[December 13, 2009] Last Sunday we read in the beginning of The Gospel according to John how the Word of God—which is God being face-to-face with God and thus the expressing of God’s essence—was the One who expressed creation into being and is expressed everywhere in the creation. We also read how the whole human race—because it had somehow succumbed to a willful darkness—has become blind to the radiant light which all around us sheds its beams upon us. But we also read how the human race has its witnesses to the light, witnesses to its (impersonal) shining in the creation, and how God has sent certain witnesses to bear witness to the source of the shining, the light itself which is the Word—to the Word which is God being face-to-face with God, and thus the Word as a divine Person who encounters us face-to-face (as persons). These special witnesses are the prophets and sages who have left their testimony in the sacred Scriptures.
John 1:1-10 is all very abstract and begs us to strive to grasp the depth of its sparing words. It is all, however, to get us to appreciate the words that follow in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh.” Let us now change our perspective and consider the very human and earthbound side of the story as it is told by Luke.
Luke’s Preparation (Luke 1:5-25)
In the beginning of Luke’s gospel we are told of an elderly couple, Zachariah and Elizabeth, who are faithful to God but have been without child until the visit by the angel who stands in the presence of God, the one named Gabriel (Revelation 8:2 tells us that there are seven angels who stand in the direct presence of God, implying a special distinction; and Gabriel apparently had stepped out of the Holy of Holies when he appeared to Zachariah at the altar of incense). Zachariah and Elizabeth symbolize the hopes and aspirations of Israel, Israel which has grown old waiting for the fulfillment of the prophets’ visions, of the prophets’ promise of the coming of God in the Messianic Age. Not all Israel has been faithful (how could it have been, if we are fair about what we know of human nature?), but a remnant has. There have been those like Zachariah and Elizabeth and Simeon and Anna who have persistently waited, and even when weary of waiting—as Zachariah and Elizabeth had become—were still persistently faithful.
The coming of God did not take place in a vacuum, as the apostate Marcion preached in the second century. He said, Let Christians get rid of the Old Testament and any connection to Israel, to the Jews and to Judaism. No. The coming of God does not take place in a vacuum but took place within the cradle of Israel, in fulfillment of its hopes and dreams, according to the witness of her prophets. When the Word became flesh and came to His own, it is true that those who were His own did not receive Him. But it is not true that the Word was without reception. The faithful ones of Israel, faithful to Judaism, faithful to Moses and the prophets, did receive Him and gave Him a home within their midst.
This “home,” represented by Zachariah and Elizabeth and Simeon and Anna, was old. Though taken by surprise, and utterly amazed and relieved, they were ecstatic with joy and immeasurably grateful. In their response they clearly understood who this Child was in the terms and context of the Scriptures, and what Israel was by God’s election.
“You who enjoy God’s favor!” (1:26-30)
Now we come to the remarkable story of when Gabriel visited the young Miriam (Mary) in the town of Natzeret (Nazareth). She was a young adolescent looking forward to getting married and having children. As was the custom, her parents made arrangements with another local couple for her to marry their son, the young Yosef (Joseph), and they were now betrothed.
When Gabriel appears to Mary, she like Zachariah and Elizabeth is also taken completely by surprise. But while Zachariah and Elizabeth represent what is old, Mary in her youthfulness represents what is new. While Zachariah and Elizabeth had spent their whole lives in hopes deferred and disappointed so that when Gabriel spoke it was hard for Zachariah to believe what he heard, Mary had no such hesitation, only a youthful sense of wonder and curiosity and inquisitiveness. “How can this come about?” (Elizabeth said of her, “Blessèd is she who has believed,” unlike her husband.)
But though Mary represents what is completely fresh and new, she was not an empty slate but was exceptionally versed in the Scriptures. Later, in the song that she composed—which she sings to Elizabeth when she goes to visit her—she strung together verses from 1 Samuel, Job, Psalms and Isaiah, which she probably did from memory. Mary may have seemed like any other young adolescent girl of the time, but this gives away something about her. She was one “full of grace,” one who enjoyed God’s grace (in Luke’s Greek, “full of grace” is the passive participle of the word “grace”). She was a remarkable young woman not because of any natural abilities but because she was one who enjoyed God’s grace, one in whom God’s grace operated, however quietly. She was fully the daughter of Zion, who without self-consciousness imbibed the traditions and Scriptures of Israel. But for her they had not grown old, nor was she weary with disappointment at deferred fulfillment, but in her youthfulness she was in love with those words and still excited by their promises. Gabriel sought her out because God was with her.
