The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, St. Mark’s Church, Antioch, December 24, 2023

“Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).

Every so often, things pivot on a single moment. Our Gospel reading is a case in point. When the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary with the message that she was to be the mother of the Savior, there have been many years of prior preparation. Think of the call of Abraham to leave his own country and to seek the promised land; the liberation of his family, the People of God, from slavery in Egypt; the giving of the ten commandments to Moses on the mountain. God made promises to the family of David, to raise up his descendants after him to rule the People. God sent prophets to recall both kings and People to faithfulness. It was the labor of many centuries.

Nevertheless, all this careful preparation by God, involving the actions of many over time; all of the work of patriarchs, prophets, and kings; the clash of armies and the movement of nations on the stage of history: all revolves on one young woman of Israel, in Nazareth of Galilee. This is the pinch point, where all that has gone before comes down to a single moment of required faithfulness.

Mary’s positive response is crucial. The angel does not just tell her what will happen, willy-nilly; the angel invites her necessary response. Mary has active agency in this decision to become the mother of the Savior. Nothing happens without her cooperation. She conceives in an act of revolutionary obedience. When she says, “Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38), it is the most momentous “yes” ever given.

If sin and death came into the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, Mary’s pivotal “yes” sets the world on a different course. Eve is sometimes depicted, after the fall, as a tired and worn-out woman, burdened by the consequences of her actions; while Mary is shown as a young woman, the picture of humanity renewed and given a new lease on life. Mary’s “yes” has consequences, not only for herself but for the whole human race.

Mary holds the stage, with the spotlight upon her; but God remains the chief actor. Remember the angelic salutation, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk. 1:28). God is still at work, as he was with prophets, priests, and kings. This is the message of the angel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk. 1:35). As the messenger says, the Holy Spirit must overshadow her, so that these things can take place, as the finger of God writes the next chapter of her life.

Still, Mary must act. Mary’s action is revolutionary, in the sense that it turns the world upside down: or perhaps, turns it right side up again. If Adam and Eve sinned, and brought disaster upon the human race; then Mary’s action, enabled by grace, makes possible our liberation from sin and death. What led to disorder is now reordered by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the young woman of Nazareth. What was at fault is now remedied; what was broken is now mended. In Mary’s womb, heaven and earth are united in the person of Jesus Christ.

Everything that happens afterward takes place on account of this pivotal moment, and Mary’s “yes” to God. The birth of Jesus Christ takes place nine months after Mary’s “Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). His ministry unfolds from the home of Mary and Joseph, from the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:26) that he learned there. Our own call to faith itself in the church is rooted in Jesus’ own obedience, his death and resurrection, which means new life for us.

Today in our liturgy, Mary’s “yes” to God finds an echo in our service of confirmation. A fellow member of the Church is reaffirming his baptismal vows and receiving the laying-on-of-hands with prayer, the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that is required for the living of the Christian life. Each of us has an opportunity to join in these same affirmations. Today we are all stepping into Mary’s shoes, into the revolutionary role that is required at this pivotal moment.

In just a few short hours we will enter into the Christmas celebration; we will draw near to the creche and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. That event, and our salvation itself, depends on saying “yes” to God: Mary’s “yes” and ours as well. May God bless all of us as we enter into this holy season, and give us the grace that is required for this pivotal moment.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee