During my time in Mennonite Voluntary Service, when I was working as an ‘assistant site coordinator’ with Habitat for Humanity in St. Louis, I developed an unexpected relationship with shadows. One part of this relationship happened on the day of the week when I would wake up the earliest. Throughout the work week we would have small groups of volunteers come to the work site to do projects on the houses, but our big days were Saturdays when each house would have a full crew. To get ready for the Saturday armies of volunteers, we site coordinators would arrive around 6:00am. Those mornings I would drive my 1980-something bright Yellow Ford Econoline Habitat Van through the empty streets of St. Louis on my way to the site. At some point in my time there, I started noticing something on this drive I couldn’t remember noticing before. Morning shadows. For some reason I had thought that shadows only showed up in the evening, a symbol of the setting sun and the end of the day. But here, very clearly, when the sun was just starting to rise, were also shadows. They were showing up on the other side of the trees and buildings, symbolizing, it seemed, the flip side of darkness. Morning shadows are a testament, a sign, that the light is on the way. These morning shadows became my Saturday morning meditation, getting ready to help guide and work alongside hundreds of volunteers who would emerge from the city for the day and help build “decent affordable housing,” as Habitat likes to say. Certainly a testament to the light. Instead of the world disappearing into the shadows, perhaps we were a small part of the world reappearing out of shadows.
The other part of my relationship with shadows was much more practical than meditating on spiritual symbolism at 6:00 in the morning. We did most of the outdoors part of our building when the weather was warm. After the foundations had been poured it wouldn’t take long before we could complete building the decking for the first floor, the exterior walls, and putting up the roof trusses and the plywood to cover them. In a period of just a couple weeks, we would go from having a hole in the ground to something that very much looked like a house. But there was still plenty of work to do outside before we were finished. And where we would work at different times in the day, would be determined by the shadows that the newly built walls and roof were casting. Especially during July and August we would encourage volunteers to work on one side of the house in the morning and the other side of the house in the afternoon, letting this structure they were working on always be between them and the intensity of the sun. It didn’t take a whole lot of convincing for volunteers to go where there was shade. Shadows provided the best space for workers to get their work done most efficiently and safely and part of my work revolved around moving people into the various shadows that showed up throughout the day.
In reading and rereading this passage about the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, asking her if she will bear the Christ child, I’ve been most struck by this one word that comes out of the angel’s mouth: “overshadowed”. Gabriel says to Mary – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Maybe this has caught my attention because of these experiences in VS that still linger in my mind. Maybe it’s because this week we have entered into the longest nights of the year, with the sun reaching its low point in the sky. This morning, a little after 7:00, the sun rose on this, the shortest day of the year, December 21st, with last night and tonight being the longest nights. We are at the winter solstice, marking the beginning of winter as well as the beginning of the world starting to slowly turn again toward longer days ahead. The shadows fall early these days in the evening and are still there when we wake up. It’s probably a little of both of these, but I also think this image of being overshadowed stood out to me because it feels like one of the more authentic ways of characterizing this season and this experience of Mary which often gets over-sentimentalized. For Mary, this invitation to bear Christ, and her giving birth to this one who the angel said will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end,” is an experience of light and of darkness. Of knowing and of unknowing. Of accepting a reality that is both saving, and demanding, of Mary’s being.
This line from the angel about being overshadowed is the response to a question that Mary asks. Mary has just been told that A. you are highly favored B. the Lord is with you C. do not be afraid D. you will conceive and bear a child who will be great and who will be called Son of the Most High. Luke records that Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” While she was pondering, there’s a decent chance that Mary was making a list of her own. That she was A. not really all that special B. a virgin C. a young unmarried teenager whose life would be threatened if she would be found to be pregnant out of wedlock and D. actually, quite afraid. After pondering, and considering again the angel’s words, Mary summarizes her ponderings for the angel. “How…can…this…be?”
It was a good question. Maybe Mary was chosen for this task because she was the kind of person who would ask this kind of question. Because it can’t be. How can it be? What’s going on here? She would like more information please, and so would we.
It’s a question that was asked in a similar way by another person who had recently received a similar kind of greeting. Six months earlier the aging Zechariah had been visited by an angel and told that his wife Elizabeth would soon bear a son who they were to name John. John the baptizer would go “with the spirit and power of Elijah…to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah’s ponderings had been more along the lines of considering that he and his wife were both old and that they had never been able to have children. Similar to Mary, he asks “How will I know that this is so?” Unlike Mary, however, he is rebuked for his unbelief and told that he will be unable to speak until the days these things occur. He’ll know it’s true when it’s true, and only then will he be able to talk again.
