Sunday, 20 December 2020

'Perplexity, pondering, presence, power & possibility: Mary & the Angel - a tale for our times


First preached as an extempore homily at Croydon Minster and written down afterwards (hence discrepancies in what the congregation may have heard and what I have now written!). The readings were, 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16 and Luke 1.26-38.


‘Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’.

(Luke 1.38)




The encounter of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel is timeless and enduring. It’s a scene portrayed in art and music.


Yet what this young woman is being asked is earth shattering, reputation crushing and terrifying. If social media was around at that time Mary was going to be exposed to trolling and shaming because she has transgressed the norms of society and Law of Moses: unmarried and pregnant.


This passage of St Luke’s gospel (1.26-38) is one that could easily be brushed aside with a flippant, ‘yeah, heard this one before’. It’s good carol service fodder.


But it repays deep attention for these is so much going on here, as our parish Lectio Divina group discovered last week. Slowly chewing over its words brings out many deep insights.


It is clear that this reading speaks on different levels. There is the perplexity and response of Mary which mirrors the response any one of us could make to the call of God, and it maps how we might reflect on the dark times we are currently in. In short it offers hope, Christian hope.


There were five things that really struck me in this reading. They all begin with ‘p’ – I like the alliteration! - and can be remembered on the fingers of one hand.


1.      perplexity

2.      pondering

3.      power

4.      presence

5.      possibility



Mary’s response to the angel is perplexity (1.29a). It’s little wonder. What she is being asked comes out of a ‘clear blue sky’. She is perplexed by it. The call of God is often perplexing.


Perplexity is an appropriate word for our times. Everything is perplexing. Why is such and such allowed in this Tier and not that? I have waited since March to see my family and/or friends and now I can’t it is so perplexing for us.



Mary’s response to perplexity is not panic (another word beginning with ‘p’) but pondering (1.29b). Mary is a great exemplar of pondering in response to major events: ‘she pondered all these things in her heart’ (Luke 2.51). Another word for pondering is prayer.


The point of prayer in perplexity is not simply a desperate plea to be lifted out of perplexity, although that is a legitimate prayer, it is also a ‘casting our cares upon God’. It is resting, nestling in the One to of whom we say ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble’ (Psalm 46.1)


Out of her pondering Mary trusts the call, perplexing though it is. In prayer we entrust ourselves to God’s care and mercy.



This is the hinge that swings us from our perplexity. God promises presence (not presents!).


As he promised in the first reading from the Second Book of Samuel God promises to rest, to nestle amongst his people. This presence is not restricted to a house of cedar but is conceived in Mary’s womb and available to all humanity. That is incarnation. Nestled in her womb God could not be closer to Mary.


And, remember too, in another classic reading from a carol service, the (same) angel promises that the child to be born will be named ‘Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”’ (Matthew 1.23).


God is with us in adversity. God, in Christ, is with us in these dark, desolate times.



Mary is told that the power of the Most High will overshadow her and we see the power of Mary to embrace what God asks of her. She is not a victim of God or of circumstance, she is an empowered woman defying convention to honour God’s call. How impressive!


This power, what the gospel calls dunamis, from which we get the word ‘dynamic’, this power is God’s power to change and transform. Mary the simple girl of Nazareth is transformed into the Bearer, the Mother of God.


When  God is present power is bestowed such that we can become the person calls us to be. And it is this power that makes all things possible.



How can this be? This is God’s power. The creative power of God that brought life into being, and you and me into existence, makes all things possible. What is desolate becomes inhabited, what is empty is filled, Mary is told to look at Elizabeth’s life, and we look at Mary’s life.


The human body, the body of this woman, receives and gives a home to the full presence of God, the creator, the maker of possibilities.


Perplexity then is a feature of human existence: don’t we know that at the moment? We can’t eradicate it, but it can be transformed. After Mary’s example, we begin in pondering and prayer. And the presence of Christ unleashes the power of the Most High to make new possibility of who we are and who we can be.


Receiving this presence, power and possibility is open to us daily in the Eucharist, where Christ comes to dwell in our own bodies in bread and wine. That sends us out to proclaim God’s presence in the world and assure all people that we are not alone, because of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God is with us.

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