Annunciation of the Lord (March 26)3 (Lk 1:26–38)
Today’s Gospel—Luke 1:26–38, the Annunciation story— shows us that the Word precedes the Incarnation, the spiritual idea comes before the material person or thing. The angel’s annunciation precedes Mary’s conception of Jesus. This is the pattern going back to the divine word that brings about creation; “the universe was ordered by the word of God” (Heb 11:3, NABRE). God speaks (in this case through his angelic messenger), and things come into being.
At its heart, faith is not an ad hoc explanation of things that already exist, a way of trying to impose meaning and pattern on an arbitrary universe; faith is why anything at all is there to explain. Hebrews tells us that faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (11:1, KJV). It is the evidence of things unseen because the word of faith participates in the eternal Word that creates and sustains the universe. Hebrews 11 speaks of the creation story and the Abraham narrative as examples of faith because in each case the divine word speaks the event into being before it exists in any material form that we can see. For the nation of Israel (and by extension the Church) as for the universe itself, “What is visible came into being through the invisible” (Heb 11:3, NABRE). To have faith, then, is not to believe against all material evidence (as many skeptics and some Christians have thought); to have faith is to accord with the basic structure of reality. Unless the world itself is utterly devoid of meaning and human cognition is a joke, the word, the idea, must always precede the thing. Faith precedes material existence. C. S. Lewis knew this, and Plato knew this, but no one puts it better than the author of Hebrews.
And what more perfect example of this definition of faith than Mary in her fiat: “Let it be done unto me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38)? The moment she embraces the divine word, the Word takes on flesh. The Feast of the Annunciation gets at the heart of why faith is necessary at all and what it means to have faith. It’s easy for me to wax high rhetorical and to have grand thoughts about it; it’s central to my faith and to how I understand reality.
But here’s a less exalted story: over the last two days, my wife and I have begun awkwardly, hesitantly discussing in a manner hedged about with qualifications whether we should have a second child. These discussions have taken place in bed, late at night, after our daughter has gone to sleep. They consist mostly of mumbling and stuttering, but the gist is clear.
“Hmmm ...”, Emily says. She is lying on her back, and I can’t see her face. But I know from her intonation— starting low and deep and ending even lower and deeper— exactly what she means: We really need to think about child rearing. We’re getting older. The biological clock is ticking. The time is right.
“Well ...”, I reply, pronouncing the word as “whale” and stretching it into three syllables, as I typically do when nervous and stuck for something to say. Then I trail off. And Emily knows exactly what I mean: Every fifteen minutes of our schedule is managed every day as it is. The whole system barely works. Our lives as we know them will collapse if we add one or more children to the mix.
Then I turn toward the window and she turns toward the wall. And we try to sleep.
An hour later, we’re both back on our backs looking up at the ceiling. I say, “Hmmm”, which Emily knows means that I see—and might be getting ready to cede—her point.
She replies, “Well”, which I know means she has come around to mine. We’ve switched sides. This “conversation” continues for half the night. We’ve resolved nothing, but the door to another child is now just barely cracked open.
I know that openness to a second child doesn’t constitute heroic virtue. It may even fall short of ordinary virtue. But as I’ve admitted, Emily and I are all too aware of the conveniences and attractions of barrenness; they have been embraced by just about everyone who attended graduate school with us. And we don’t exist entirely apart from the environment that surrounds us.
It was a faith decision for us to have one child in the first place. It’s been a graced experience that we in no way regret—but also one we’re just learning how to handle. A first child meant a certain loss of control, a certain challenge to our egoism. But with careful planning, our lives could still continue on the same trajectory as before; the ship rocks but remains upright. A multichild family means a different life, one whose course we truly cannot set ourselves. And we like to be in control.
But Lent is precisely about challenging and questioning the lives we daily lead and the values we typically assume. And the Annunciation is all about being open to the divine word. The divine command is “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 9:1, RSV2CE); God doesn’t seem to care whether we feel fruitful or particularly wish to multiply. Emily and I do trust God more than we trust ourselves, and we undertook this Lent in all sincerity. So we say on this Feast of the Annunciation, “Let it be done to us according to your word—maybe? If it’s really necessary? If you’re sure?”
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
Excerpted from “Numbering My Days” by Chene Heady