Unfortunately these ancient texts don’t communicate the tone with which words are spoken. I guess there’s a chance that Zechariah was asking this out of years of disappointment and cynicism that had built up. His question may have been more of a snide remark than an open desire to know more. Or maybe he was being honest in his questioning, but more was expected of him. He was after all, a priest who had the honor of entering the most holy place of the temple. He should have been familiar with the mysteries of God, that one cannot control or fully understand the workings of the divine spirit. He had spent his whole life learning the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs who gave birth in old age despite being barren. His age should have brought him to the point of being humbly open to the unexpected, the miraculous, the impossible. Perhaps that was the case. Or maybe he is silenced because he was the husband and the angel figured that it was his wife, Elizabeth who was really going to have to be doing all the work because of this anyway. Might as well hit the mute button on him and let the focus be on the woman for the next nine months.
Old Zechariah asks his question. Young adolescent Mary asks her question. “How can this be?” Mary receives a response. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
I wonder if Mary found this word comforting or troubling. Was this a satisfying answer to her question? Certainly I think she would find comfort in knowing that she is not going to be alone in this. Her relative Elizabeth is also undergoing something strange and wonderful in her body. This must have been important for Mary to know. The very next thing she does after this encounter with the angel is to set out “with haste” Luke says, to be with Elizabeth, staying with her until John is born, no doubt sharing in the joy and difficulty of the days. And having plenty of chance to talk since Zechariah is out of commission. Since there was no publication of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting the Son of God and his messenger” it must have indeed been comforting for each of them to be together in this way.
But I go back to this word “overshadow.” Mary is told that she will be overshadowed by the Most High, and I find this to contain the weight of the experience. The light grace and the dark grace. The only other story where this word shows up in the gospels is when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, when he has this spiritual encounter with Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, and settles on his mission for his life. On the mountain, they speak about what will happen when Jesus marches into Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. During this time, with the disciples Peter, James and John looking on, it says that a cloud “came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
Jesus’ being overshadowed by the cloud and Mary’s being overshadowed have the same themes. It is for both of them a moment of clarity. They know what they must do. They are offered a path that will require of them their whole lives, completely shape their entire identities from this point onward. And just as soon as they accept this moment of clarity, recognize it for what it is, they are in the shadow, in the cloud, where the light is suddenly obscured, and the vision isn’t as clear. They accept their calling, only to enter into the unknown of what all that actually will entail for their lives.
The image of being overshadowed, is one where something comes between you and the light. The direct light that had brought illumination becomes partially blocked, and you find yourself in the shadow. The very fact that you’re in the shadow is a sign that there is light somewhere, but it is no longer direct.
Mary is asked to do two things at once. To both accept the task that has been made clear to her, and to accept the journey ahead about which she knows next to nothing. For Mary, the very calling which she is about to accept, will be the thing that brings about this shadow. As God extends it out to her, she reaches out and holds it up, and she is overshadowed, by the Holy Spirit, by the calling. Like those Habitat builders, the thing, the gift, that they help create is what is standing between them and the full light.
I think mothers get this intuitively, and hopefully fathers also. We know that raising our children is a holy calling, but the experience itself blocks the light just as much as it reveals the light. Sometimes, when things are especially difficult or relationships are strained, we border on a full eclipse. We’re cast into darkness, not sure of what we’re doing. Barely remembering that the relationship is one where we are called to hold this one we love up to the light, even if it throws us into the shadows. All of us who are nurturing something, someone in our work or in our family, experience this overshadowing. We are working with powerful forces, coming over us. Showing us the way. Confusing us.
Mary’s response to the offer of being overshadowed is “let it be with me according to your word.” This is ancient Aramaic for “OK.” She accepts the task that she still doesn’t understand, still would like to have more information on. She goes on the faith that the Most High is indeed with her, and that her overshadowing will be a sign of the great light shining high above. OK, she says. She’ll accept that. Being willing to be overshadowed means that one is willing to walk into something without fully knowing how the end will come about, where exactly the path will lead, and what all will be involved in the journey. Mary will bear Christ, and give him to the world. In her being overshadowed, we can think of this as being like a morning shadow, as sign that the light is on its way.
So…ponder this in your heart…After this past year of doing all the things that we do, this season draws us back into ourselves. Back into our homes, back into our families, back into that core of relationships who were there from our very birth, welcoming back those we have nurtured from their birth. In doing this we are filled with both wonder and a heaviness of spirit, as we encounter the weight of what all this involves. We rejoice in the goodness of family, and we are also confronted with the dark grace. We are involved in caring for aging parents or grandparents who will not be with us forever. We are consumed and exhausted by raising a young child. We mourn the loss of those no longer with us, or living at a great distance. We are pained by the lack of intimacy between family members.
So, in these shadows, we hold all this up to the light. We hold all this up, believing, miraculously, that the God who is the light is the same one who entered the shadows of our world. A God who is at home in the places where the light does not fall. Who somehow feels our sorrows as God’s own, and shares our joys as God’s own. That we are both overshadowed by this God, and joined by this God in the shadows. “How can this be?” Good question. Our Advent and Christmas celebration is of a God who does impossible things. Through Mary’s acceptance of her calling, through Jesus whose kingdom has no end, we celebrate, we honor, we recognize Immanuel, God with us.