[December 14, 2008] Last week Luke began the remembrance of Jesus with the elderly couple, Zachariah and Elizabeth, who had been faithful to God for many, many years and yet had no children; and now they were past the age of childbearing and were alone. They represent the few souls in the whole world who keep looking faithfully to God; and now the world is old. What started early in life as an inner stirring and longing, and seemed like a promise from God of some sort of fulfillment, has been fruitless and has grown cold with the years.
Then most unexpectedly, by the casting of a lot, God arranged a meeting with Zachariah in the Temple of Jerusalem. We might have seen it as pure luck but, like many things that seem random or accidental in our own lives, this was God’s arrangement with the future in view. All the Jews in the whole world looked to the Temple as the one dwelling place of God on the earth. In the innermost chamber of the Temple was the Presence of God, the Shekinah, the bottom of an axis that connected heaven and earth, the place where heaven and earth met. There Gabriel, the angel of the Presence, literally “the one standing in front of God,” spoke to Zachariah.
Zachariah was unprepared and confused and did not know how to receive the words that Gabriel spoke to him—the promise that he and Elizabeth would have a child—yet Gabriel assured him that it would come to pass in spite of his weakness and unbelief. God’s word does not depend on us for its fulfillment, nor does it concern only us. What God does in your life, with your life, the words that God speaks in the silence or the turmoil of your heart, is not meant for you alone, but is meant for the whole world, and it is meant for the future, a future that does not belong to you alone.
Do not say, “Who am I?” Do not think you are not worthy. You do not choose yourself. The question for us is: have we grown old because of disappointed hopes, or are we still open to God?
Without Expectations (1:26-30)
God is not bound to places or times, and if Zachariah was not prepared to receive God’s grace because he was old, Mary could hardly have been prepared since she was so young. Gabriel leaves the holy place of the Temple and, sent by God, goes to the hamlet of Nazareth in the hills of rural Galilee to the north, to a young teenager living in a poor household, Miriam, whose parents had recently betrothed her to a young man in the village named Joseph.
She could hardly have been expecting such a thing to happen in any case. As things were, she must instead have been excited about the betrothal and the plans that her parents and the parents of Joseph must have been making for them. She and Joseph must have talked when they got the chance (their parents would hardly have allowed them to be alone together). When she was with him and when she was alone she must have fantasized about what their lives were about to become. She was not expecting what happened.
She was familiar with the stories about her ancestors in the Bible. Her rabbi and her parents taught them to her and she memorized the words. She believed the promises to her people. But the Bible was by now an ancient and revered book. In comparison to the heroes it speaks about, she would hardly class herself.
So when Gabriel visited her, “she was greatly troubled” and “began reasoning what kind of greeting this might be.” First to be visited by an angel when you know who you are, a poor village girl of insignificant connections! It was like the Shekinah in the Temple had come to her. What could this be about? And what were these words that this extremely significant visitor had said, “Rejoice! You have been favored! The Lord is with you.” You may know these words as, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” “Full of grace” (kecharit?mén?: the perfect passive participle of the noun charis, ‘grace’ or ‘favor’) means, “You have been favored by God.” The following words restate it, so it must be important, “You have found favor in the presence of God.” Favor is gratuitous; it is a matter of grace (the very same word); we do not do anything to deserve or earn it; it is simply given. Yet it is hardly random or accidental. God works with purpose. God has been with Mary; and without any self consciousness on her part, God has shaped her into the person she has become. Gabriel was happy that he was received by Mary with unpretentious humility and openness.
God’s Work (1:31-33)
Yet to this innocent young woman, Gabriel says that she is about to become pregnant, and he tells her what to name the child: “Jesus” (Joshua), which means salvation in Hebrew. God does not just do things and bring about great events. What God is always after is persons, and everything God ever does is find persons. We think in terms of God’s “work” but God favors Mary and gives her a baby.
Even though the beginning of God’s word in Luke was in the Temple in Jerusalem, God really began his work in the house of those two very private people, Zachariah and Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judea, in their bed.
So here again, it is in the rural village of Nazareth, with an unknown girl getting pregnant without even her fiancé or parents knowing about it, that God has acted. How personal this is! Yet it is in what is most personal in our own lives that God also acts. We are concerned about what others see and what they think. But try to realize how intimate this is: in her own body, her own womb.
It is a person, a little baby within her. Suddenly taking care of herself means taking care of this one. Her personal safety, her health, everything she eats—is for this individual inside her own body.
So many mothers (and fathers) act as if the baby is their own. Yet children do not belong to their parents but to God. Their life and their purpose does not belong to their parents, and what happens to them is beyond us. Nothing is accidental. This One in particular is the Messiah and will fulfill all the promises of God made to Israel in the Bible. This is the first thing Gabriel says to Mary about the child. He relates the child to God’s purposes expressed in the Bible.
