And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit shall come on you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you: therefore the holy thing that will be born of you shall be called the Son of God.
There are two main characters in this morning’s New Testament reading, Mary and Gabriel, and it seems to be part of our tradition to pay little attention to either. There are quite plausible reasons for this, but we may be carrying our inattention a little too far. After all, both Mary and Gabriel are absolutely essential to the story of the Lord’s birth. This morning, I should like to look at each, and to begin with Gabriel. Given the current fascination with angels, perhaps this should be Gabriel’s year.
The name “Gabriel” means “man of God,” using a word for “man” that has connotations of strength. It occurs in Luke and twice in Daniel. In the first of these latter instances, in chapter eight, Gabriel appears to Daniel to interpret a cryptic vision that Daniel has just seen. In the second instance, as we heard in our Old Testament reading, Gabriel comes with a prophecy about the Messiah, including a prediction of the rebuilding and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem.
It is worth noting that neither Hebrew nor Greek has a special word for “angel” as a supernatural being. Hebrew mal’akh and Greek aggelos both mean simply “messenger,” and are used of humans. The words refer, that is, to what these individuals do. They are not really soldiers come to fight for us or physicians come to heal us or life guards come to rescue us, they are messengers come to tell us things we need to know.
Our theology tells us that we are constantly in the company of angels, that all our thoughts and impulses flow into us through our spiritual environment. Our best thoughts and impulses come from the Lord through angels and good spirits with whom we have a particular affinity, and our worst thoughts and impulses come from the hells through the evil spirits whose nature attracts us. Without this communication, we would be incapable of thought and feeling. Cut off from our spiritual environment, we would perish just as certainly as we would perish in the near vacuum of outer space.
In the course of a day, all sorts of ideas will occur to us. If we try to discern where they are coming from, though, we discover that we simply do not know. Psychology tells us that they arise from our unconscious, which is saying very much the same thing. How much difference is there between saying, “I don’t know where this came from” and saying “This came from somewhere I am not conscious of”? In each case, the “where” or the~~~ “whence” is the unknown.
Swedenborg’s claim is that he visited that “whence.” Some sympathetic critics who have not been willing to accept his claim that he visited an actual, objective spiritual world have interpreted his experiences as experiences of a subjective spiritual world, the world of the unconscious. They can do this—and are willing to—largely because Swedenborg’s spiritual world makes such good psychological sense. I suspect that Swedenborg would respond that there is nothing can be either wholly subjective or wholly objective, but that is too big a topic to explore this morning.
What bears most directly on our text is the conclusion that from a Swedenborgian point of view, the only unusual thing about Gabriel’s communication with Daniel or Mary is that they were conscious of it. The veil was lifted, and they saw and heard what had been happening to them all their lives and would continue to happen after the veil dropped down again. All three events involve the bringing of a message.
Turning then to Mary, we are aware of her prominence in the practice of Catholicism, and may be aware of the Protestant reaction against it. I am sure that Swedenborgians of past generations would be aghast to discover that a reference to the Immaculate Conception has found its way into our own hymnal: in “I know a rose tree springing,” Mary is referred to as the “spotless maiden,” and “immaculate” is simply the Latinate word for “spotless.”
The objection to this is simple and direct. Our theology insists that in the figure of Jesus we see a human nature like ours being transformed by an indwelling divine nature. The source of that “human nature like ours” must be a human like us. It was from Mary that Jesus inherited the nature that could be tempted. This is what we are saying every time we repeat our faith and say that he took “our nature” upon him.
In a little work that has been sadly neglected, the late Samuel Weems argued that the Virgin Birth, far from being an exception to all the rules, is in its own way an image of the way everything happens. Existence, says Swedenborg, is perpetual creation. Everything we see and hear and feel, inside ourselves or outside, is the result of divine life and power flowing into some relatively earthly matrix. Swedenborg uses the image of sunlight to express the way that divine life flows even into matrices or forms that are opposed to it—it is the same sunlight that enables us to see a rose and a garbage dump.
From a Swedenborgian point of view, then, Mary is not an intercessor for us. She is “us.” Male or female, we can identify with her as embodying human nature as we know it in and around ourselves. Male or female, our salvation depends on our acceptance of the Holy Spirit. We are in God’s hands, and our deepest need is to echo Mary’s response: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be to me according to your word.”
That is, the Lord’s will for us is our salvation, our blessedness. There is no loss whatever in accepting the Lord’s will for us. We sacrifice nothing except the illusion of self-sufficiency. When our theology says that we are not life but are recipients of life, it is saying that we are essentially, intrinsically passive. We are activated only by the inflow of life from the Lord; but it is of that Lord’s providence that this life feels as though it were our own. One of the more striking statements in the writings is in Divine Providence 191, that “our own prudence is nothing: it only appears to be something, as in fact it should.”
I suspect that each of us can look back on times when we thought we were in control of what was going on, making decisive choices, and from the perspective of years discover that much more was being done for us than we were doing for ourselves. We might reflect on the principle that freedom is a matter of love, that what we enjoy doing feels free to us~—and then ask ourselves how much control we have over our capacity or tendency to enjoy.
Yet without the appearance of being in control, without the appearance that our prudence “is something,” life becomes meaningless. In the Gospel story, Mary is important. The Lord’s life does not flow into a vacuum, but into her, into us~—concrete, individual, unpredictable us. We need only look around and see how different we are from each other. If we are obsessive about logical consistency, we might say that even though we are passive, we are passive in very distinctive ways.
If we put all this together, there is a parallel in our own lives to the annunciation. Gabriel came to tell Mary that she would be visited by the Holy Spirit and would bear a child who would be the Messiah, the royal descendant of David. The essential message the Lord is trying to get through to us, through the heavens that surround us, is that a birth can take place in us which will fulfill all our dearest hopes.
Phillips Brooks was telling us this when he wrote one of the most beloved of Christmas carols, “O little town of Bethlehem.” “O holy child of Bethlehem! descend to us, we pray; cast out our sins and enter in, be born in us today.” No matter how far the church has strayed from its Gospel roots over the centuries, there have always been individuals who understood this and responded to it. All the social and political analyses of what is wrong with our world or our culture, whether they name the villain as capitalism or communism, sexism or racism, miss the point if they do not see what all such “evils” have in common~—a fear of the “other,” a kind of self-deification that cannot survive without demonizing something or someone “out there.” All the remedies to the ills of the world or of our culture fall short if they do not see what all “good” has in common~—the love of each other that is most perfectly expressed in the figure of our Lord.
The annunciation pictures the time when we finally get the message. It breaks in on our consciousness with power, as “Gabriel” is the “mighty messenger of God.” It tells us that the Divine is at hand, that the love and light which can redeem us are not far away—not over the sea or off in the heavens—but are actually pressing in upon us. In a vivid image from the Qur’an, they are closer to us than the vein in our neck. They promise blessing, the realization of our dreams.
One more thing is necessary, though. Divine love, by its very nature, will not force itself upon us. We must accept it. This means we must admit our need, our passiveness. Mary is our model in a way that seems far more profound than canonization can offer. She may be a particularly hard model for men to identify with because of the male culture of self-sufficiency, but that makes the identification all the more urgent. We need to be the Lord’s handmaids, open to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Therein lies our hope—our hope as individuals, our hope as a church, our hope as a nation, our hope as a world.