The scene in Luke 1:26- 38 is Christmas-card-perfect. Young Mary and the angel Gabriel. The conversation between them leaves a commentator a bit puzzled about details, but the main picture is clear.
Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is strange and ambiguous: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” That phrase, “favored one,” is the ambiguous part. It has a variety of meanings in the original language. It is obvious to Christian readers that Gabriel is greeting Mary with the utmost respect. It is, as one commentator observed, almost as if the angel might have thought himself unworthy to speak to her. Yet “favored one” could be translated, “full of grace” or “graceful lady” or even “beautiful lady.” It is no wonder that scripture says Mary “was greatly perplexed by his words.”
While Mary was being greatly perplexed, Gabriel reassured her and announced that Mary will have a special baby. That caused Mary even more wonder, “How can this be?” I can’t believe that Mary fully understood it, yet in the end she said to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Her words take my breath away. Sometimes I think that is the most precious line in the New Testament.
Perhaps it is the innocence or, rather, the naivete of her response. Little did she know what it would cost to be the mother of the Christ. After all, according to modern estimates, she was only about 15 years old.
What if Gabriel had been more forthcoming about this baby? What if he had continued with a prophecy like that of Simeon, who said to Mary in the temple, “This child . . . will be opposed . . . and a sword will enter your own soul too” (Luke 2:34f ). Perhaps Gabriel could have warned her in the words of Winston Churchill, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” In that case, Mary’s response would be, more than ever, the response of willing faith: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
It reminds me of my baptism. Brethren have believed that baptism is for those who make an adult decision. We would not change the definition of baptism, but we have often changed the definition of adult. I was not even adolescent when I entered the waters of baptism. I was young but I had made my own decision based on all the knowledge and wisdom that a preteen could muster. I was unaware of how little I knew myself and how much less I knew about God.
One does not have to know the whole journey before one takes the first step. Still we wonder at Mary’s response. What did Mary hear? Gabriel spoke of Mary having a baby who would be called son of the Most High and who would inherit the throne of Israel. What did Mary think her baby would be like as a king?
Mary may not have been all that naive! One of the first things she did after learning of her announced pregnancy was to visit her cousin Elizabeth. It was there that we find Mary’s wonderful poem called the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55). In it she praises God for having done great things for her. And when she spelled out what those “great things” were, what did she say? “He has scattered the proud, he has brought down the powerful . . . and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry . . . and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary was aware that the kingdom of God would involve an overturning of values and priorities both in individuals and in societies. She was also aware that it would begin with her.
It is only a whimsy, but sometimes I imagine that Gabriel had made this offer to many young women throughout the centuries and Mary was the first one to say yes. Thinking that makes me wonder if I have ever ignored an incognito angel who offered me a role to play in God’s drama.
Thinking about the beauty of Mary’s response, however, can leave me in past history. I can be just an admiring bystander of Mary’s drama.
What if the message of Gabriel to Mary is not addressed to her only, but to every soul that longs for God? What if the call to bear the Christ in our bodies, to be pregnant with Christ, comes to each of us? What does it matter that it happened to Mary if it does not happen to me? As Meister Eckhart once said, “What good is it that Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago if he is not also born in me?”
We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born. Paul urges this. In one translation of 1 Corinthians 6:20, Paul admonishes his readers to “glorify and bear God in your body.” In Galatians 4:19, Paul speaks to “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” In Colossians 1:27, Paul talks of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Mary offered herself to allow unconditional love to be incarnated into the world. Dare we offer any less?
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.