Advent Musings on Mary of Nazareth
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 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. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 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.
The angel Gabriel came to Mary, a messenger sent by God to deliver a mind-blowingly life-changing message to this young virgin in Nazareth. Gabriel arrives in verse 26 and leaves in verse 38. I wish I could have seen the look on Mary's face when God's messenger left her home in Nazareth!
In just twelve verses God, who sent the messenger to deliver His message, has completely changed the narrative of Mary's life...forever.
When Mary woke up that morning, she was an obscure young Jewish girl, probably living her ordinary life in the unremarkable town of Nazareth, preparing for a traditional marriage. I wonder if the thought of becoming the Messiah's mother had ever crossed her mind. Had God ever put such a dream in her heart? Had she played childhood games in her living room, pretending to be the mother of the Messsiah? Had she laughed dismissively at her other-worldly fantasy, as she lived reality in her down-to-earth world, thinking, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Was she content with the way things were, preparing to marry the God-fearing Joseph, longing to be his wife and begin their happy life together? Did she ever look out her window on to the dusty streets of Nazareth, wishing that God would do a new thing in her life?
We don't know any of these answers. Still, I can't help wondering what Mary's days were like before that fateful, unexpected visit from Gabriel. The Gospels tell us nothing of her life before this moment. But, I have a hard time believing that the girl in this story, who utters words of breathtaking faith that forever cede control over her destiny...I have a hard time believing that this small-town girl never imagined a world beyond her own. I have a hard time believing that Mary's mind had settled down satisfied in Nazareth, hoping the landscape of her life would never change.
It is striking to me that the Bible says nothing about why she found favour with God. I would make an educated guess that her humility had something to do with it. Jesus affirms humility more than once, and epitomized it in His life and ministry. Perhaps he learned it from his mother, as much as from anyone. Mary's humility is evident to me in her immediate response as "servant of the Lord' instead of "Queen mother." And, later, in her song of praise, Mary sings that God has "looked with favour on the lowliness of His servant." Perhaps it was just as well that she'd grown up in Nazareth, where I'm guessing it was easier to develop humility than under the "bright lights" of an illustrious city like Jerusalem, for example.
So, here is young Mary, betrothed to Joseph, going about her ordinary life, when she unexpectedly has an extraordinary encounter that dramatically changes her life. Even if she'd dared go the mother-of-messiah road in her daydreams, I doubt that in her dream script, she would have written her part as a young girl on the brink of scandal -- and death-- as an unmarried mother-to-be betrothed to a righteous man in the very conservative first century Middle East. Surely this is not what one envisions when one thinks of finding favour with God! Today's Gospel lesson finds her bewildered, wondering "what sort of greeting" this is. She didn't think, "Ah-ha! Just as I've always believed and prepared for." She wonders what to make of it all.
Perhaps she hardly dared to believe the truth about the favour she has found with God. I imagine she was anxious about how exactly she had "found favour" when she considered the implications of explaining this to her parents! Would her orthodox Jewish parents be able to accept this "good news" before she was married to Joseph? Can you imagine Mary pleading with them, "No, really, it is the Holy Spirit! Gabriel where are you when I need you!" Imagine how she might have feard losing Joseph, when she broke the news to him "No, really, it is the Holy Spirit! That's what the angel told me when I told him I was a virgin! I am still a virgin, Joseph. I'm waiting for you. How can believe the worst about me? Gabriel, where are you? Now would be a good time for another visitation!"
Did she wonder if her conservative community would follow through on a righteous judgement when she could no longer hide her unplanned pregnancy? Were these the thoughts that were madly thrasing about Mary's mind when she hurried to Elizabeth's home on the long road from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea? As we remember a familiar story, let's not forget that when Gabriel left Mary, the chosen mother of our Lord was, in fact, at an utterly vulnerable moment in her life: Her life as she knew it was over; the life that she was planning was threatened; and her very life was in danger.
Except for this one truth: The Lord was with her. And that changed everything.
Isn't it ironic that while Mary's new predicament looked like all hell was about to break lose in her life, in actual fact, God had begun the process of conceiving heaven on earth...as Jesus was being formed in her womb. God Himself was entering our world in a most humble, vulnerable manner, and Mary reflected that journey in her own humility and vulnerablity. This is Mary's moment of conception: "Now you will conceive and bear a son," Gabriel tells her. This is the moment when the life of the Son of God begins in her. This moment of utter vulnerability and bewilderment in her life. This moment which needed her radical trust of faith without sight: "Let it be done to me according to thy word."
God was doing a new thing. I can't imagine that there was anything that Mary could have done to prepare herself for this, as she just couldn't have anticipated it in her life. But, you also get the feeling that God, in His perfect wisdom had found a way to prepare her. Because by the end of this chapter, she's singing His praises...most improbably!
"For nothing will be impossible with God."
So, this Advent, as we ponder the wonder of Christmas and prepare and wait expectantly for Christ's Second Coming, what can we learn from Mary's heart-pounding, life-altering introduction to the One who would become her Lord and Savior?
The first thing that comes to my mind is this: If you're looking for a life of safety and predictability, one in which you are the absolute master of your fate, well, you cannot follow Jesus Christ! "Surely not, Lord!" incredulity comes to my mind when I think anew of this first introduction of God incarnate into the world -- words that echo the incredulous Peter on the rooftop, when a voice from heaven asked him to eat the very foods he knew were forbidden by God's law(Acts 10). What is God thinking here? Why would He risk this innocent young girl's life and reputation like this? Why would He put the fate of His Son, the Messiah, the Savior of the World, in such an utterly fragile womb: fraught with danger, scandal and death?
