Another semester is here. We welcome back those students who have spent the summer at home; even more do we welcome back those students who have been away doing field study the last six months. And we especially welcome our more than sixty new students.
Take a moment to consider that here in Nanjing, we have gathered over 200 co-workers, classmates and others who busy themselves endlessly providing food, shelter, cleaning and health services, going to class and worship, constructing new buildings, plus all sorts of other activities - what are we doing, after all? What is it we have dedicated ourselves to? We say that we are responding to God's call, but what is it God is doing? Why has God called us? Why is responding to this call worthwhile? I think that the story of the angel appearing to Mary found in Luke 1:26-38 has something to tell us.
Goethe said: "Dear friends, the tree of life is ever green, but theory is gray." The story of the angel appearing to Mary is vivid and moving, full of poetry, as evergreen as the tree of life, while what I am saying is gray theory. But I believe that in saying what he did, Goethe's intention was not to diminish the importance of theory, but because with theory as its foil, analysis, synthesis, and guide, the tree of life will appear even greener, more attractive, more understandable, and will moreover produce even more trees of life. We in Seminary must both foster the spiritual life as if it were the tree of life, so that it may grow greener, and study theory, to know and water this tree, so that it can grow and mature.
Theory helps us to take a broad view of history. This means we temporarily set aside all the minor matters and look first at the overall sweep of history, understanding incidents as part of the whole. Viewed in this way, the conversation between Mary and the angel in the first chapter of Luke's gospel becomes a sign in the whole history of God's creation, redemption and sanctification. This is an extremely important point.
Our starting point is the love of God, or the God of love. Behind all creation is love. Love is the key to all the mysteries of existence. God's love moves God to create, to teach, to forgive, to save and to sanctify so that more and more people may find the source of energy of this love. God's ultimate goal is to create a universe of love, a world of love, in which a human community lives by the principle of voluntary mutual love. God is not a steamroller or a bulldozer, crushing or clearing away people's will and freedom. God's will is love's will, a will-to-fellowship. God created humanity in God's own image. The very Trinity tells us that God Himself is a community of love.
The visitation of the angel to Mary can be called a sign that as the human-divine relationship develops through the whole unfolding process of God's creation, redemption and sanctification of the world, an important minority has already appeared. God can anticipate this minority working with Him as intentional co-workers. If God's expectations do not go unfulfilled, but receive a positive response, then the conditions are present among humanity for the Incarnation; human cooperation has been secured and there is no need to wait.
We know that the angel revealed God's plan to Mary. In order to continue His process of creation, redemption and sanctification, God Himself was preparing to become human, to come into the world. Mary was overcome with excitement. This was exactly what Mary, her family and many Israelites had waited for so long, was it not? Yet, for a young woman like her, the sacrifice asked was very great indeed.
The Incarnation is an event of cosmic significance. The question was, would humanity offer its collaboration and cooperation in so great an event, so that it could become a reality? Or would it be indifferent, even resistant and thus delay God's creation history? While Mary was pondering the problem brought her by the angel, not only were God and the angel awaiting her free choice, but the whole cosmos, all of nature and the whole world seemed to be waiting with bated breath, nervously anticipating her agreement, because the whole creation was still waiting to be released in order to enter into the glory of the freedom of God's children. Could anticipation become reality? Let us look at Mary's response.
We know what she said: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Through her response, she became the vessel of the Incarnation, its carrier, and the history of God's creation, redemption and sanctification entered a new stage.
I like Tu Fu's praise of Li Bai: "Your pen startles the winds and rain; your poems make the gods cry." Mary was a simple young woman, no poet, perhaps she couldn't even write, but her answer could startle the winds and rain and bring tears to the gods more than any line of verse.
We often speak of Christ's obedience. But behind it we see the commitment of the Holy Mother. Her offering was freely made, not coerced; it was responsible, not willful or impulsive. This is a thoroughly self-sacrificing love, a thoroughly self-sacrificing commitment. God would like to see a greater abundance of this love appearing among humanity by means of His creation.
I once quoted the stirring words of Teilhard de Chardin to an alumnus: "Someday, after we have mastered the wind, the waves, the tide and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love; and then for the second time in the history of the world man will have discovered fire." Mary's heedless-of-all-else love for and commitment to God was a new departure, emboldening Teilhard to express his vision.
The whole cosmos has every reason to cherish feelings of thanksgiving and reverence for Mary. And not only the whole cosmos, but the angel and God Himself too, are happy and moved because of her loving heart, her offering, her cooperation, her resolute will and her sacrifice.
We can understand from this why, in the hearts of many Christians for many years now, in their theology and in their spiritual lives, Mary has held such a special place. Even the Protestant theologian Karl Barth said that he was not against having a statue of Mary in church, as long as it was not placed too highly. He thought it should be set among the congregation.
Let us think of it this way. Mary's offering was not her own isolated response as an individual; it was the long awaited fruit of God's work of creation. It represents the will-to-love for God among humankind, that most understanding, most inclined to do good, intentional and willingly cooperative, incisive minority. The familiar saying, "The traditions of our dead forefathers entangle the minds of the living like a nightmare," does not fit this minority very well.
My dear students, the church's mission on earth is to be the carrier of the Incarnation, to bring this "word in the beginning" among the people. Yes, we must eat, we must have shelter, we must do many things, but behind all this we seek to make ourselves like Mary. In order for the word to become flesh and show forth among people, we are willing to let it be done to us according to God's word, without counting any cost.
I don't want you students to think the Seminary such a wonderful place, or think that it is the destination and goal of all your seeking. No, each of us is still receiving God's creation, redemption and sanctification. We are all unfinished, we all have our weaknesses, our actions are at variance with our words, we are disappointing. This is no more than a school, a school for learning the lessons of love. We are all students here and we are all teachers. We grow together, and together know God's holiness and goodness. We are all studying how to do these things. This is a more appropriate view of the Seminary.
In the worship life of the Seminary, in its spiritual life and in theological discussion, you may meet things you are not familiar with. This situation always requires that you learn to respect others, that you learn to value others as yourselves, that you see what you can learn from others. You know the famous passage from Marx: "You praise the constant changes in nature and the infinity of all its pleasing diversity and rich resources. You do not ask of roses and violets that they send forth the same fragrance. Then why do you demand that the most precious thing-the spirit-have only one kind of existence?" In 1 Corinthians 12:3 Paul says that no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. Clearly, all who recognize Jesus as Lord are moved by the Holy Spirit. So let us learn the lesson of respecting others to enrich our spirits, our spiritual cultivation and our theology. We, each one of us, need only make Mary's response - I am the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word - our daily prayer and offering and we will be able to become a community of love, a community in which we all practice mutual respect, mutual learning, mutual support, and mutual advancement.
Speech at the opening convocation of Nanjing Theological Seminary.
September 9, 1984.