“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38)
This past week I found myself needing to write a difficult letter to a friend. I didn’t expect it to be difficult when I sat down to write it; I had decided firmly on the subject matter and knew something of what I would say. But I soon found it an effort to even pick up the pen, to write the date, to write the opening greeting. That was all I accomplished for half an hour. A sudden sense of tiredness came over me and I wanted to do anything but write the letter. I went out of the writing room and did a couple of other things to waste time and perhaps compose the first paragraph in my head. And there was the closed door with the sliver of light showing at the bottom beckoning me to come back and finish what I had started. I soon realized what my problem was: that in writing and sending this letter I would be sharing a part of myself with this person that I had as yet kept private, and the fear of how vulnerable this would make me, the uncertainty of their response, was what was keeping me from going on.
It may be a cliche, but the human heart is truly fragile. Physically it’s protected by nothing more than an equally fragile pericardium, the ribcage, and some muscles and skin. The psychological and emotional protections come from ourselves, as if we know we may not be able to stop a knife or a bullet but we can stop the pain by simply refusing it entry. We grow to only let a few people into our confidence. The defenses can become quite elaborate. Certainly there are people who will try to hurt us and we should protect ourselves. But for every wall and redoubt and barbed wire fence that keeps an enemy at bay, it means another gate that we have to make our friends pass through. Besides it’s dark and cold out there, and we’re not as safe as we are inside the fortress. We have to be seriously convinced that the person knocking at the front door is truly a friend before we go out to meet them or let them come in; they must give the password or show the colours or do a backflip through a hoop while whistling “Frosty The Snowman” before we can open up.
The miracle of the virgin birth is, as we Christians like to say, a “mystery” of the faith. How was God able to make a woman pregnant without sex? None of us know, least of all me. It’s a matter of, well, faith. But as I reflected on the episode of the Annunciation (the visit of the angel to Mary), I noticed what I believe to be a key part of the process: Mary had to accept the proposal. God was offering her an enormously important role in His plan of salvation for the world, but it carried an incredible risk. As does all love. Mary was betrothed but not yet married, a pact considered binding but without the consummation of the nuptial bed, and the scandal this would cause in Nazareth for both her and Joseph must have been horrible to contemplate. Though Mary would not have known it yet, a difficult journey to Bethlehem and giving birth in a dirty, stinking stable lay ahead. And later, when warned that Herod was killing the year-old boys, another difficult journey into Egypt would have to be undertaken. The son of God born through Mary would not come easily into the world. So bringing the plan to fruition required not just God’s act of love, but also Mary’s acceptance of this love. Unlike the other myths of the ancient world where deities impregnate mortal women who then give birth to demigods, the God of Israel would not force Himself on the virgin. Mary’s consent was an essential part of the process. In a society where single women were barely considered as human beings under the law and not at all when they were married, Mary’s fortress around her heart must have been considerable. Was she even in love with Joseph? We like to think so, and often portray it so, but it’s impossible to say. Now God was asking her to open the gates and bring down the wall for Him. And with all the pain and turmoil that came with the act of responding to His love, Mary chose to make herself vulnerable before the Lord. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” By accepting the gesture of love, Mary made it possible for her baby to be born and for the next stage of the grand plan to come about. It wasn’t easy. She would be hurt considerably. But she trusted the one who was asking, and He did not let her down.
Few things can hurt more than love betrayed. I’m not talking about romantic love in particular, but any relationship you may have with someone else. The person at the gate may be only pretending to be a friend and trying to lure us out in order to stage an invasion. Or an overture of friendship on our part may be rebuffed with force. Or they may simply not be willing to come out of their own fortress. People are like that sometimes. But I don’t believe we should be locking ourselves up behind walls out of fear. There are certainly things we should guard ourselves against, but shutting ourselves from all intimate contact with others will only hurt us more in the long run. We are not meant to be alone with our pain and confusion. If we never trust anyone, we become less than human.
It took quite some time to finish my letter, but it happened, and it got a little easier the more I shared with my friend. In a final push, the letter was in the mail. I don’t know what the person will say. I’m still a little nervous about what they’ll think of me after they’ve read it. But the reason I was able to finish what I had started was because I had decided that this was a person worthy of my trust. Whatever conversation we have out of this, I believe that will still be true.