How can this be?
As with any substantial narrative, before chapter two there is a chapter one. And that is certainly true with the gospel of Luke. Before this chapter when the angel prompts Mary to ponder, the angel visits someone else. Zechariah – the husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth – who is a high priest. Someone we might assume – or at least Luke’s audience would have assumed – more likely to be visited by angel in a more expected setting – a church.
The angel greets Zechariah in the holy of holies – the place in the temple where only the priests were allowed to go. I wonder if the angel had some assumptions of his own, or if he expected Zechariah’s response. For when Zechariah sees the angel, he is terrified and we hear the classic angelic reply – fear not. For your prayers have been answered, and your wife Elizabeth, even in her old age will bear a son and you will name him John.
And wise, old, ordained Zechariah responds with a question that I believe would just as easily have come to my lips – how will I know this to be so? And goes on to explain why what the angel proposes is impossible.
This does not go over well. The angel silences Zechariah until the time his son, John the Baptist, is to born. I feel for Zechariah, I too know what it’s like to want to skip the in-between time. Hearing his unexpected good news isn’t enough. Zechariah wants to know exactly how God’s plan will unfold – then and there. No waiting, no in-between of taking it day by day and trusting in God.
So, in essence the angel inflicts the practice of pondering on the priest.
Fade out fade in – we’re not in a church or a temple or any place deemed special. We are in the most ordinary place of someone’s home, a bedroom maybe a kitchen. With someone of no vocation and no account – a teenage girl, whom Luke’s readers would never expect to encounter a messenger of God.
Yet when she hears the angel say, Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you – we read she is perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be?
Wow. What a difference a chapter make. Let’s just reflect on that for a moment. Mary just may be the only person in biblical history who is not terrified or amazed by the sight of an angel. She is curious. She is thoughtful. She immediately employs a posture of reflection. She embodies what we pray for every baptized child – give her an inquiring and discerning heart.
Luke’s gospel is full of compare and contrast characterizations and this is the first one. I think we are to pay attention to these two responses on the heels of each other. Specifically, the fact that the wiser, older, holy man is the one who wants to know all the answers. While the young, ordinary, girl does not. Mary does not fast-forward to the endpoint. Her question to the angel is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The difference between faith and certainty. Her question is how all new life begins – how can this be?
Our nature – which we believe God shared with us through the incarnation of Jesus – our nature is being. We are human beings – not human doings, or human thinkings, or human accomplishing, I could go on and on. We are human beings who believe in God we live and move and have our being.
Mary’s response makes clear that what is being offered in this moment is bigger than she can apprehend in it’s entirety. A century before this encounter the psalmist describes her response with the verse - such knowledge is too wonderful for me – it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
Mary’s response trusts the unfolding of God’s promise in God’s time. And Mary names herself as a servant of God who will play her part. Notice the angel does not call Mary a servant – the angel exalts Mary as a favored one. And she accepts! There is no – I’m not clean, I’m unworthy. Mary’s being is already bound up with belief and trust that she is already worthy of love and belongs to God.
There is such strength in her vulnerability and trust of her three-word phrase - let it be.
In the Orthodox tradition – Mary is known as Theotokos – God-bearer. In many an Orthodox church you will walk in – gaze up – and see the icon of Theotokos covering the apex of the ceiling – Mary encircled by the heavens – and within her – she encircles the Christ – she bears all of that divinity within herself. She is the first to show us what it is to bear the divinity of God – to accept that God shares our human nature – and to let that be.
Greetings favored one – the Lord is with you. If you ponder that greeting in your heart on this, the last Sunday before Christ is to be born anew – what wisdom does it call forth? Where is your in-between time? We share a big one, right now. In this time where there is definitive hope because a vaccine is real – and yet when will we know we are all there? There is challenging in-between time through darker days of winter when we are being asked to care even more for the common good with our choices and actions.
Mary’s choices and actions model trust and self-sacrifice. She shows us what it means to accept our belovedness and to allow the strength of that wisdom to propel us to partner with God. To accept the invitation of the God of Love to trust in the unfolding plan of God – and trust that we have a part to play in bringing God’s dream to fruition – God’s kingdom come.
What is there for you to ponder in your heart? What greeting might prompt your curiosity? Your inquisitiveness? In what ways might you lean into your faith and allow yourself to unfold along with the unfolding of God’s time?
Mary proceeds in life as we must all do – with a commitment, a promise. Not knowing exactly where it will lead – but trusting the love and strength of God will carry her through. What might it mean if each and every one of us were to receive the gift of God right now with the words – here I am Lord – let it be. Amen.