I have a friend who is an art historian. She's especially interested in the depictions of Bible scenes by the Old Masters. She told me that the Annunciation—the story we heard today at least Joseph’s side of it—has more art than most any New Testament scene. She showed my dozens of reproductions and in most of them Gabriel is nothing short of terrifying, with huge wings hovering over Mary.
Little wonder he tells her, “don't be afraid” (which is in Luke). The Holy is more than we can take in when we encounter it. In the Old Testament, when 'the Holy' shows up, all the people 'fall on their faces'. I used to think, as a child, they were bowing down to worship—but now I know humans simply can't stay on the feet in the presence of an Angel—the Holy knocks them over! In the Pilgrim Holiness church where I grew up there was a hymn that said: “Come on Holy Spirit, but don't stay long!”
Those were people with a proper respect for 'the Holy'....
Let me tell you a story about my mother. She was a good and kind woman and this time each year she would buy some generic gifts—towel sets, salt and pepper shakers, things like that—and wrap them up with a gift tag and put them in her closet. So, if anyone showed up with an unexpected gift, she'd go to her closet, write their name on a gift and present it to them.
She couldn't accept a gift without returning one. On one level, that seems generous, but what it also spoke to was the fact that she didn't feel 'worthy' to receive without giving in return.
All of us, I suspect, have a little voice inside us that—in the face of an unexpected gift—whispers to us, 'you don't deserve this....”
At the ordination of a priest, the bishop asks the congregation: “Is he/she worthy?”
The people reply: “He is worthy! She is worthy!” And I assure you, that person knelling there hears the little voice whisper, “no you're not....”
As we ponder and reflect, waiting for the Child of Bethlehem, we would do well to reflect on the fact that the message of Christmas is this: we are worthy...We are worthy of the child. We are worthy of God's love. We are worthy of the Gift we cannot return.
We are worthy of God's 'agape'. 'Agape' is a Greek word that we translate 'love'. There are two other Greek words we translate as 'love'. They are 'Eros'...well, you can figure that out...and 'philos'--as in Philadelphia, the city of 'brotherly love'.
I'm going astray here for a moment to remind you of the Resurrection appearance in John's Gospel when Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me?”
He asks him three times and we don't know, unless we're reading in Greek is that Jesus' question the first two times is this: “Peter, do you Agape me?” And Peter answers both times, “Yes, Lord, you know I Philios you.” The third time Jesus asks, he too uses “philios” in his question.
It may just be that we humans are incapable of the Agape love that 'gives itself away' and asks nothing in return. God Agape's us and we can only Philios God. We are worthy of God's love, but our little voice of unworthiness won't allow us to return it in kind.