She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
These words of the poet Denise Levertov remind us that today, the Feast of the Annunciation, is a day on which we celebrate the bright boldness and unparalleled courage of Miriam of Nazreth and of all those who are brave enough to conceive, carry, and give birth to the power of divine love in a world that resists such love, but so desperately needs it. In her poem, “Annunciation,” Levertov expresses regret that our received narratives of this event tell us of “meek obedience;” she laments that “no one mentions courage,” when the truth is that Miriam of Nazareth made a courageous choice when she consented to such a dangerous and momentous mission.
Take a moment to behold this courage of Miriam of Nazareth. Not yet the powerful Queen of Heaven robed in celestial invulnerability, she was a young woman living in a time of great political and economic vulnerability for her people, along with great social and physical vulnerability for women. On that fateful day of Gabriel’s visit, I imagine that she was alone, afraid, and most likely aghast at the strange and startling invitation that she receives from what seems to be an awfully intimidating messenger. How vulnerable Miriam must have felt at this moment. How confused. The text tells us, after all, that she was “greatly troubled.” And with good reason, since prior to Joseph’s dream and acceptance of her condition (Matt. 1:18-25), this unwed and expectant mother is in grave danger. As Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson puts it in her book on Mary, “nothing but public disgrace, endless shame, perhaps a life of begging, perhaps even death loomed before her.” In Johnson’s view, “[t]he terror of her situation should be allowed once again to fertilize the Christian imagination, which has tended to ‘wrap Mary in an aura of romantic joy’ at finding herself pregnant.’” I would imagine that Miriam’s fear could not have evaporated in the instant Gabriel declared divine favor and she verbally accepted God’s will. Her rapid flight to the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39) sure seems to indicate otherwise. Nevertheless, without knowing what lies ahead, without even knowing that Joseph would spare her life, Miriam comes to know herself to be full of grace, lifted by divine love, and capable of mediating God’s prophetic and redemptive action in the world. From the love of the Mighty One, Mary draws the strength to inhabit her vulnerability with the indomitable courage of a luminous image of God, a bearer of God’s steadfast love for human beings and all of creation.
Now that we have taken a moment to behold the courage of Miriam’s response to the Annunciation, let us consider, on the other hand, the literary foil for her character presented to us in today’s reading from the Book of Isaiah. Here we are invited to behold the cowardice of Ahaz, King of Judah. Faced with the invasion of Judah by Damascus and Israel in the Syro-Ephraimite War, Ahaz chose the security afforded by an alliance with Empire – the Neo-Assyrian Empire, to be precise – rather than trust in God’s promise that the invasion would not succeed. What’s more, Ahaz fearfully refuses to heed the Lord’s request that he ask for a sign of divine favor – “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” Exasperated, the Lord tells Ahaz that he will give him a sign anyway – the sign would be a virgin who would give birth to a son. You know him – Emmanuel, God-with-Us. We Christians read this to be a positive prophecy of Christ the Messiah’s birth to the Virgin Mother Mary, but in the context in which it was uttered, the prophecy was intended as an ominous sign of doom and destruction. Doom and destruction for those who do not courageously choose to lean on the God of Life, and who choose instead to lean on the privileges of power, doctrines of national security, and the egregious abuses of Empire.
Ahaz made the cowardly choice of Empire; he chose the false security of alliance with imperial power. Young Miriam, on the other hand, made the courageous choice of collaboration with God’s plan for the Incarnation of Divine Love in a world of fear, loneliness, violence, and oppression. What will we choose? Will we choose the well-worn path of least resistance, clinging to or grasping for the power and privileges that promise us a sense of security, sanctity, and superiority? Will we choose the false assurances of white supremacy, toxic masculinity, wealth accumulation, unbridled gun rights, mass incarceration, nuclear proliferation, and the doctrine of America First? Or will we choose to open ourselves up and say yes to the grace that will empower us to stand with Miriam of Nazareth and, with our words and our lives, declare the greatness of a God who casts the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly?
Emmanuel, God-with-us, does not offer us any assurances that it will be easy, or comfortable, or safe to conceive, carry, gestate, and ultimately incarnate – make flesh – the power of God in our world. Conception is a struggle, pregnancy is a struggle, childbirth is a struggle. And it is a dangerous one. But like Miriam, we can be assured that, when we say yes to this struggle, we will be filled with the grace that we need – the courage, compassion, and creativity that we need – to collaborate in God’s plan to resist the imperial forces of injustice, violence, and oppression, with the incarnation of divine justice, mercy, and love. May it be so. Amen.
 Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 2004), 230.
Elizabeth O'Donnell Gandolfo
Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo is Edith B. and Arthur E. Earley Assistant Professor of Catholic and Latin American Studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She holds a B.A. in Theology from St. Joseph’s University, a Masters of Theological Studies from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Emory University. Gandolfo is a constructive theologian whose teaching and research interests include the following themes in feminist and Latin American liberation theologies: the place of motherhood in theology and spirituality; the theological and political significance of remembering suffering; and the ecclesiology of Christian base communities in Latin America. Her first book, The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology (Fortress, 2015), draws on women’s experiences of maternity and natality to construct a theology of suffering and redemption that is anchored in the reality of human vulnerability. She is also co-editor of a book of essays on mothering entitled Parenting as Spiritual Practice and Source for Theology: Mothering Matters (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017). Her theological work is informed, and often interrupted, by the daily work of caring for four young children.