Posted by: Titus Presler | December 19, 2011

Annunciation: A Random Sign: Meditation for Advent IV Monday

Amid all the Christian and Muslim reverence for Mary at the Annunciation, here’s an important question:  Was Mary chosen because she was great?  Or was Mary great because she was chosen – and for how she responded to being chosen?

The Renaissance paintings of Mary reading the Bible or interrupted at prayer – they’re based on the notion that Mary was someone super-special to begin with, extra-virtuous, extra-pious, as though God searched all of creation, or at least all Israel, and found the purest and most virtuous young woman.

We project all that onto Mary because our own drive for merit imagines that everything, including our relationship with God, is based on merit that we can generate, earn, record and stack up to ensure that we end up where we want to be, whether that’s at the head of the class, the head of the faculty, the top of the corporate ladder, or the top of Jacob’s ladder in heaven.

The merit-based view of Mary has been extrapolated back to her birth, with the notion that it was by immaculate conception; to her life, that she never bore other children, despite the biblical references to Jesus having brothers and sisters; and forward to the end of her life, that she did not die but was taken up bodily into heaven.

In contrast to these views, I put before you the word “random” as used by many young people today.  You’ve heard the expressions:  “Wow!  How random is that!”  “Hey, this totally random thing happened to me today!” “Yeah, that’s random!”  It could be running into an old friend on the street, or winning a prize in a raffle, or it could be something negative, like getting clipped by a bicycle, or someone losing their temper at you for no apparent reason – but usually it’s something both positive and surprising.  And the randomness is quite literally true: these events are not planned, they happen by chance, there seems to be no reason why they happened to you, instead of to any one of the hundreds or thousands of other people in your vicinity.

Think of teenage Mary telling one of her friends, “Hey, this totally random thing happened to me today!” and her friend saying at the end of the story, “Wow! How random is that!”

I like to think that it was pretty random.

Yes, Mary was faithful at synagogue and generally polite around people, but she was not necessarily a paragon, a supreme exemplar, of prayer and virtue.  For God to choose Mary was all of a piece with God choosing Nazareth out of a hundred other towns, or choosing that year out of all other possible years – which is to say, God chose the ordinary, and God may even have chosen at random.

The Angelus in catholic devotion begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace!”  What is grace?  What grace definitely is not is virtue and merit.  Very simply, grace is “the free and unmerited love of God.”  Mary was chosen not for her merit or her virtue but out of the free and unmerited love of God.  Mary was one of any number of people who could have been chosen.

This fits with the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is that we are reconciled to God not for our merit or virtue, but by the free and unmerited love of God shown forth in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So the wonder of the Annunciation is precisely its randomness, that this ordinary person was chosen out of many other ordinary people.  And that gets us back to the central fact of its personal grace – grace as free and unmerited love, and this love shown forth to this random person in a deeply personal encounter.

This meditation is excerpted from “Personal Grace: God’s Gift in the Annunciation,” a sermon preached by Titus Presler at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 18 December 2011. 

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