26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
It is such a sweet verse to those who know the story, shaped by the celebration of Christmas filtered so many Christmas services and pageants, through songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger”, and through storybooks about the cattle in the barn or the little drummer boy.
There are times for Christmas Candy. But we need more than candy to live.
When we strip away the glossy and sentimental layers of the story, we find a different kind of narrative. It is still a narrative that intentionally echoes the literary style of old Biblical stories like the wondrous birth of Samuel, with Hannah’s desperate prayer and the song of joy at her conception (wondrous births are a standard part of God’s repertoire). It is as if Luke wrote his narrative in the language of the King James Bible. But the old language doesn’t eliminate the dramatic content of the story.
Mary is betrothed. A marriage contract has been negotiated – this is normally done by the mothers and confirmed by the fathers – but this is not a plan for a coming event; it is signed and sealed. Money has changed hands. Mary has not yet been taken into Joseph’s house, but to break the marriage contract requires divorce. Such an action would bring shame on the families and likely lead to generations of enmity between the families that were to be united but are now divided.
The reference to the betrothal tells us that Mary is a married woman, yet young – still at the home of her parents and under their careful guard. Encounters between men and women are tightly controlled and supervised, lest the woman’s virginity or reputation be compromised. That Mary finds herself alone with an angel in a private interior of the house is a potentially scandalous encounter. (In Hellenistic culture, the gods frequently sleep with women, and the relations between angels and human women is one of the scandals that leads to the flood at the time of Noah.)
For us to appreciate the emotional impact of the story we may need to imagine Mary confronted on a dark street by a stranger far larger and stronger than she. Only it’s not Mary’s personal safety that is at risk, but the honor of her whole family.
Into this tense moment comes the word of the angel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
On a dark street, we would be “much perplexed”, too – though ‘perplexed’ is hardly a strong enough translation. The verb is a form of the word used for Pharaoh’s anguish over his nightmares; of Joseph overcome with emotion when he meets up with his brothers; of David weeping for his murdered son Absalom; for the woman pleading with Solomon for the life of her infant when he commands that it be cut in two, giving half to each of the two women claiming it as their own. The author of Lamentations uses the same root word for grief over the brutal destruction of Jerusalem. Mary is not ‘perplexed’ as though faced with the New York Times crossword puzzle; she is shaken, overwhelmed, overturned.
And the message does not ease her fear. For a married woman to become pregnant apart from her husband is social death. And the declaration that her son “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David,” wouldn’t necessarily bring comfort given the likelihood of violence by the ruling powers against any potential claimants to the throne.
But against this shattering encounter with the divine is the costly vision of a world transformed, of high powers thrown down and the poor lifted up, of grasping greed sent away empty and the hungry fed, of justice and mercy replacing power and privilege.
It is always humbling to ponder the cost to Mary of bearing the earth’s redeemer. She submits to the divine purpose despite the personal cost in shame and grief. The promise of God trumps her natural impulse to self-protection. Not that she could have done anything about it. God isn’t asking her permission; he is thrusting her onto the world stage.
But Mary shoulder’s her burden – not in obligation but in joy, trusting the promise that the price of her humiliation will be a far greater good: the redemption of God’s earth.