Let’s start by setting a scene where one character meets another, meets a stranger who seems to have some deep authority and an important message. They meet in a large room and, as the curtains are drawn and the lights come up, this messenger pours forth a whole new understanding of what the world is and how we are to live in it. The messenger gives his good news:
“It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?
“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale!
“It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality— one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale”.
And Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in the 1976 Oscar winning film, “Network”, can only look and say, “I have seen God”, and Arthur Jenson, the television network chairman played by Ned Beatty, smiles and says, “You just may be right, Mr. Beale.”
But he just may be wrong too. For that may be one, very powerful way of envisioning the world, of making sense of what to do and how to be, what matters and what lasts: but there are other ways as well, and that’s why we’re here, to enlarge our hearts and minds, and to deepen our understanding of other, even truer, ways to be in the world; maybe just as one old prayer puts it , to “keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, lest we grow hard”
So, here’s a second – and again somewhat edited – scene with a few similarities to the first where a young girl is met by a messenger who says this:
“You have found favor with God and you will bear a son who will be the child of the Most High, who will reign… forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’… Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”
So my question is this: how do you see this, make sense of it, how do you connect this announcement of Good News with your own life?
I like movies a lot, and I think one of the best films on the life of Jesus is a low budget 1960s movie called “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”, directed by an Italian named Paolo Passolini and made on the island of Sicily. The way he films this scene is especially wonderful. Mary is a beautiful young girl, and when she sees the angel, a gorgeous creature, her eyes light up in amazement, love, rapture.
You can see absolute joy in her eyes to receive this message, to let it come into her life. And then we follow her through the film as she follows Jesus. We see her when they nail her son to the cross and take his body to the tomb, we see her two days later when she goes with the other women to anoint his body and finds instead an angel at the door to the tomb announcing that he now lives; and it is the same angel! You can see that old joy in her eyes, it is an old face now, wrinkled by the years, but the same eyes, and the joy when she sees the same angel.
So what angels do we see? What messengers do we make room for in our sometimes so crowded lives? Most of us don’t live in the movies or in scripture for that matter, though we may find them important for our envisioning: so we don’t often get androgynous Italian youths telling us that we are blessed, will bear fruit for the healing of nations.
Nor do we hear, as Mary will hear from Simeon, that a sword will pierce our heart as well. But we do get a lot of messages about who we are and what matters, what we can take for granted and what we can give to one another, we hear these messages on the television and the movies and the radio as well. And sometimes they are very loud. They color our understanding of who we are and what we’re about. And they make it difficult, sometimes, to listen carefully when some surprisingly good news comes to us, as it did to Mary, and is almost too good for us to believe. But it is important be awake to come to take the chance.
For I believe that in the very centre of reality, in the deep heart of holiness, there is only one angel, only one message. It may come at different times, with a different emphasis, be heard in a different voice, using different words. But it is the same, and it is this: that God has come to dwell in the midst of humanity. As the angel’s message to Mary announces God’s intention to meet with her in unspeakable intimacy, to conceive a place where God’s love might dwell in the very centre of humanity; so God’s message comes, in all times and in all places, to tell us the same truth: that God is desirous of living with us.
God has come to build a home in our hearts, to make our human being a sacred place where steadfast holy friendship may be found, announced, created, made flesh, to make a meeting place where our – and every – life may be redeemed from unmeaning and insignificance.
For we, like Mary, are called to be a place, to live a life, which consents and opens to God breathing deep into all our individual being, our limits and loves, our history and hope, our talents and tragedies. For Mary it was to take a unique part in the birth of God with us, in giving human life to the one we call Lord and God, this Jesus whose birth we celebrate in this coming season of Christmas. That is one unique task, but it is a model for our call as well. For the messenger asks us, like her, to be willing participants, birth-givers in our own way and with our own God-given disabilities and abilities, taking our part in co-creating an unspeakably intimate and unbelievably great conspiracy of Holy love.
That is the heart of the message announced by the angel to Mary, and to us today as well. God is coming near, is here, here in the middle of your life. God is willing to meet you, is with you, from before your birth to after your death, and in all the intervals from here to there. God wants to keep company with all of us, all of the time. This is the greatest truth, the Good News that comes with Jesus and which, perhaps, has been forever, but angels, I think, always begin their message with the word “Now!”
Unfortunately we usually don’t. We say, “Someday”, or “I remember” or “What if” or “If only”. We so often hide from the promise and presence of God’s word meeting human flesh in glory. We hide in the shade of the tamer paler stories and slogans that are announced on every other street corner and on every channel: so many other announcements, messengers of wisdom, calling for allegiance and conformity: “Experts agree.” “You get what you pay for.” “Early to bed early to rise.” “Better not to try than to fail.” “Only take sensible risks.” “Play the percentages.” “The world is a business.” “Don’t get hurt again.”
And the Angel comes to us and says, “Now” in every moment and waits for our response in every instant. It is a response that requires amazing audacity and an even greater humility: and it is asked of each of us right now as it was asked of Mary so many years ago. Listen, Meister Eckhart said this in a sermon some 700 years ago.
“It is more worthy of God that He be born spiritually of every pure and virgin soul, than that He be born of Mary. Hereby we should understand that humanity is, so to speak, the Son of God born from all eternity. [For] When we humble ourself, God cannot restrain His mercy; He must come down and pour His grace into the humble, and He gives Himself most of all, and all at once, to the least of all. It is essential to God to give, for His essence is His goodness and His goodness is His love… God brings forth His Son in thee.”
And the voice of the angel is heard, and the word of the angel is now. And the gift of the angel, which we see in the promise of Mary, and know most fully in the life of Jesus her son, is that we, each and everyone of us, are blessed by God and welcomed into the joyous company those who offer life and live in Christ.
May it be to each of us according to this word.