For the past three weeks of Advent, we’ve been looking at the abstract themes each week centers on (Hope Preparation, Joy, Love), but another way churches sometimes celebrate Advent is devoting each week to certain characters in the Christmas story (Magi/Wisemen, Shepherds, Angels, Mary and Joseph). During this last week of Advent, set aside to remember the story of Mary and Joseph, I found myself thinking a lot about Mary—I find her reactions to be beautifully complex in our Gospel reading this week:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Luke 1: 26-38 (NIV)
The things that strike me about Mary in this passage are: the way she is described, the blessing that is offered to her, the way she responds to it, and what all of these things have to say to us.
While Luke describes Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin, the mother of John the Baptist who is the other miraculous pregnancy in this story) in glowing terms (“righteous…living blamelessly”), Mary is simply “a virgin,” not described as extraordinarily holy, but as an ordinary person: she’s a small-town girl, with her life moving along the quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. Not that being an ordinary girl in a small village makes Mary without spirit or strength; I often find myself thinking of Mary in the way she is traditionally painted—meek, mild, submissive—but maybe that’s not an entirely accurate picture. Maybe Mary’s responses throughout this encounter are more fearless than is sometimes appreciated. Being perplexed at the appearance of an angel seems like a completely legitimate response, even more so when the angel begins the conversation by proclaiming divine presence and assuming that she’s afraid. Give the girl a chance, Gabriel! She seems more confused than afraid, and her question “How will this be?” is not an expression of doubt as much as it is an effort to understand the extraordinary words of the angel.
And Gabriel’s words are indeed extra-ordinary. Mary has just been told that God is going to make her pregnant and that this child will be the Messiah. The blessing that Gabriel offers Mary is a very strange one: having a child out of wedlock which will totally ruin her reputation and disrupt her quiet, ordinary life. The angel did not ask Mary how this sounded to her and whether she would like to try out for the role; he just told her. (I notice that in my Bible, this passage isn’t titled “The Request,” or “The Invitation,” but “The Annunciation”—as in “announcement”). I’ve been wrestling with the question of Mary’s “choice” and her freedom to respond in this most unusual situation. Yes, the angel announced the impending birth and didn’t ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary: whether to say yes to it or no, whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or whether to hold on to her old life. And Mary is courageous enough to say yes: “May your word to me be fulfilled,” or “Let it be to me as you have said.”
We have a similar choice in our own lives. Like Mary, our choices often boil down to yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not; yes, I will explore this unexpected turn of events, or no, I will not. Trusting that all things are possible with God requires a leap of faith, not only for Mary but for us. And our choice here is crucial. We suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own. However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation between Mary and Gabriel tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it always does): “God intends to draw Mary and all of us into what God is doing and God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (Brian K. Peterson, New Proclamation 2008). And this is what, in some mysterious way, makes Mary’s story our own.
As Advent comes to an end and Christmas approaches, we look at our lives and ask: What is God doing today, here in our midst, too wonderful for our imaginations or our words? What is your hope on this last Sunday in Advent? What extraordinary and grace-filled things have happened in your life, and what extraordinary and grace-filled things may yet happen? Are we willing to say “yes” to what God is doing, even if it means sacrificing our comfort and prosperity? What is our role in the midst of what God is doing? How are we bearing God in this world?
Author: Alicia McClintic