Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Christmas Eve: What happens when authority calls?

December 24, 2008
Katharine Jefferts Schori

David, the military general, is now king, and thinks it’s time to end the military campaign. David has been able to settle down, and act like peace really has come. He’s even built himself a great palace, with pillars and beams made from those great cedars of Lebanon. So why should God’s ark still be in a tent? He’s acting with authority in that scene from 2 Samuel, and Nathan agrees with his strategy. Until Nathan has a dream that night. That dream reminds them both who is the ultimate authority and strategist, the one with a view from above. God basically says, “No thanks. I’ve been wandering around with these people from the very beginning; I’m not going to stop now. But I will build you a house, David ‘ a dynasty that will last.”

What happens when authority calls on Mary? Her encounter with the angelic messenger starts in an odd way. The usual opening line of an angel is, “Fear not!” but this one begins with the salutation, “Greetings, favored one.” It could also be translated, “Rejoice, blessed one.” The angel might even be saying, “I salute you.” She’s startled by this unconventional opening, and it says she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What’s going on here? This isn’t a normal encounter between angel and mortal, and it’s not a normal encounter between superior and subordinate. The angel’s not saying, “Don’t be afraid, the cavalry’s on its way,” nor is the angel saying, “Atten-hut! here are your orders.” The angel’s opening a conversation ‘ as if between equals.

The angel’s message is about orders, but in a rather different sense than we think about them. This isn’t a military order, a command that expects immediate and almost unquestioning obedience. Military orders can be refused, if the recipient believes them to be unlawful, but the consequences are pretty unpleasant, and you can’t expect to use a defense of illegal orders and get off scot-free. There is absolutely no sense of forcible compulsion about the angel’s order.

This conversation between Gabriel and Mary is about sharing a vision, the kind of perspective a general might have. The strategy of a strategos, the general who climbs up the hill to survey the battlefield. Gabriel is offering a big picture and asking if Mary will cooperate. Sort of like the old Mission Impossible opener, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it ¦ .” It is a choice that can be accepted or not. The strategos has other options if the answer is no.

Mary’s first response is, “Sorry, unable. The equipment’s not ready.” And Gabriel responds by saying, “Doesn’t matter. Elizabeth thought the same thing. And she’s six months into this deployment.”

Mary’s next response is remarkable. She says, “Here I am, ready to serve.” And then, what’s usually translated as, “Let it be with me according to your word,” actually starts out the same way a command does, “Let it be done.” In Latin, it’s “fiat.” She claims the authority offered her. She commands, in full cooperation with the one who has asked. She claims authority, and responds with authority.

This is a hearing, responding, and claiming, not mindlessly following orders or only because a gun’s to your head, but out of a deep conviction that this is God’s call. This is what is sometimes called submission to God ‘ putting yourself under orders out of faithfulness to God’s larger mission.

Here is a connection that may challenge you, but it’s an important link to God’s larger mission. Mary is also revered by Muslims, who recognize her as a righteous woman, and deeply value her example of submission to the will of God. Muslims do not see her son as divine, but they do believe he was born to a virgin. The Quran actually mentions Mary more often than the New Testament does. The word Islam means “submission to God,” and Mary is revered because she is such an important example of what that looks like. That word Islam has the same root as shalom and salaam, words usually translated as “peace.” God’s mission, the mission of the Prince of Peace, is about reconciling the world. The Christian story of that reconciling work begins with Mary.

In a very real sense, Mary is the first human being to make a Christian response. Her cooperation with that larger mission is at the root of Christianity. Faith in divine authority and claiming one’s own authority to partner with God the strategos is part of our Christian life.

We’re all people under authority. Clergy ‘ deacons, priests, and bishops ‘ are called “ordained” because they have taken vows to live a disciplined life, obeying the pastoral authority of others. All the baptized are under authority ‘ at baptism we make solemn vows to give our hearts to God and live in particular ways that build up the body, both the body of our own existence and our existence in the community called the Body of Christ. Living an ordered existence is about discipline, practice, and askesis ‘ a Greek word that means athletic training.

The ascetic practices of our faith tradition are about training for mission, God’s mission to heal this world, to build a world of peace, with justice, for all. That’s what all that prophetic language about building straight roads in the desert is about. That’s what God has in mind for David and his dynasty ‘ to build a society where no one goes to war anymore, where there isn’t any more poverty or the violence that results, where everyone has the opportunity for meaningful work, and no one stays sick because he can’t afford medical care.

That’s what the song of Mary is about ‘ the one she sings after the angel visits:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. The almighty has done great things for me; he has mercy on those who fear him, he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has fed the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s “yes” is a choice to participate in God’s work of healing the world. It’s the same choice you and I get every day ‘ to say “yes” to the free and open invitation to cooperate and co-create as part of the healing, redeeming work of God in Christ. It’s not about taking orders simply because they are written down, or spoken, or demanded. It is about a careful and thoughtful and whole-hearted decision to participate. It is about claiming the authority God has given us.

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?


Bishop Jefferts Schori


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