I don't know the answer to this, and maybe I shouldn't. For if I a mere mortal could figure out and fully understand everything that Almighty God does, well He'd hardly be God! God is God and in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord." (Isaiah 55:8)
The safety of the church sanctuary, the predicatablity of regular worship, the comfort of Christian fellowship, the peace of prayer meetings and blessing of Bible Studies all seem ridiculously incongruous here in first century Nazareth, where we are introduced to a woman New Testament Scholar Raymond Brown, calls the "first disciple."
Mary's life appears like it is about to come apart at the seams...or so it would seem to any reasonable, even faithful observor. Even the righteous Joseph, for example, we are told in a separate story in Matthew's Gospel, has second thoughts about marrying his betrothed. (See Matthew 1:18-25) Who could blame him? Certainly, no reasonable, righteous man in Israel would have counseled Joseph otherwise. And, yet, that's exactly what God does in a dream: God persuades Joseph to change his mind about quietly cancelling his plans to marry Mary.
So, coming back to our reading from Luke, what is God thinking? Why would He choose such a precarious predicament for His Son's birth? To those unbelieving evesdroppers on this story it all seems doomed. And yet to the ears and eyes of faith it points to the glory of God: to the wonder of it all; to the heart-pounding, wildly amazing, beyond-our-imagination, creative genius of the One whose Word brought forth the cosmos from chaos. As the writer of Ephesians puts it, "Now to Him by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory..." (Ephesians 3:20-21)
Significantly, Gabriel's message doesn't carry even a hint of doubt that God's intended purpose will succeed: He tells Mary, "you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus." This Son, Gabriel tells Mary, "will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Gabriel's message is authoritative and certain. It is a "Let there be light" moment. And, indeed, there was light: Jesus, the light of the world. The light of the world was coming into the world, and the darkness could not overcome it, as the author of John's Gospel testifies in John 1. Yet, clearly, the facts do not really lend themself to easy belief, let alone certainty, at this stage of ths story! Jesus' very birth is naturally impossible! And the woman whose womb will conceive Him is oh-so-vulnerable! How can one anticipate Jesus eternal reign at this moment?
And so the call to faith begins at this moment of conception. Faith without sight, or fearless faith as Mary might say. How else can you explain her last words to Gabriel? How did God prepare her for this quality of faith? Surely, her courageous faith is one reason why God chose her!
The text shows that she's perplexed and "ponders" the greeting. So,even though the Angel Gabriel says, "Do not be afraid, Mary" one could surmise that it's just out of habit, because the text does not tell us that Mary is afraid, interestingly enough. The contrast with the priest Zechariah is striking to me. Earlier in the chapter, when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the temple, Luke tells us that Zechariah was "terrified and fear ovewhelmed him." (Luke 1:12) Mary on the other hand is merely, "perplexed" which is a really understated response to an angelic vistation! Perhaps her youth accounted for this. Perhaps she was so steeped in the Scriptures that the divine realm was quite natural to her because it was the paradigm in which she "lived and moved and had her being." She seems immediately comforted, for example, by Gabriel's words, "For nothing will be impossible with God," almost as if she instantly understood and believed the reference to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:14 ) and that other impossible pregnancy.
She has just one question: "How can this be?" She's a virgin, you see. In those days, young, unmarried women were. She has not yet "known" a man. And even she knows the facts of life that stand in the way of this conception. And then Gabriel lays it out: "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."
This is no ordinary birth. This is no ordinary baby. God is at work. And Mary, it seems, is ready to believe that nothing is impossible with God.
I love God's thoughtfulness in having Gabriel mention Eliabeth's pregnancy, now in its sixth month. He had to show this poor girl something to believe that she wasn't positively insane! And if Eliabeth's pregnacy is true "of whom it was said that she is barren..." well, could it be? Dare Mary believe?
"For nothing will be impossible with God."
Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann says that "barreness is the way of human history. It is an effective metaphor for hopelessness. There is no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future...but barreness is not only the condition of hopeless humanity. The marvel of biblical faith is that barreness is the arena of God's life-giving action." What marvelous good news this is!
And so it is that we are introduced to Mary of Nazareth: in humility, in frailty, in obscurity, in danger -- in a place where, in Brueggemann's words "there is no human power to invent a future."
But, the Lord is with her. And that changes everything. She has found favour with God, and God gives her -- and the world -- an unimaginable future, even unto eternity. And, in that greatly momentous "now" in Nazareth when Jesus is conceived in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, this naturally impossible thing is conceived in her, namely, fearless faith. It is a kind of radical, supernatural trust in God and surrender to the Lord that God Himself calls forth in the life of a disciple of Christ: "Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word." Is this response from the "first disciple" of Christ the only truly acceptable response for anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Later in Luke 1, when Elizabeth confirms the angel's message and promise, we find Mary, of the house of Jacob, a radiant, joyful, betrothed, expectant mother-to-be, singing her song in the major key of radical, fearless faith -- trusting entirely in God's mercy, goodness and great faithfulness.
Reasonably, Mary could have bemoaned her new-found, unprovoked vulnerability. But God...was with her. In fact, at this point, God was in her, having taken residence in her inmost being. And that changed everything.
Full of improbable faith, impossible hope, and unlikely love, Mary perceives, impossibly, that future generations will call her blessed and she rejoices in God her saviour.
For nothing is impossible with God. Not virgin birth. Not barren conception. Not hope beyond despair. Not extravagant love. Not amazing grace. Not the ungodly made blameless and right with God.
Not even life after death.
And so we, too, can rejoice with Mary of Nazareth....as we receive Jesus of Nazareth, the love of God incarnate.
"He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Thanks be to God! Hallelujah!