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.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “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.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
About a month ago, one of my best friends at seminary and I found ourselves wrapped up in one of those rare and beautiful all-day conversations, wandering aimlessly and delightedly from coffee shop to coffee shop (and later from bar to bar) and from topic to topic, encompassing music, politics, spirituality, psychology, astrophysics, sex, literature, and the occasional meta-reflection on the incredible Berkeley-ness and seminary-ness of our hours-long discourse.
Somewhere around lunchtime, over a plate of sushi and a glass of sake, talk turned to the Beatles – a favorite subject. In particular, we were considering the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon. Why, we wondered, does their music mean so much to so many – even songs that, when looked at “objectively,” may not necessarily mean all that much (e.g., much of the White Album)?
Certainly, for me one of the Beatles’ big (non-musical) draws has always been the knowledge that there are literally millions of people all over the world to whom this music means every bit as much as it does to me, and that’s absolutely exhilarating. Seeing Paul McCartney live was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever experienced, and not just because I got to hear my favorite songs in the world played by the man who wrote them. The absolute, unconditional love that I felt radiating from 50,000 ecstatic fans, all directed at the same object, was exhilarating beyond words. It was, in the truest sense of the word, a religious experience.
Looking back at the 1960s, I get the sense that this kind of love and joy were, for all the Beatles’ mythic messiness, the primary energies radiating at them from the world for seven years straight. There was a very real sense in which these four young men from Liverpool could Do No Wrong – in which, after a certain point, they could put out literally anything they wanted, and the public would just eat it up.
That kind of implicit trust is not something a band often gets from its fans–certainly not a fanbase as huge and unfragmented as the Beatles’–and it’s potentially very dangerous. But the Beatles were remarkable in that they didn’t descend into torrid self-indulgence. Instead, they created completely freely, confident that whatever they came out with would a) be accepted and b) be damn good.
Or perhaps they did descend (ascend?) into self-indulgence after all. Perhaps the world simply gave them permission to indulge themselves, to be themselves, in a way it has never done for any group of musicians before or since. Through its love and adoration, the world opened up the space for the Beatles to create with complete freedom. In a way, the Beatles became a channel for all that overflowing trust and joy, the magnifying glass that focused the light of an entire generation’s loves and aspirations. The world said yes to the Beatles – and in return they gave the world music that, even at its most seemingly frivolous or spaced-out, speaks to our deepest hopes and dreams in ways we aren’t even capable of putting into words.
As I read the story of the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth, I am struck by the power of Mary’s yes. Once Gabriel makes his proclamation, she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Read that again: let it be with me according to your word. As if it would not be, unless she agreed to it – unless she said yes! I see the yes that Mary speaks to God as much the same yes that millions of listeners the world over spoke to the Beatles: unconditional, radically open, spoken in the faith that our trust will be rewarded beyond our wildest imaginings.
When we give God (however we know and understand God) our permission, when we say with Mary “Let it be with us according to your word,” we open up space for new possibility, for new creation, for Incarnation itself. And suddenly all those things that we had once believed to be so distant and unattainable–peace, hope, contentment, justice, love–are within reach, growing within us like a child in her mother’s womb.
So as we light our fourth Advent candle this week and look to Christmas, to the imminent breaking forth of God’s New Creation into the world, I pray that we have the courage to say yes: yes to our deepest yearnings, yes to our loftiest dreams, yes to our most fervent hopes. And may it be with us according to God’s word, to the highest, the most compassionate, the most loving Word we are capable of speaking. Yeah, yeah, yeah.