Saturday, June 25, 2011

When God Calls: Part II

The Call of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Daughter of Abraham
Luke 1:26-56

Giovanni Lanfranco, "The Annunciation" (c 1620)
The call of God to Mary has much in common with the call of Abraham.  In exchange for consent to God’s will, God also promises Mary many things in return.  Here also, God calls for Mary's consent to something that is beyond human understanding and reason. The promise of a child to Mary also stood in stark contradiction to her life and her circumstances. As a true daughter of Abraham, Mary is also called to great faith.

But while there are great similarities to note, there are also marked differences.  Abraham did not come to know God until he was 75 years old.  From her childhood, Mary's life was one that was dedicated to prayer and service to God in the Temple.  Abraham was old and his wife was barren. Mary was a young virgin, and the child that God promised her through the words of the Angel Gabriel had not been sought or hoped for.  But the greatest difference between Mary and Abraham lies in how Mary responded to her call. 

In the case of Abraham, his initial response to God was one of silent and unhesitating obedience to leave his home for one unknown.  It was only later, as time passed, that he began to question God, asking Him where was the child that He promised, and how can you make a great nation of me when the only heir I have is one of my servants?  He also acted on his own initiative and lack of faith, in particular when he deceived the Egyptians about the identity of Sarah as his wife, and when he consented at her urging, to beget a child, Ishmael, by her handmaid, Hagar, rather than patiently waiting for the Lord to fulfill His promise for a true heir from his wife's womb.

Mary, on the other hand, was a woman of unwavering faith.  In fact, her faith seemed to increase as God called her to greater and greater trust in the face of greater and greater uncertainty and suffering.  Mary’s initial response to the greeting of the Angel (“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”) was one of astonishment and even fear, for surely Mary knew immediately with the Angel’s declaration that “the Lord was with [her],” that this was a call from God out of the quiet, hidden life she had always known, to something public and extraordinary.  But when the Angel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid,” she obeys.  When the Angel tells her that she is to bear a child, and that this child will be great and holy, she believes.  Her question, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” was an admission of her inability to understand as a mere creature, this great and seemingly impossible thing that God would do.  But unlike Abraham, who believed upon the reassuring word of the Lord that his descendants would be in number like the stars, but later gave in to doubt when he consented to beget a child by Hagar, Mary’s response of “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word” was spoken once and for all.  It was the profession of a perpetual vow to obey and follow the call of God, making no protest, but always responding in silent obedience, “keeping all these things in her heart.” 

For Mary, the call to be the mother of the Messiah meant a complete change in her life, and in her identity.  As a woman pregnant and not yet wedded, she was subject to shame and scandal, even stoning, first in the eyes of Joseph, her betrothed, and also surely in the eyes of the community.  From the moment the Word was made flesh in her womb, and forever thereafter, Jesus’ very existence, His very identity, directly affected Mary—and not only Mary.  Through Mary, beginning in her visitation to her kinswoman Elizabeth, that same existence and identity of the child in her womb already began to change and sanctify the world.  For Elizabeth, Mary was no longer her kinswoman, but became, “the mother of my Lord,” and by merely being present as that mother, sanctified and filled the child in Elizabeth’s womb with the Holy Spirit.  And as Elizabeth further declares, Mary was blessed above all women, as “she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45)

Friday, June 24, 2011

When God Calls: Part I

Václav (Wencelaus) Hollar, "God Calls Abraham"
The Call of Abraham (Genesis 12)

The overarching theme of the book of Genesis is one of the Lord as Creator; of the One with Whom all things are possible (cf. Matthew 19:26), as the One Who makes all things out of nothing. He fashions us, humankind, after His own image and likeness, and gradually over time, in spite of our refusal to His invitation to life with Him, the Lord begins through His call to Abram--whom the Lord would rename "Abraham"-- to fashion us into a nation, a people, and ultimately on earth into the Body of Christ, destined in eternity to be nothing less than His bride!

Just as the Lord called Adam and Eve into being, the call of Abraham is nothing less than a call to life and to covenant with the Lord. The Lord asks much of Abraham: to obey His command to leave the land and the people he has known all of his life. But the Lord promises in return infinitely more than what He asks. The Lord promises Abraham, who is 75 years old, something beyond human reason: his wife, Sarah, is also old and is barren, yet the Lord promises Abraham an heir, and to make of him through that son “a great nation.”

Abraham was called to leave his land and his people—and to set off for an unknown land. While he did not go alone, taking his wife, his nephew Lot, his servants, and all of his possessions, at his age, Abraham would hardly be able to defend himself and those with him if anyone should attack them on the way. Did he at his age have the strength even to make a journey of an unknown length, and then to resettle wherever his journey eventually took him?

Nevertheless, Abraham’s response to the Lord's command was one of immediate obedience, without question. There is no specific statement on what motivated Abraham, but it is clear that he, like Noah before him, took God at His word. When Abraham set out on the journey, he knew God only through His voice, in the hearing of a command. Later, God appeared to Abraham, to specifically tell him that it was the land of the Canaanites that God would give to him and to his descendants. Abraham's response was in kind: to build an altar; to offer sacrifice and worship to the God who had revealed Himself to Abraham. Again later, Abraham builds another altar, this time initiating the relationship, in calling upon the name of the Lord. As part of his journey ever closer to the land which God has promised, Abraham also draws closer to the Lord, eventually putting aside his doubts and fears and attaining an ever greater faith and trust in the Lord as his provider.

Václav (Wencelaus) Hollar, "God Promises Abraham"
The call of the Lord completely changed Abraham's life and his destiny-- because Abraham said "yes," acknowledging the Lord as God. Before receiving the Lord's command to leave his land and his people, Abraham likely lived a very predictable life, one to which he had likely resigned himself. His wife was barren, and we can well imagine that Abraham mourned this, but on some level had accepted it, perhaps living a life of “quiet desperation.” But now, on his journey with God, Abraham lived a life full of uncertainty and anxiety--- but also, for the first time, one of great expectation and hope!