The sun has not shone here in the midwest for days. In this deep and dark December, I’m aware of my own shortcomings, my own mistakes–the darkness of pride, discontent, anger inside me. Life has struggles and as much as I’d like to blame, I need to own what’s mine.

I’m also aware (more than I’d like to be) of the heavy mistakes of humanity–we live is such a tainted world, and even those who point fingers wear the stains of it on their hands and hearts.

Tragic, unthinkable events unfold. While we argue causes and subsequent solutions (more gun laws, more guns, better health services, more meds, less meds, different meds, whatever…) the problem, as Sarah Beals writes, eloquent and thoughtful, is simply the nature we have beneath it all: sin.

But also at this time of year, regardless of current events, I meditate on long ago events. I “Advent”–wait–for the light.

I turn to Luke’s gospel, and try to absorb the message Gabriel gave to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” This year, it’s harder, isn’t it? Fear storms the door and anger, its cousin, answers it. I’m angry about death in a classroom but also even more furious with Christians who somehow try to blame the fact that the government does not mandate prayer in schools as the reason for unspeakable tragedy. Really?

I even got a forwarded email this week, a cheesy poem about Jesus welcoming 20 little children to heaven. It was actually touching, in a sort of sickly sweet Precious Moments kind of way, or was until it quoted Jesus as saying, (and I’m not making this up), “I’m taking back my nation. I’m taking back my schools!” After which he gives the children a tour of heaven.

Sigh. Sentimentality mixed with thinly veiled political rhetoric makes for bad theology.

Jesus is not going to take back his schools, people. Government mandated prayer in schools is not the answer. Because government mandated anything is not helpful to religion.  As Rachel Held Evans pointed out, God can’t be kept out of schools or anywhere else, and that really, God does not need “a nod from the Empire to show up.”

But I digress. Back to Mary, who is selected for God’s plan A (and there is no plan B, so far as we know). What is it about Mary that makes her highly favored? What qualifies her to shine the light in the darkness?

I’m sure she was a godly young girl–probably 14 or 15 years old. Some might argue she was perfect. I don’t see that in the text. She appears to have been chosen not for sinless behavior but perhaps, I conjecture, for her willingness to not let her imperfections get in the way of her obedience.

She was not favored because she said yes to God’s assignment. She was favored before she said yes.

Most translations say that Gabriel tells her she is “highly favored.” And indeed, that is all we need to know–each of us has the favor of God. While we were still sinners, he loved us, enough to die for us. We are all “highly favored”–not because we’ve earned it, but because that is the gift He brings. Favor. Grace.

We do not earn our “highly favored” status. God’s favor equips us, stained and tattered by sin, to do what he calls us to do. The favor of God does not make us smug, but rather, brave: brave enough respond, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Eugene Peterson renders Gabriel’s words in Luke 1 this way:

“Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.”

And indeed, God’s favor, his grace, makes us beautiful. And a force in the ugly world for beauty. When we know that we are beautiful with God’s beauty,  we can respond to his call with a brave “yes” that will crowd out the darkness with light–in our hearts, and in the world.