It is no accident that Mary takes center stage this time of year. Mary, so venerated by some Christians, so ignored by some Christians, so misunderstood by some Christians. At times Catholics have transformed the peasant Jewish teenage girl into an otherworldly queen. At times Protestants and Evangelicals have pretended that she never existed, or they have missed the truth that she is the first disciple, that she displays radical faith and trust in God.
Mary hears the call of God and she responds. She models faith, obedience, servanthood, discipleship, and hospitality. The Annunciation is the word of God, through the messenger, to Mary. “You have found favor with God. The power of the Holy Spirit will come upon you. You will give birth to the Savior.”
“How can this be?” Mary asks. “Nothing will be impossible with God,” the angel/messenger says to her. The call of God is to an ordinary woman, and yet the call is to do something extraordinary. God chose an ordinary human being—Mary—to be the vessel through which the Son of God would be born. What is impossible for us is possible with God. Paul, writing later to the church at Corinth, would reflect on this truth that is common and profound: “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
In a busy season of the year it is good to get clarity about what is happening. God calls ordinary people, people like you and me. This has always been the way of the Lord; again, Paul writing to the Corinthians: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But . . . God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).
Or we can go farther back into the tradition and rehearse the call of Moses, who suggested that he was not eloquent of speech and that his brother might be a better candidate for God’s mission (Exodus 3). The call of God comes to ordinary human beings, like Mary. Yet through ordinary people the extraordinary happens. The call of God, found in the Annunciation, finds its response in a later text, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56). Mary senses it: “I am an ordinary person. I am not perfect.” Preachers grasp this: we are imperfect people, and we preach to gatherings of imperfect people.
The good news of the gospel is that when God begins to search for us, God is not seeking perfection. God chooses the ordinary. God loves the unlovable. In fact, God reverses just about every expectation we might have of how the Lord would enter into this world and save it.
Does God flatter the proud? No, God scatters the proud. Does God seek an invitation from the throne? No, God brings those from thrones down, and lifts up the lowly. Does God hang out at the finest restaurants? No, God throws a banquet for the poor. Does God choose a queen or a princess to be the mother of Jesus? No, God chooses Mary. Does God choose the wise, the noble, and the powerful in this world to accomplish the divine will? No, God chooses you and me. Does God love those who are lovable? Yes, and God loves the unlovable; God forgives the imperfect; God reaches out to the lost.
Christmas is really all about this attribute of God, who loves us, who reaches out, down to us, who stoops to our weakness. “Mild he lays his glory by,” Charles Wesley wrote in the carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. God comes in the unspectacular and the humble.
That is what Christmas is about. As a child growing up, our large family party was always on Christmas Eve. We all gathered—my great-grandmother, my grandparents, their three children, and the eight great-grandchildren. Maybe we do tend to see the past through rose-colored glasses, but I remember those times as among my happiest moments on earth. We were euphoric, ecstatic. Years later, my grandparents and great-grandmother moved into the city to be near medical care. After my great-grandmother and grandfather died, my grandmother decided that she wanted to move back home. So the house was refurbished. We painted it and cleaned it out. I was in college by then, and walking back into the house, I could not believe how small it was. How did the thirteen of us fit in that room? Then I looked at pictures of those gatherings, and I saw the cinderblock walls—it really was a very simple house—and I looked at the Christmas tree—a Georgia pine tree, not like the large ones we put up now. What was happening in those gatherings?
It all becomes clear again. What made such a setting—simple, nothing grand or extravagant about it—one of the very places on earth that is most holy to me now? The clue is in the call of God to Mary and her response. God chooses the simple to confound the wise. God chooses the humble to shame the strong. God always chooses the ordinary to do something extraordinary. What is impossible for us is possible for God.
In a stable, probably more like a cave, on a hillside in the country, out of the way, a baby was born to two scared young people. They had nothing to offer, only the circumstance of their lives. They heard the call of God, each in their own way. They responded in faith. Christmas, for us, twenty centuries later, is no different. What is the call and what is our response? What is God saying to you this Christmas? What are you saying to God?