Luke 1:26-45, 47-55
She was a young woman still in her teens. Dark hair, brown eyes. sun browned features. Her name was Mary. History would call her Mary, the mother of Jesus. As I re-read the Christmas stories this past week I became aware of the wondrous beauty in this peasant girl from the Galilee. We are told nothing of her outward appearance. We can presume that she looked much like her peers. But Luke the writer of the Gospel is more interested in her character than her comeliness.
Mary was present at the conception of the Christ Child and his birth, shared her home with him for his first 30 years, and was present at the cross, at the empty tomb and in the upper room of the day of Pentecost. She has been painted more than any other woman in world history. There are more sculptures of her than of any other person. She is well worth our consideration on this Sunday in Advent. Let’s look at her when first we meet her
Mary before the annunciation
We know something about Mary even before the angel encounters her. Mary may be a woman in love. She is making plans for her marriage. Joseph is her fiancé. They have been officially betrothed to each other in an engagement ceremony that took place one year before the wedding itself would take place.
I say, she may be in love, since marriages were agreements between families. I am glad to presume so. Though she is in love, she is young woman who has maintained sexual integrity. She is a virgin. She is a young woman of high values and significant restraint. She calls herself a handmaiden of the Lord. That is the female version of the phrase “a servant of God”. At some time in her life she has made vows to God to be His servant in the world. She has taken faith seriously. Though much of her nation had been pretty casual about religious observance, Mary had been one of the committed who has shared in a personal relationship with God. Some time earlier she had resolved not to be simply one of God’s people, but to be one of his servants too. She apparently has resolved to do His will whatever the consequences.
We also know something of God’s evaluation of her life. For the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that God has been with her all along. God has looked upon her with admiration. She is a young woman “full of grace.” She is a woman “highly favored” by God Himself. What kind of person could draw that kind of response from God? Only a person who has lived life by the grace of God. Mary is a godly young woman.
We know also something more about God’s evaluation of this young woman. God is choosing a mother for his only begotten son, and He knows that there is something in Mary that would make her a marvelous mom. There is a healthiness about her that would make her a trustable mother. My guess is that God saw in her all the qualifications found in Proverbs 31 and then some. She is fit to be a mother who will cherish a baby, be wise in raising a young son, and be strong enough to help guide her son through the teen years towards his adult years. God pays to this young woman the ultimate compliment. That is recommendation alone to make us admire her.
Mary at the annunciation
Because of who Mary is, one day Gabriel appears with his message. But Mary is troubled. (Luke 1:29) Greatly troubled. This angelic person has just paid her a great compliment. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But his very greeting causes her some perplexity.
And Luke says, she “considered in her mind” what kind of greeting this was. (Lk 1:29) Mary is not gullible. Nor is she vain. She is not a Valley Girl who says some version of “Wow! I must be special!” For in Mary, this high compliment is matched by a deep humility. Her self-evaluation has always been modest. She is a servant. She is a commoner. And so she tries to process the significance of these words of high approval.
Mary is a reflective person all the way through these remarkable happenings. We see her thinking through things frequently. In Lk 2:19 after Shepherds have made their visit, Luke says “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She is trying to make them make sense. A dozen years later we meet Mary again in thoughtful mood. In Luke 2:51 after missing her 12-year-old and finding him in the temple, Luke says “His mother kept all the things he had said, in her heart.” There is Mary still thinking, still pondering. Why?
Excuse my language, but Mary is no “dumb blonde”. She is not focused on warm fuzzy feelings. She is wired to think things through. When the angel begins his message, the cogs and wheels in Mary’s mind begin turning. She is impelled to think things through as clearly as she can.
The angel continues with the next part of his message, “You are going to become pregnant, and bear a son and you will call his name Jesus. He is going to be great.”
Thoughtful Mary speaks up. “Hold it! How can this be? I have never been sexually involved with anyone.” (Lk. 1:34) Mary is smart enough to know about the birds and the bees. She knows how babies are made. She also knows something about her own personal integrity. She wants to know, “if what you have said is true, how could it be?”
Gabriel responds, “It will happen by the Spirit of God because the child you are to bear will be holy and will be the Son of God.” I do not know whether Gabriel saw the continuing question mark on Mary’s forehead so he adds the clincher. “Look, your kinswoman Elisabeth has also conceived a son. She had been barren all of her life. And now she is six months along. With God nothing is impossible.”
