Kathleen Norris is an American best-selling author
who has captured the hearts of many
(including the press like the New York Times).
Her writings are part narrative and part meditative
and beckon the reader to engage with new perspective.
Below is an excerpt of an Advent essay
(in Watch for the Light)
inviting us into a larger understanding
of 'a virgin birth' and what that means for each of us
while standing in awe of Mary's.
It's worth the read especially if you're a woman.
‘ANNUNCIATION’ MEANS ‘the announcement.’ It would not be a scary word at all, except that as one of the Christian mysteries, it is part of a language of story, poetry, image, and symbol that the Christian tradition has employed for centuries to convey the central tenets of the faith. The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. A Dominican friend defines the mysteries simply as ‘events in the life of Christ celebrated as stories in the gospels, and meant to be lived by believers.’ But modern believers tend to trust in therapy more than in mystery, a fact that tends to manifest itself in worship that employs the bland speech of pop psychology and self-help rather than language resonant with poetic meaning—for example, a call to worship that begins: ‘Use this hour, Lord, to get our perspectives straight again.’ Rather than express awe, let alone those negative feelings, fear and trembling, as we come into the presence of God, crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ we focus totally on ourselves, and arrogantly issue an imperative to God. Use this hour, because we’re busy later; just send us a bill, as any therapist would, and we’ll zip off a check in the mail. But the mystery of worship, which is God’s presence and our response to it, does not work that way.
The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story. I once heard a Benedictine friend who is an Assiniboine Indian preach on the Annunciation to an Indian congregation. ‘The first thing Gabriel does when he encounters Mary,’ he said, ‘is to give her a new name: “Most favored one.” It’s a naming ceremony,’ he emphasized, making a connection that excited and delighted his listeners. When I brood on the story of the Annunciation, I like to think about what it means to be ‘overshadowed’ by the Holy Spirit; I wonder if a kind of overshadowing isn’t what every young woman pregnant for the first time might feel, caught up in something so much larger than herself. I think of James Wright’s little poem ‘Trouble,’ and the wonder of his pregnant mill-town girl. The butt of jokes, the taunt of gossip, she is amazed to carry such power within herself.
‘Sixteen years and
all that time, she thought she was nothing
but skin and bones.’
Told all her life that she is ‘nothing,’ the girl discovers in herself another, deeper reality. A mystery; something holy, with a potential for salvation. The poem has challenged me for years to wonder what such a radically new sense of oneself would entail. Could it be a form of virgin birth?
I suspect that Mary’s ‘yes’ to her new identity, to the immense and wondrous possibilities of her new and holy name, may provide an excellent means of conveying to girls that there is something in them that no man can touch; that belongs only to them, and to God…Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, describes the true identity that he seeks in contemplative prayer as a ‘point vierge’ at the center of his being, ‘a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth…which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point…of absolute poverty,’ he wrote, ‘is the pure glory of God in us.’
We all need to be told that God loves us, and the mystery of the Annunciation reveals an aspect of that love. But it also suggests that our response to this love is critical. A few verses before the angel appears to Mary in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, another annunciation occurs; an angel announces to an old man, Zechariah, that his equally aged wife is to bear a son who will ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ The couple are to name him John; he is known to us as John the Baptist. Zechariah says to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so?’ which is a radically different response from the one Mary makes. She says, ‘How can this be?’
I interpret this to mean that while Zechariah is seeking knowledge and information, Mary contents herself with wisdom, with pondering a state of being. God’s response to Zechariah is to strike him dumb during the entire term of his son’s gestation, giving him a pregnancy of his own. He does not speak again until after the child is born, and he has written on a tablet what the angel has said to him: ‘His name is John.’ This confounds his relatives, who had expected that the child would be named after his father. I read Zechariah’s punishment as a grace, in that he could not say anything to further compound his initial arrogance when confronted with mystery. When he does speak again, it is to praise God; he’s had nine months to think it over.
Mary’s ‘How can this be?’ is a simpler response than Zechariah’s, and also more profound. She does not lose her voice but finds it. Like any of the prophets, she asserts herself before God saying, ‘Here am I.’ There is no arrogance, however, but only holy fear and wonder. Mary proceeds—as we must do in life—making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead. I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile cliches, the popular but false wisdom of what ‘we all know’? Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a ‘yes’ that will change me forever?