The Son of God (1:34-37)
Mary was not prepared for this. Yet she was neither cynical nor presumptuous. Nor does she doubt the words of Gabriel the way that Zachariah did. She is surprised and puzzled, and perhaps afraid.
So Gabriel explains what will happen. Like the cloud of God’s Presence (the Shekinah) coming upon the tabernacle or the Temple in the days of old, so the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High (God) will come upon her and overshadow her. God Himself will enter her womb—again how personal this is!—and form a baby for His own existence, His own being, His own presence in the world. Though the baby is human, formed of Mary’s own substance, even the baby’s biological substance will be God’s own Self. He will be—body, soul and spirit—fully human, but He will also be—body, soul and spirit—God’s own Self. What will be born in her will be the Son of God: both in the sense of being begotten of God and not of a human father, and also in the sense of being by nature identical to God. He will be one divine Self with two natures.
At first what Gabriel said had to do with the fulfillment of God’s purpose for Israel. But what Gabriel says here has to do with much more than just Israel. The baby will be—when conceived—the Son of God. God is not the “god” of Israel only but the God of the whole creation. This baby will be the hope of all people everywhere.
This is so much greater than what Gabriel said to Zachariah that there is no comparison. Yet, even though there is no comparison with anything that has happened in the past, this does not occur in a vacuum. There is also a profound connection with everything that God has done before and what God is doing elsewhere. As a sign to Mary, a sign that connects her to others with whom God is working, Gabriel tells her about Elizabeth who is also pregnant. He gives Mary the gift of an older person with whom she can confide, one who will believe her and understand.
Mary’s “Yes” and Ours (1:38)
Mary’s response seems simple enough, but what it does is utterly momentous. “Behold, the slave of the Lord. May it happen to me according to your word.” In that simple word of hers, she presents herself to God for God to fulfill His word in her. God ever seeks our willingness. She might as well have said, “Our Father who is in the heavens—in the angels who stand in Your Presence—may Your name by hallowed, may Your kingdom come, may Your will be done: as in heaven, so on earth.” What she did is what God asks of us. She is the pioneer of our faith, the one who takes the first step, our leader and our mother. “Behold, your mother,” Jesus says to John, and perhaps to us.
Mary, the daughter of Israel, the daughter of Zion, says “yes” to the promises of God to Israel. She gives herself heart and soul to God to make her womb the Holy of Holies of God’s Presence on earth, to give her body to God as His one Temple on earth. She fulfills finally and fully what has ever been the role of Israel in the Old Testament, to say Yes to God’s promises. Israel reaches its highest point, the highest point it will ever reach, its epitome, in this young girl.
A Greek Orthodox hymn to Mary says, “You have made answer for the creation to the redeeming will of God. Light, fire and life, divine and immortal, joined to our nature you have brought forth, that to the glory of God the Father heaven and earth might be restored.” These words are true. She made answer not only on behalf of Israel, but also on behalf of humanity. God brought forth His own Presence joined to our nature out of the substance of Mary’s own humanity. The only humanity that the Lord possesses is Mary’s own. In giving herself to God, she gave God our human nature to make His own. She is the mother of our Lord’s humanity. Our Lord not only redeems humanity with His incarnation and death and resurrection, but the whole creation, and it is by His participation in our created nature that He does restore the creation. Yet that created nature is a gift from Mary, “Be it unto me according to Your word.”
Yet all this is contingent on Mary being only human, and on those words spoken by Gabriel, “Hail Mary, you have been favored by God.” Mary was herself a sinner of God’s own redeeming, one who was a recipient of God’s grace, not one who on her own earned or deserved God’s favor as if it were a reward. Her humility was not pretentious because she was completely aware of her inability, her weakness, her inadequacy, her solidarity with the sinfulness of the whole human race. Mary was poor in more ways than one. She was poor of spirit, poor in the sight of God, not rich. She could only bow before the will of God and offer herself not as a favor to God but as His slave. May it happen to me, she says, not according to my will, my plans, my dreams or desires or hopes, but according to your will.
The words of faith that Mary speaks to Gabriel (really to God) are the words of faith that everyone who would be a believer must also speak to God—not literally, not verbatim, but in intention. Not only must we call upon the name of the Lord to be saved, but there has to be the response of grace working in us. We have to call on the Lord, but we also have to believe—we have to accept and receive God’s word.
God does not tell you to do anything except receive His word of grace. We cannot earn it, we can never deserve it, but His generosity overflows. But we can be proud or cynical, or we can be falsely humble. We can decide to wait. The Bible calls it hardening our heart. We can close our fist to God’s offer. To harden our heart is the one thing that can condemn us to hell—more than all our other sins. If you have heard God’s word, then God also is speaking to you. You cannot dismiss God’s word to you as if it is not important, or as if you are not important enough. You are important because GOD says so. Mary is not the exception. She is the example and the model. You must respond to God like Mary. You must say yes to God.