagine. In my experience, faithful living doesn’t mean figuring out God’s plan, nicely wrapped up with the edges tucked in. The way I’ve experienced it, responding in faith to God looks like being open to God’s leading wherever we find ourselves. Sometimes, it’s going to mean being “perplexed”–precisely how Mary received the angel (Luke 1:29).
At Advent we can discover again what Mary learned: that the good, true, and faithful life doesn’t mean having the past perfected or the future clarified. It’s about saying yes, and then…who knows?