Connections 12.04.2016: Imagining the Details

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Luke 1:26-38

This account about Mary unsettles me because it seems to leave out a few things. I remember, very early in my marriage, worrying about getting pregnant too soon. John and I were still adjusting to living in the same apartment. We were getting used to sharing space, negotiating dinner, making decisions about purchases, and balancing time alone with time together. We had a lot to learn. We were far from ready to throw a baby into the mix.

I also remember, about three years later, worrying that I would not get pregnant. John and I had found a manageable routine as husband and wife, bought our first house, and survived as the proud parents of two puppies for nearly a year. We still had a lot to learn, but we wanted a child. And I remember the feeling of nervousness as I took a pregnancy test, hoping we had conceived. We were ready to add to our family.

Mary didn’t have these options. I think sometimes we read her story in Luke, applaud her gentle question, and marvel at her accepting response. Could we try to put ourselves into the life of this young girl and imagine the story beneath the biblical text?

Mary and Joseph were trying their best to follow religious and societal standards, abstaining from sex and not living together until they fulfilled the engagement period and were married. Then the angel Gabriel knocked on Mary’s door. Her heart pounded when she saw who he was and realized who he represented. Gasping in fear and confusion, she felt small comfort in his assurance that God favored her. She knew the stories of people who encountered angels. She was aware of what such favor could mean. And sure enough, Gabriel told her she was pregnant. Her rapid breathing turned into sobs as she crumpled to the floor, barely hearing the rest of his words. Mary was honorable, and so was Joseph. What this angel said was impossible. Ridiculous. Shameful. Terribly frightening. It was also condemning. If it were true, then Joseph would have no choice but to leave her. She’d always be a damaged woman with a fatherless child. What would she do? Where could she go? And the worst part of all was that she’d done nothing wrong. She’d been faithful and true. Why this? Why her?

Gabriel was still talking when she quietly interrupted, asking how this could be. And that was when she started to listen to the angel’s words. “Holy Spirit…power of the Most High…holy…Son of God.” Then, when he mentioned her beloved cousin Elizabeth, something in Mary’s heart stirred with excitement rather than dread. Other bits and pieces of the stories she’d heard since birth began to run through her mind. She thought briefly of the promised Messiah but quickly dismissed the idea. She wouldn’t allow herself to think it.

As the angel concluded his speech, saying, “Nothing will be impossible with God,” Mary decided to take one step at a time. The next step was to go to Elizabeth. Elizabeth would make everything all right. Mary sighed, held her head high, and said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Gabriel left then, so he didn’t see her tears fall afresh, her shaking hands as she packed her things, or the moments when nausea suddenly overcame her. Mary didn’t know what was going to happen, but she knew her cousin would help her. Trusting that God was indeed with her, she set off on her journey.

Maybe it went something like that. Maybe it was even rougher and rawer. Actually, knowing what I do about humanity and the messiness of life, I’m certain it was. And you can go to Matthew 1:18-25 for Joseph’s story. Try to picture the reality beneath the biblical words for him too. Imagine his first encounter with Mary after learning the news. Messy.

I’m so glad God works through the mess. I’m so grateful that God uses real human beings. I’m so thankful that God chose to be one in the person of Jesus Christ.

Discussion

1. What does it mean to you to imagine the details behind the biblical stories?
2. What can help you view the people in the Christmas story as human beings rather than just characters that look pretty in Nativity scenes?
3. Have you ever received news that shocked you as this news must have shocked Mary and Joseph? If so, how did you handle it?
4. Why do you think God chose to work in this way, through these people, to bring Jesus Christ into the world?
5. How can you honor Mary and Joseph’s honor, bravery, and servanthood this Christmas?

Reference Shelf

This scene, as commentators frequently note, is based on the episode just finished, the annunciation to Zechariah. But whereas Zechariah and Elizabeth are typical characters in a stock plot—the aging righteous childless couple longing for a baby—Mary is not. There are no biblical examples of young unmarried women who get the happy news that they will have a baby through God’s direct intervention. So Luke composes this second annunciation on the model of the first one, letting us first see the similarities between the two situations, all the better to feel their differences.

First, notice the parallels between the two scenes:

Zechariah
He is “terrified [etarachthe ]”
“Do not be afraid”
“Elizabeth will bear you a son”
“You will name him John”
“He will be great”
“How will I know that this is so?”

Mary
She is “troubled [dietarachthe ]”
“Do not be afraid”
“You will bear a son”
“You will name him Jesus”
“He will be great”
“How can this be, since I have no husband?”

But there are also many differences between the two scenes….Luke’s first readers may have wrestled with how to square Gabriel’s prophecy with their reality: when has Jesus ruled over the Jews, the descendants of Jacob? By the time Luke wrote, the temple lay in ruins and Christianity had developed branches that no longer believed that Jewish piety—keeping Sabbath, obeying the dietary laws—was necessary or helpful for Christians. Some believed Christians had replaced Jews as the chosen people of God; for such readers, what meaning did Gabriel’s promise hold? For modern Christians, faced with the church’s consistently anti-Jewish behavior since the time of Constantine, the question becomes whether proclaiming Jesus as the future ruler of Jacob’s descendants is not one more act of virulent triumphalism. Why would they want to be ruled by the founder of another religion? And if we Christians believe that the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still valid—if we do not, then we will have problems understanding Jesus and Paul—then we need to consider carefully how we can proclaim the coming kingship of Jesus without sounding like we are condemning the house of Jacob to the outer darkness.

The last part of v. 35 can be translated “the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God,” or “the one to be born, the holy one, will be called the Son of God.” In either case, Jesus is set apart for God (holy) and is God’s Son by the action of God’s Spirit descending on Mary. The emphasis is on God’s action, and nothing is said about Mary’s status as a virgin contributing or being necessary to Jesus’ status as holy Son of God. Gabriel emphasizes God’s action throughout his oracle: the Lord is with you; you have found favor with God; God will give him the throne; the Holy Spirit will come upon you; the power of the Most High will overshadow you; nothing shall be impossible with God. To keep us focused on “the Lord God” who is doing all this through Mary, Luke suppresses Gabriel’s name; he never says it, Mary never asks it, and after mentioning it once, the narrator drops it for “the angel.” On the other hand, Luke does not make Mary passive: “you will conceive in your womb,” “you will bear a son,” “you will call his name Jesus.” A young girl from no place special, she has been chosen by God to do a very important task, and everything hinges on whether she will accept it.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 35–37.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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