Angels can only do so much
When the Angel Gabriel visited the young Virgin Mary, it is no surprise that she was “troubled” and that she “cast in her mind what this might mean.” It’s an interesting expression. I cast into the ocean, and 90 percent of the time, I reel my line back in with absolutely nothing, except maybe a little seaweed. It’s like that when we are worried or troubled – we cast in our minds repeatedly, wondering what’s happening and what we should do, and each time our line comes back with nothing. When that happens to me, my feeling of being “troubled” or “perplexed” can start to turn into dread, anxiety, and even terror.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Mary was terrified, because the Angel Gabriel immediately sees it is necessary to say to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” Maybe it all seemed too overwhelming to Mary, and maybe she knew how this was going to look to others, especially to Joseph. Perhaps Mary also realized she didn’t have much of a choice – poor women like Mary rarely did. So she simply offered a resigned, “Let it be.” She was “a servant” of the Lord, she said. Do servants really have a choice? “Let it be.”
But later, the shock seems to have worn off a bit, and Mary went to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth. Is there anything more healing or necessary, when we are troubled and afraid, than to stay close to people who love us? And sure enough, something changed for Mary when Elizabeth greeted her and embraced her. Elizabeth was not a terrifying angel who had to tell her not to be afraid; this was someone who simply hugged Mary, greeted her with joy, and told her she was “blessed among all women.”
That’s when everything changed for Mary. Human love does that. And in Mary’s case, Elizabeth’s love awakened something in her. Now, instead of being troubled and resigned, Mary became jubilant. When Elizabeth embraced her, Mary did not have to “cast in her mind what sort of greeting this might be,” as she had with the Angel Gabriel, and reel in another resigned “Let it be.” Instead, Elizabeth’s embrace and blessing quite simply caused something to erupt in Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she said, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”
The great theologian John Calvin said that every one of us has a thousand angels tending to us. Calvin speculated that angels might not be separate beings as much as they are “the effective attention of God.” I don’t know. For me, this is another instance of my inclination to believe in something I can’t understand. But Mary’s experience is something I know: when I am troubled, worried and anxious, angels might be working on me to calm me – I believe I am never truly alone – but it is human love that activates or actualizes what angels have been preparing me to receive.
Whoever you are and whatever your circumstances might be this Advent and Christmas, I hope you are experiencing deep joy. But I know this is a tough season for many, perhaps especially so this year, in a time of such contentiousness, fear, and division. Sometimes, a resigned and almost helpless “Let it be” is the best we can do.
But I wonder if Calvin might be right. Maybe when we are feeling most troubled and alone, when we are restlessly “casting in our minds” with no results, there are a thousand angels tending us and preparing us for something we cannot imagine. And maybe finally we are going to have to reach out in our vulnerability and resignation to someone who loves us, so that human love can bring to life what angels can only prepare us for. Maybe even angels can only do so much. The rest is up to us.
The message of Christmas, after all, is that the least likely and most worrisome circumstances, even our own, can be the birthplace of joy. Like Mary, maybe it is best in troubling times for us simply to stay open to God, stay close to people we love, and see if in fact God has chosen yet another unlikely time, and unlikely people like ourselves, to bring joy into the world.