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 1:34-38 NRSV
Major parts of this portion of Luke’s Gospel, officially referred to as the Annunciation in Christian churches, cause some feverish head-scratching among many Christians. Maybe it’s the use of the word “virgin” in regard to Mary or the title “Son of God” for Jesus. Some of us, after all, either want or need to find rational explanations for everything in the Bible. If biblical detail doesn’t quite fit our intellectual comfort zone, we’re tempted to either ignore or discard it. Angelic visitation is a prime example.
But should it? There are quite a number of theophanies (whether attributed to God’s self or divine emmisary) throughout both biblical testaments. Gabriel’s appearance before Mary is, arguably, the most famous, at least for Christians. Perhaps it would be better, though, to focus on Mary. There’s a lot to consider.
First, the obvious question: Why her? Out of all the women in the history of the world, why this one? She’s from the bottom tier of society. She’s very young. She and her betrothed had to travel to another country to have the baby, and afterward they fled through the night to cross yet another international border (illegally?) to escape the long arm of the law. And, of course, there’s the fact that she’s not even married! Put this story in the 21st century and a significant segment of Christianity would hold a condescending, if not bigoted and highly judgmental, view of her.
Yet this “nobody” was chosen by God to give birth to the future savior of the world.
There are moments in the Christian life when it’s appropriate to set to one side the overwhelming urgency for rational explanation. God does what God wants to do. Our human understandings of propriety and fairness don’t really match up. Sure. If any of us were to launch an effort to save the entire world, this is not the way we’d probably do it.
Instead God sends a messenger (and Gabriel is not just any angel, either, but the most important one in the heavenly hosts). Certainly Mary was perplexed, for starters, just by having an angel show up. But furthermore that angel addresses her as one “favored by the Lord.” True to virtually all angelic visits, the first words out of Gabriel’s mouth were “Do not be afraid.” And in almost every case that caused the recipient to become even more afraid. You’d think angels would have learned by this time to be somewhat more subtle and gentle.
There is a curious theological note struck in what the angel tells Mary. Who will this child become? Gabriel does not say, “He will be the Son of God.” No, instead, it’s “He will be called Son of God.” Maybe that helps ease the concerns of all us intellectually oriented Christians. Yes, it’s probably a small point, but why wasn’t Gabriel more definitive? Perhaps we should keep in mind (because we know how later chapters of this story play out) that once grown this child would be called a lot of things, many of them unpleasant. The same can be said for his disciples over the next two thousand years.
As we prepare to commemorate the humble birth of a baby in a Bethlehem stable that’s not a bad question to ponder: Who do we call him? A teacher, a healer, a miracle worker, a prophet–something far more or significantly less? And what kind of crazy God would plan out a salvation story like this one, would attempt to radically change reality from being based on violence and injustice to one undergirded by peace and justice?
Maybe it doesn’t make perfect, rational sense. Maybe it’s not supposed to. Maybe we’re challenged to wonder, to be in awe, to ponder in our hearts. Maybe we need to finally accept that, with God, all things are possible.
- “Where is God’s House?” Sermon 12.18.11 (pastorcraig.org)
- Learning to Say Yes – A Sermon on the Annunciation, Luke 1:26-38, Advent 4B (interruptingthesilence.com)
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.