The Annunciation of Mary is one of those church holy days that I think people miss the point of. It’s a nice story, the preacher makes a stock and standard sermon about it, and people move on. But really I think that the Annunciation has far more to teach us than we realize. This is the first sign of Jesus, the first time he is ever mentioned as being present in the world, and, arguably, it is the first announcement of Christianity itself. So what can we learn from the Annunciation of Mary? To begin with, it’s in how you say it.
Did you know there is actually a phobia of Christians? I didn’t until recently, but I’m not really surprised. Just look at the symptoms:
- Conflicting religious views that lead to an intolerance of other religions outside of their own.
- An irrational fear that Christians are conforming together to take over the majority of the world.
- A fear that if Christians are not “stopped” they will do the same to their own religion.
- Avoidance of Christians
- Radically violent or complete intolerance of the Christian religion.
I think the most interesting connection between these symptoms is intolerance. Not on the part of the person, but on the part of Christians. It is the fear of Christians’ intolerance that drives these symptoms. Christianity is going to take over the world and eradicate any religion it disagrees with. Christians themselves are avoided because of this intolerance and the fear of what they will do. Without taking anything away from the diagnosis, part of me wonders just how irrational this phobia really is.
How many Christians do you know who are constantly and somewhat irritatingly trying to “evangelize” the people around them? I read a post by Ed Cyzewski, a Christian blogger and author of the book Coffeehouse Theology, in which he talked about radical evangelization. It was interesting to me how he characterized his attempts to evangelize. Not only was his message to others, “Be a Christian and avoid hell,” but his message to himself was that he had to evangelize or face consequences. Listen to what he says:
They would spend an eternity in hell if I didn’t overcome my fears and anxiety about giving gospel presentations. And if I wasn’t willing to share the gospel, then I had to face the fact that I was ashamed of Jesus. Jesus promised that he would not acknowledge anyone who was ashamed of him. The biblical logic appeared flawless.
He was afraid and the way he evangelized was to emphasize fear of hell. How often is that what Christianity really looks like? Just a religion of fear and avoiding something bad? Is it any wonder that there are people who have phobias of Christianity? People who have a phobia of us?
Dos and Don’ts
Which brings me back to the Annunciation. Mary herself was at first afraid of the angel, but instead of saying, “Yeah, you should be afraid because you’re going to hell if you don’t do this,” what did the angel say?
Don’t be afraid. You have found favor with God.
That’s such a simple message. But Christians really don’t say that, do we? We don’t say that to anyone, let alone ourselves. There is a reason why the characterization of preachers is “fire and brimstone.” Instead, the Bible talks about God’s favor, God’s love towards people. That is what the Angel emphasizes with Mary, so why don’t we do that with others?
That’s the first rule in the Bible’s Guide to Announcements: don’t make people afraid. Do make people feel loved. If it’s good enough for an angel of God, surely it’s good enough for us, too.
Limits to Love
Here’s the hard thing about being a Christian. Having a love like Christ’s. Having been gay in America, I am well acquainted with the idea that it is harder to stick to principles than it is to be accepting. I’ve had Christians tell me that when they disinvite me from their events, from their churches, and from their friendship. But it really isn’t. That’s something we tell ourselves in order to justify our behavior. In essence, we want to use what we think the Bible and Christ say in order to continue doing something we want to do, not that we necessarily should do.
That fact is, intolerance is not Biblical and it’s not what Christianity is about. In fact, according to the Bible, Christianity is about three things: faith, hope, and love. We must have faith in Christ. We must hope (not work) for salvation. And we must love as Christ loved – a love without limits.
Sometimes you’ll hear Christians talk about the “narrow road” to salvation or the fact that there is only one way to salvation. It’s meant to be an attack on religious pluralism, or the idea that there is no one right way to heaven. You know what? I agree with them. There is only one way. But I don’t think the vast majority of Christians are on that way. Too often, Christians forget that God is love and act more as police to the world rather than its lovers. Any time Christianity is yoked to intolerance is a moment when it is not Christian.
This does not just mean that Christians’ stances on gay marriage or sex or other religions is wrong. It means that their stance on themselves is wrong. Too many Christians are working for salvation, which creates their fear of hell. You can’t earn salvation. We’re simply not good enough nor will we ever be. Salvation is God’s grace, which is a gift. In our relationship with God, we forget that and to a certain extent we don’t let God love us. We’re too busy earning something from him to just let him gift it to us. I want to reiterate what Ed Cyzewski said in his blog post, because I think it most eloquently sums it up:
“A God who is feared because he has his finger on the trap door to hell isn’t the kind of God you expect to be your pal.”
I would follow it up with something else Cyzewski said:
“I pity the man or woman who sets boundaries around God’s love.”
It just can’t be said better than that.
Reply and Response
The Annunciation has at least one more lesson in the Bible’s Guide to Announcements. Mary’s response. So be it.
Love is easier to accept than it is to do. In many ways, love just gets taken for granted and when it’s pointed out to you that you’re taking it for granted, it can be shocking. Surely we would never do that? We’re reminded of love all the time! God is love, faith-hope-and-love, etc. But it’s true. We ignore it.
Take for example your relationship with your partner. How many times a day do you say “I love you”? Do you ever say it? If you do, do you actually mean it or is it just something you say? Do you actually “do” love? Is it an action? Recently, I’ve been asking myself these questions in my relationship with my partner and I’ve come up short. I really do love her with my whole heart, but practicing that love more than just feeling it is hard. If it’s hard between humans, how much harder is it between us and God?
Love is hard to do, but the response to it is amazing. I bet you there would be far less Christianophobia if we actually practiced the love we say we believe in.