I am sure that Mary’s entire family for the past several months had been discussing their cousin’s strange pregnancy. “Impossible! Isn’t it? It’s a miracle? Who would have thought! It must be the work of God, just like with ancient Sarah, the mother of all Israel, when she bore a child in her old age!” Mary too had sensed, in the pregnancy of Elisabeth, that God was doing a new thing in the world. And these words of Gabriel gave her some rest for her churning mind. She is now prepared to accept the fact that she may be faced with something beyond the normal.
Mary responds, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord.” I am a servant of God. Then she says the crucial words that I think God had been waiting for. She says, “Let it be to me as you have said” (Lk 1:38) and Mary agrees to be a willing participant in what is to take place.
It is interesting that the phrase “let it be” has a unique meaning in Biblical writing. When Paul wants to forbid something he uses a phrase found in the Greek language that reads “Me Genito” – Let it never be! That phrase is translated into KJV English as “God forbid!” Paul says, “Let it not be!” It is his way of saying “Never! Never! No way! Not a chance!” But on this day of annunciation, Mary says, “Let it be.”
Star Trek Captain Jean Luke Picard is famous for his word of command, “Make it so!” It is a word of authority. It is the same kind of authority that God used at the time of creation. “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” And Mary this thoughtful reflective young woman says, “I am agreeable. Let’s make it so!” And Mary grants permission to God, to include her in his plan to accomplish the redemption of the world.
In all of this there is no deceit by God. No seduction of mind or body. God is not intent on ignoring Mary’s mind or Mary’s understanding, or her freedom to make choices. He wants Mary to offer him her life as mother to the world’s Messiah, with her thoughts and will intact. Though cautious, and perhaps a bit bewildered, she offered herself freely, while still trying to understand it all, and carrying some degree of fear. What courage!
Mary after the annunciation
We are not told of the conceiving moment of life in her womb. But God, who spoke the creative word, “let there be light”, by that same word, spoke a new life into her life.
Mary, because she is thoughtful, needs to talk to a friend, to someone who might help her understand, and so “went with haste to Elisabeth” (Luke 1:39) This pensive young woman needed to talk to someone who might understand better, the strange ways of God. She stayed with her friend for three months, and I am sure, during that time tried to come to terms with what was happening within her and to her.
We get one more photograph of Mary from this account. It comes from her elderly relative. When Mary walks in the door, Elisabeth undergoes a strange moment of revelation. She intuitively understands what has happened to Mary. And her words are exclamation marks. “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” (Luke 1:45)
Mary has decided to trust God with her life and her future. “To believe” is the same word as “to trust.” Mary, puzzled by it all, has decided nonetheless to trust God.
Mary is a marvellous model for all of us.
Now a footnote on a terrible debate. Roman Catholics and Protestants have been fighting for 500 years over Mary. Rome had spent its energies exalting her, while Protestants worked just as hard to diminish her, and so were often reluctant to preach about her. But at the time of the II Vatican Council in the 1960’s, the Church of Rome made a change in how they perceived Mary. Earlier they had called her co-redeemer, and seemed to leave the impression behind that Mary had been made divine, whom we should worship and pray to. Now they asked the church instead to consider her as “The first Christian” the “model Christian”, “the first of all the saints” to take her on as a mentor on how the Christian Life was to be lived. And many Protestants found themselves in agreement with this change. Mary as a model for men and women, young and old.!!!
For there are times when we are unsure. We do not understand what God is up to. We too are fearful and anxious. We share in Mary’s need to think things through. We too share Mary’s need to talk things through with a friend. The ways of God are bewildering. We cannot understand His silences. We cannot understand even when he seems to be speaking to us.
And the question is, what do we say to God when we are not sure about his leadership of our lives? We say, “Let it be for me, just as you have said.” For this is what it means to be God’s servants. A Christian is a person who has accepted the leadership of God over life’s affairs, to whom we say, “I am your servant.” Let me remind you of the story of Samuel as a young boy. He heard his name being called. Three times he heard and did not know how to respond. Eli the elderly priest said, “If he calls you again, say, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening’.”
During this Christmas season as we prepare for entrance into a New Year, I want to say to God as Mary did, and as Samuel did, “Speak Lord, I am listening.” and “Let it be in my life, just as You wish it to be.”