Advent – ‘Greetings, Favored One’

I love the approach the First Congregational Church of Reading (MA) is taking to this Advent season.

They are exploring the theme of “just angels” during Advent, this time that we associate with waiting – when we await the coming of the Christ, when we await the transformation of our world, the incoming of the new Heaven and the new Earth. Rev. Emilia Attridge and the congregation are looking at the calls that these messengers of God bring forth in the texts of the season and reminding us of God’s messengers of justice throughout our history and today.

I wonder how we might be encouraged, challenged, and blessed by this approach. How might a re-orientation of our thinking about what is happening in the text change the ways that we feel about and relate to others and ourselves? How might a different understanding of the work the angels are doing free us and inspire us to free others?

I was honored to join the congregation of the First Congregational Church of Reading as their preacher during Advent on Sunday, December 4. Luke 1:26-38, in which the Angel Gabriel foretells of the birth of Jesus, was the Gospel reading and the text I used for the sermon.

I know that many of us are accustomed to hearing this text and interpreting it as a story of faithfulness, of Mary accepting the assignment to become a vessel of God to bring forth the Christ into the world. I have no quibble with that. But I wonder if this is just as importantly – perhaps even more importantly – a story about God’s affinity for and solidarity with the poor, the downtrodden, and maligned.

Here is how that pericope begins: In the sixth month the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you”.

It seems to me that from these words tell us a lot about God. God, we are told, has sent the Angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a fishing village so unimportant that it is never even mentioned in the Hebrew bible. It would have been a place where life was hard and unglamourous. Mary also would have been poor. She was young, though of marrying age, which Biblical historians tell us was typically 12-20 for girls in the first century. Based on the geography and what we have come to believe about Jesus, Mary would have been brown skinned, as well.

Despite all of this, Gabriel begins with the words, “Greetings, favored one.”

Because we know the rest of the story, we could be tempted to conclude that Mary is favored because God has chosen her as the mother of Jesus. But what if Gabriel, in greeting Mary, is simply stating what already is – that simply by her existence, she is already favored by God? What if, in referring to Mary as the favored one, Gabriel is reminding us that Mary is exactly the one whom we might consider God’s beloved, those who have been marginalized and deemed unimportant by the society?

What if the exact opposite of what we often think is taking place? What if instead of becoming favored by God because of what she is to do in carrying and birthing Jesus, she is already favored and that is why God chose her for this task?

That seems consistent with how the still acting God is known to turn things on their head. In a world where prosperity gospel tells us that God’s favored are those who have access to money, power, and things, perhaps Gabriel’s greeting serves as a reminder that this is a lie in the economy of God.

Perhaps this is just as much an important message about, and to, all of us in this season and always. We know but seem to need to be reminded that we don’t earn God’s love by what we do. God already loves us and invites us deeper into relationship through what we do.

Maybe it is a difference of minor degrees, but I think this invites us to change our perspective. Sure, we should work mightily, but perhaps this also invites us to slow down, knowing that we needn’t prove anything to God.
“Greetings, favored one.”

In this time when our need to get everything right can cause us to lose track of why we are doing any of this in the first place and to forget that faithfulness does not require perfection, this might be an important shift.
“Greetings, favored one.”

In this Advent season when our religious performativity can sometimes wipe out any opportunity for an authentic embrace of the peace, joy, and hope that we proclaim, perhaps we need to pause, reflect, and hear the words of the angel:

“Greetings, favored one.”

According to Luke’s text, Gabriel appeared months earlier to Zechariah, a priest in the temple, to announce that Elizabeth would bear a child. Their prayers had been answered, and the child would be like the Prophet Elijah and “turn many of the people of Israel to their God.”

With Mary, however, there is no indication that she was a person of any particularly strong faith beliefs. She certainly had not prayed for this. In fact, when Gabriel approached her with this news that she would have this son, who would be great, Mary wanted to know how that was possible because she had never “known” a man, as the text puts it. Mary was simply being, simply going about her life. And yet, God chose her for this remarkable role, and Gabriel greeted her with the words,

“Greetings, favored one.”

As we go through Advent and the Christmas season, my prayer is that we will be reminded that we are already enough. We are sufficient.

May we reflect on Mary and the scandal of Gabriel’s greeting in a society of royal lordship where people who presumed themselves God-like were sometimes assumed to have godly authority and power. May it prick our hearts and spirits in the moments when we are tempted to think that we are better, more beloved of God, more… something, than those who are poor or poor in spirit. May we be reminded that we all are yet growing and evolving YET we are all sufficient. In doing so, perhaps we move a bit closer to the Christ and to world which we await.

“Greetings, favored one.”

May it be so now and forevermore.
James Ross

This message is based on a sermon that Rev. Ross preached at First Congregational Church of Reading (MA) on Sunday, December 4.

This article was first posted on the Southern New England Conference site:
‘Greetings, Favored One’