When Gabriel appeared to her, this did not mean that she was not troubled. For one thing, she was being visited by an angel, and by no less than an angel of the Presence. “Do not be afraid!” Whether she knew it was an angel at first, we do not know (for we do not know what form Gabriel assumed when he appeared to her), but she figured out soon enough that this messenger (which is what “angel” means) was from God. But Mary was also troubled by “what kind of greeting this might be,” that is, by the words that Gabriel spoke to her. Mary probably had no idea that she enjoyed God’s favor more than others or that the Lord was with her in a special sense. As far as she was concerned, she was a young woman on the verge of getting married, looking forward with excitement to building a family of her own with her new husband, the carpenter Joseph.
We, in a way, are the children of Mary (being the siblings of our Lord Jesus by faith into Him), and ought to be like her. When we gather around the Gospel and receive it by faith, God is with us in such a special way that together we become “a dwelling place of God in spirit” (Ephesians 2:22), and we also are recipients of grace. Because we know Christ, spiritually we ought not to be old, weary from waiting, but new and fresh like Mary, for by Christ we already enjoy a foretaste of what is yet to come. In addition, like her, like this young adolescent daughter of Zion (not like an old scholar), we ought to be steeped in the Scriptures so that it is at hand in our minds, ready to be filled with meaning when the light of God shines on it.
Why do we not know the Scriptures better? Mary might have had scrolls at home, though they would have been the household’s most valued possessions because they would have been exorbitantly expensive, but she did not have access to the Scriptures in the way that we do. Mostly she heard them read aloud and memorized them. For us, the Bible fits in a paperback book or even on our cell phone, and we can hear it read to us at worship or on a CD. What is our excuse, if it is not the million other things that hold our attention? Is not the revelation of God wasted on us? Let it not be. “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). Let us make some sort of commitment to learn it.
“You are to conceive in your womb and bear a Son” (1:31-37)
What is remarkable for us in what unfolds—and perhaps to Gabriel as well—is how receptive Mary is to his words, for the words of Gabriel that follow completely disrupt her life, virtually taking away from her any plans that she and Joseph may have had. She surrenders to the angel’s words without any hesitation.
We cannot grasp the full weight of the message that Gabriel brings to her. On the one hand, her Child will be given the throne of David and He will reign over the house of Jacob (over Israel) forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. This covers the particular hopes and dreams of every Israelite, for if we look back to see how the prophets unfolded this promise, we would see that it is this which gives purpose to Israel’s existence in the world. It is the promise of a new and renewed creation in which all nations will come into the light of God.
But there is much more. For this Child will not simply be designated“Son of the Most High,” so that Mary can safely give birth like any other mother to a child that is in some sense her own (in that she would have had something to do with the fertilization of one of her eggs). Gabriel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God.” In other words, just as the Presence of God (the Shekinah) entered the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle of Moses and again in the Temple of Solomon, so would It enter the womb of this young woman. And furthermore, using the genetic material of her own body, God Himself—the Word—through the Holy Spirit—would become the ovum as the divine action causes it to be fertilized. The Word became this Zygote attached to the intrauterine lining of Mary’s womb.
The divine Nature exists everywhere, of course, and cannot be circumscribed. But the Word is the “face” of God which faces God. In other words, the Word is one of the personal ways of being for God—God in fact is three Persons in face-to-face relation with each Other, Each dwelling in the Other within the one indivisible divine Essence. The Word, as a Person, becomes the human essence of this Zygote, this developing Child. The Word becomes the body, soul and spirit of this Individual, not only the interior aspect of the Child’s self but also the Child’s material and biological body. In this way the Creator becomes created and “personally” enters the world of creation, the creation that already knows the divine Presence everywhere. Thus the words of the prophets are fulfilled and God, who was already here, comes into the world in the fullest—Personal—sense. This is what the word “holy/sanctified” (verse 35) means in this context. The Holy Spirit is the sanctifying Spirit that makes this happen.
