In just four short lines, Madeleine L’Engle’s elegant little poem “After Annunciation” captures the heart of what is at stake during these closing days of Advent. It is a poem I have occasionally cited on the Sunday in Advent when this story of the annunciation is placed before us, yet it bears repeating. As is so often true of a really good song or novel or poem, it is on the second or third or fourth time through that it really begins to do its work.
“Irrational” is L’Engle’s word of choice; when you think about it, it a word not generally thought of as being particularly flattering. If we say someone is being “irrational” we tend to be making a judgment. They’re not being reasonable; they’re not thinking clearly; they should give their head a shake and come back to their senses. We are inclined to privilege the rational; the logical and believable. Yet Madeleine L’Engle would have us embrace the irrational, the poetic, the imaginative impossible.
She writes, too, in terms of an irrational season, which is a remarkably truthful description for Advent. Yes, part of the force of Advent is to ready us to mark Christmas, but more significant is Advent’s insistence that Christmas is but one part of a continuing story; a story that extends beyond the New Testament, through our own times and in to the horizon of all of time and history to which God is drawing us. Even “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans. “[T]he whole creation has been groaning” for that completeness. (Rom 8: 21, 22) God has not yet finished with us and with our world, and so particularly in Advent we are called to be a people of expectant hope and watchful longing. But that, too, can seem such an unreasonable proposition, particularly in a week when Taliban soldiers walked in to a school in Pakistan and executed 141 students and teachers, all the while crying out “god is great.” Can one reasonably claim that the world’s nighttime will be lifted; that in the end the people who have walked in darkness will see a great light?
And what of this story, with its angel and unmarried young woman and talk of a baby who will be given “the throne of his ancestor David”? For many, the very idea of a virgin birth is an unreasonable proposition; it is the stuff of myth. Surely such a narrative should be read only as a rather wishful story of origins, with the actual story of Jesus beginning when he appears as an adult on the banks of the Jordan, seeking baptism from John.
Yet as C.S. Lewis famously observed, “[T]he story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” “God’s myth” Lewis called the great arc of gospel story, by which he acknowledged both the poetic power of myth generally—he particularly loved Norse mythology—but also the wonderfully poetic truthfulness of the story of Jesus. With its account of a virgin birth, the miracle stories, the dying and rising king, the gospel does have all of the marks of classic mythology, “but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” Far from being an unreasoned embrace of a set of naïve religious beliefs, what Lewis most wants to do is to locate our beliefs and theological imaginations poetically. Story, poetry, music, art, drama; each in its own way has the power to enact the truth in a way that straight-up, linear, systematic thinking simply cannot.
Which is why Madeleine L’Engle wrote her little poem. “Had Mary been filled with reason,” L’Engle writes, “there’d have been no room for the child.” Had this young woman responded so reasonably and logically as perhaps she should have, what then? She was probably no more than fifteen years old, and betrothed to this man named Joseph. Betrothed, but not yet married, which means she was already formally contracted to Joseph, who was presumably busily working and saving and establishing himself in preparation for sealing their marriage covenant. Her path in life, in other words, was pretty much set. Still living in the home of her parents, she knew that in time, she’d marry Joseph. In time, they’d begin to have children. Settle down to a good but predictable domestic life in Nazareth.
And onto that predictable path intrudes the angel Gabriel, speaking his strange words: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Luke remarks that Mary “was much perplexed by his words,” which may be one of the greatest understatements of all time. Though angelic messengers do dart in and out of the biblical narrative, it is not as if they were a commonplace sight. Sometimes they come in dreams, and on the occasions when they do actually appear, often as not they are taken to be everyday strangers. In cases where it is unmistakably an angel who appears, the response is often one of fear, which is how Zechariah had reacted to the appearance of this Gabriel character. And why not?
Luke says nothing to suggest Mary was afraid, and maybe that was because she was still close enough to childhood to just take things at face value. There is a kind of lovely innocence to her response to Gabriel’s announcement that she would conceive and bear a son, who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’” There’s no questioning of the idea that she would bear this child who would be an heir to King David; not a word about this boy being known as the “Son of the Most High.” No, her only concern is that she and Joseph have not yet consummated their marriage. And so when the messenger Gabriel tells her that it will be the work of the Spirit of God, and that such things are not “impossible with God,” she responds simply, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
What else was she going to say when an angel shows up in her bedroom? How about, “what am I going to tell Joseph?” or “what will I tell my parents?” How about “who is going to believe this?” or “what will they say about me down in the market?” Which may be why the first thing Mary does after giving her assent is to disappear up to the hill country, to stay with her kinswoman Elizabeth. They don’t know me up there…
Yet for all of Mary’s glorious irrationality, there is another character who acts even less reasonably; the one who appears only indirectly, through the angel messenger. It is God who stands as the most irrational figure here, and through the whole of the gospel proclamation. It is God who is shown to have the most poetic imagination of all. It is God who looks upon a world in travail and on a people living in that long night-time, and says now. Now is the time in which I will do a new thing. Now is the time to come into the world I have created, and to come as one of you. Now is the time.
And a fifteen year old girl betrothed to a carpenter and living in Nazareth—not Rome, not Athens, not even Jerusalem, but backwater Nazareth—that girl is the one who will be asked to receive, bear, and birth Emmanuel; God-with-us. Mary answered, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
We believe God is still like that. We believe in a God who ever and always speaks the unlikely poetry of possibility into our world: “Behold, I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is 43:19) We believe in a God who sees us in all of our flaws and all of our limits, and still calls us to be a people of transforming and poetic imagination; still calls us, in other words, to be God’s people.
“Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.” For this is the irrational season. And we must make room for the child.