Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Silence Between Words

The Rev. Sheila McJilton
For years, I have reflected on the Annunciation in Luke—that conversation between Gabriel and Mary. Many artists have depicted this event. One of my favorites is by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first internationally recognized African American painter. Tanner does not paint Gabriel. Instead, the divine presence is an intense, almost blinding, light. Mary sits on her bed, a red/orange/brown wall hanging behind her, a cloth in subdued blue draped to her left. The warm, earth tones in the painting contrast with the bright light.

Here is a sense of time suspended. Of silence between words. Read Luke 1:26-38 like a newspaper account and you will miss the silence. Luke tells us some things: Mary was “much perplexed.” She “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What did it mean that she was the “favored one”? That the Lord was with her? Then the angel said “Do not be afraid.” 

Mary posed an important question: “How can this be?” She was young—probably thirteen or fourteen—and although betrothed to Joseph, not yet married. Finding favor with God would not equate with finding favor with her family or neighbors. In fact, being pregnant before marriage would mean being ostracized, alienated, and possibly stoned to death. 

The angel told Mary she would conceive and bear a son, named Jesus. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever. The Holy Spirit would be the impetus for this conception. Oh, and by the way, Elizabeth—in her old age—was going to bear a son as well. In other words, Mary would not be alone. Elizabeth, an older mentor, would be her companion on this unusual journey towards motherhood.

Then the angel stopped talking. Luke’s gospel says nothing about silence between words, but surely there was silence. In fact, I imagine (as others have) that all of heaven and earth waited, holding a collective breath, for Mary’s answer. She could say no to the angel. She had that power. Silence. Silence. 

Finally: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Only then did the angel depart.

In our lives, there is little silence—especially in this busy, holiday season. The noise of malls, the ringing of bells outside the grocery store, the chatter at holiday parties, the constant Christmas carols. . . all converge to overwhelm. It is almost as if we must rush around, check off things on a “to do” list, and not stop until the moment we kneel in a candle-lit church to sing “Silent Night.” 

Since I am currently knee-deep in preparing special liturgies and sermons, I know how difficult it is to stop, to reflect, to pray, to think about the power of the Annunciation—something that happened months before the Holy Child was born. Yet perhaps that is where the real power of Christmas is—in the silence between words, in the choices human beings have when angels put ideas and divine proposals in our heads and hearts. No doubt the choices given you and me won’t be as transformational to the world as that proposed by Gabriel to Mary. Yet God still comes to us and asks us give God space, and permission, to change us in unimaginable ways. Only when we stop, listen, and reflect in the silence between words will we know what God asks of us. May we stop to live—even for a moment—in that silence. May it be holy. May God’s will come to full power in your “yes.” Only then will God’s reign come to earth as it is in heaven.

Sheila McJilton is the rector at St. Philip's, Laurel.