For Mary what this means is the most provate and intimate thing of all and yet it will be unavoidably public. This most incomprehensible thing—we are talking about the Creator of the earth and stars and galaxies and of all that ever was—is to happen inside her own body, in her womb, in this most private and intimate of places. And the Son of God will have her make-up, her eyes and hair and cheekbones, her entire genetic sequencing. He will, except for His gender, be her clone. And that Human Being who will resemble herself so much—in every detail—will be the Face of God to the whole creation looking at her. And when that Infant looks up at Its mother, He will be seeing the face of creation looking back at Him. That is who this young girl is about to become! (The personal face of creation to God.)
What responsibility this calls forth from her! She is to be the mother of One who is no less than the Divinity Itself, the coming of God into history, the Person of God who confronts us as persons. This Child, the Creator of everything that is, is to become completely dependent on her. She must clean Him; for nourishment He will drink the milk of her body; He will listen to her voice to learn to form words; and it will be by the love and attention that she gives Him that His own love will awaken. More than ever, she must now consciously depend on the grace of God which has already so imbued her life without her even knowing it.
Yet when the Fetus grows it will be visible to all who see her. What Gabriel is saying to her will change her life practically and irreversibly, for she is about to become pregnant and unmarried in a society that does not tolerate that sort of thing. She will leave Nazareth and not return to see her fiancé until she is in her second trimester. What sacrifice this will call forth from her! And this is only the beginning, for as Simeon tells her, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
“Let it happen to me as you have said” (1:38)
I do not think that the Word became flesh until she said, “You see before you the Lord’s slave (doul?), let it happen to me as you have said” (that is, according to your word, rh?ma). Mary said Yes to God when she responded in this way with the unconditional obedience of a slave. This “Yes” is the culmination of all the faithfulness of Israel up to that point. She was the personal “face” of the creation which, transformed by the grace of God in her own life but also within the context of grace working in the long history of Israel, finally—in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4)—was ready to receive the coming of God.
This took place at a particular moment in history at a particular location with a particular person. In the same way God is at work in your particular life, right wherever you are, in your own present moment. Now that Christ has come, the Holy Spirit—the sanctifying Spirit—is in our midst waiting to form Christ in us (Galatians 4:19). In the same way then as Mary, we are called to respond to God’s word spoken to us. God wants to sanctify our world, to come into the world through our own being. But God requires that we say Yes, that we offer ourselves to God as God’s slaves.
God waits for this response. This is what prayer is. When we pray, “Our Father who is in the heavens, please sanctify Your name, may Your kingdom come, may Your will be done, as in heaven so on earth,” we are supposed to be saying “Yes” to God’s sanctifying will. How well do we pray? The way we ought to pray is with the complete and unconditional surrender that we see in Mary. Let us pray to know the grace of God as she did.
“Blessèd are you among women” (1:42-55)
When Mary appears at Elizabeth’s door, Elizabeth’s own baby becomes filled with the Holy Spirit in her womb (Luke 1:15) and Elizabeth enjoys the overflow in her whole being. Then Mary sings a song (or crafts a poem) that echoes the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 when she became pregnant with Samuel in the days of the judges. The days of the judges were dark days, days in which the Shekinah departed from Israel (1 Samuel 4:22). But the child Samuel would grow up and anoint David to be king, and David would house the Ark of the Covenant (the seat of the glory) in the Tabernacle of David to await its home in the Temple of Solomon. Mary recognizes that she is at the crux of the turning point in history, when the Shekinah has again returned to Israel.
It is a pity that Protestants cannot appreciate these words of Elizabeth to Mary, words which Mary affirms when she says, “Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessèd” (Luke 1:48). We should call her blessèd. And we should recognize her as the model of sanctifying grace, of discipleship (by her unconditional obedience), and of that to which the church is called to be, the incubator of Christ in the world.