"....In both the first reading and the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, there is a startling twist: it is not we who make dwelling places for God, but God who builds the house. Likewise, on Christmas day, John’s Gospel speaks not only of how wondrous it is that God takes on the form of a human child, but also of how our reception of the Word enables us to become children of God. We keep on becoming a child of God by receiving this lowly child, not only the one in the manger, but all those who seem insignificant all around us.
The scene of the annunciation to Mary is a subject of much Christian art. Oftentimes Mary is portrayed as serenely praying and surrounded with light and joy. But in other annunciation scenes there is an undercurrent of distress, incomprehension and scandal in this story. Henry Ossawa Tanner captures this sense in his painting, “The Annunciation,” in which Mary sits at the edge of her disheveled bed, with a look of puzzlement and concern, while gazing toward a golden beam in the form of a cross. Megan Marlatt’s fresco “The Annunciation” in St. Michael’s Chapel at Rutgers University likewise depicts the topsy-turvy aspect of the event, as the angel appears upside down, uttering the word “Blessed” backwards. Mary’s life, as she thought it would be, is entirely upended, which is greatly troubling.
What God is asking is incomprehensible. Mary questions how it can be. In addition, in her tiny village, where everyone knows everyone else and many people are related to one another, everyone knows that she and the man who is already her legal husband have not yet begun to live together. But all of them can count to nine. What will they say about her, what kinds of nasty looks will they cast her way when her precious child is born too soon?
While not spelling out how, Gabriel reassures Mary that in the midst of this messy situation, God will bring forth blessing, holiness and salvation for all. Twice God’s messenger assures her that she is grace-filled and is favored in God’s sight, even if others will question this. He also reassures her that she is not alone. Her relative, Elizabeth, will help mentor and support her. Without knowing how God will accomplish all this, Mary opens a space for God to dwell within her, enabling the divine to make a new home within all humankind.
Mary makes a physical home for the Holy One in her womb; hers was a unique role. But we too are asked by God to make a dwelling place within ourselves and within our world for the Christ. The circumstances are always messy. It is not in glorious buildings beautifully adorned but in the humblest of persons, in the most difficult of circumstances, that God takes up residence. The irony is that in trying times we may feel abandoned by God, or question why it is that God is punishing us, or why we have lost God’s favor. It is precisely in such times that God dwells most intimately with us, assuring us that we are full of grace and favor, asking us to trust that God can and will bring forth blessing, even if we cannot see how.
Many of our ancestors in the faith were called “favored” by God: Noah (Gn 6:8), Moses (Ex 33:12-17), Gideon (Jgs 6:17) and Samuel (1 Sm 2:26). God always asks a great deal of “favored” ones. Moses, for example, found it so burdensome at one point that he prayed God would do him the “favor” of killing him at once, so he need no longer face the distress of leading a difficult people (Nm 11:15). Mary is right to be troubled when Gabriel calls her “favored” one.
But God’s “favor” is also accompanied by God’s power and protecting Spirit. Jesus, too, has “the favor of God” upon him (Lk 2:40, 52), a favor that extends to all who receive him, as John’s Gospel says in the Christmas reading: “grace upon grace,” or “favor upon favor” (Jn 1:16). Likewise, in the Gospel for Christmas Midnight Mass, the shepherds sing of the peace now manifest for all those favored by God (Lk 2:14)—that is, all who make room in their “inns” for this unlikely Coming One."
This article also appeared in print, under the headline "A Dwelling Place for God," in the December 15, 2008 issue.