After hearing the news that she was “favored” by God Mary packs a bag and heads to see her cousin Elizabeth. Mary had just encountered the angel Gabriel and been informed of her favor with God, and during her travel, she would have had time to replay the scene of what just happened in her mind. “Favored one?” What does that mean?
Imagine for a moment the shock Mary must have felt. “Favored one.”
From the initial look, this favor might have seemed more like a curse. The favor shown by God may have looked like a sentence to a life she had not planned for or asked for.
As she hurries to depart for the house of Zechariah the scandalous news given to her by the angel Gabriel seems less like God’s favor and more like a burden. And with what she was feeling, what the angel had told her, words like “perplexed” and “afraid” those words seem to be an understatement for the situation.
Angels did not appear to just anyone. Why had God chosen her? Why did Gabriel use the phrase “favored one?” After all, Mary is an unmarried, teenage virgin who is now going to have a child, that seems more like scandal than favor. Having to explain this to her betrothed could have seemed more like a mountain to climb than God’s favor. Knowing what could happen to her in the state of her unwed pregnancy seems like the opposite of God’s favor.
Mary knew about the prophesied Messiah. She would have known the prophecies of Isaiah. The Messiah will:
“Will be born of a virgin” (Isaiah 7:14)
“Will have His way prepared” (Isaiah 40:3-5)
So in response to the popular Christmas song, yes, Mary knew.
While being overwhelmed by the “favor” presented by the angel Gabriel, Mary knew these stories. She would have at the least had an idea of what she was agreeing to be a part of and at the same time she would have known that this favor held the potential to ruin her engagement, resulting in the possibility of public humiliation or worse.
Mary knew about similar greetings.
Mary knew Hannah had received a similar greeting.
Mary knew Hannah prayed her heart out, praying holes into the rug, never giving up on the possibility that God would work the miracle she so desperately wanted. Even with her graying hair Hannah never stopped praying for a child.
Mary knew Hannah too had been called “favored one” by God.
Mary being a good Jewish girl knew this story. Mary knew that after Hannah gave birth to her miracle baby, Eli, the priest, told Hannah that the baby must be given to the Temple to be consecrated as a nazarite, one separated, and dedicated to the Temple. Knowing this story, Mary must have wondered what would become of her child.
At the very least, Mary knew that as the “Son of the Most High” her child would be set apart just as Hannah’s child was.
As she made her way to Elizabeth’s house, Mary had a lot to consider.
Mary had to consider that in her role as “favored one” life would never be the same. Life would never be simple. The routine of family life would be different because her son would fill prophecy in the temple.
Knowing what had been foretold by the prophets, Mary had to consider what was to come for her child:
He “will be widely rejected” (Isaiah 53:1,3)
He “will voluntarily accept our guilt and punishment for sin” (Isaiah 53:7,8)
Just like Hannah knew what was to come for her child, Mary knew what was to come for her son and knowing this would have made her question the title of “favored one” even more. How would bearing a child destined for rejection and punishment be seen as being favored?
Mary’s only question to the angel, “How can this be?” may have left her kicking herself for not asking more. Mary had an opportunity to find out more, to have all of her questions answered, along with the questions we seek answers for today all she mustered us was, “How can this be?”
The question is not one of defiance or arrogance. Mary’s question to the angel was different from the doubt expressed by Elizabeth’s husband, Zachariah.
Mary was not questioning the work of God. She was questioning her ability to live up to the task being presented to her. Mary was puzzled.
“Gabriel” she asks, “how will this work?” Mary saw herself as being without the necessary qualifications for the task at hand.
Mary knew that according to the standard of the time she was unqualified for the task.
Mary knew that she had not met the human requirements set by the religious context of the time.
She was poor.
She was the wrong gender to wield power.
She was undereducated.
She was young.
By all standards of the time her assertion of her “lowly” station was beyond accurate.
Arriving at Elizabeth’s home and seeing a child was “leaping in her (Elizabeth’s) womb” Mary had to be thinking of what the angel had told her. Mary knew Elizabeth was pregnant, and that was a miracle in itself.
Mary knew Elizabeth’s pregnancy was unexpected and that it was not the same thing as a virgin birth. Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Sarah and Hannah, and now Elizabeth, but she knew that her pregnancy would be new waters to wade into.
Mary knew when Elizabeth began to show no one would question her pregnancy. Elizabeth and Zechariah were blessed by God with a child. Mary on the other hand, being an unwed, teenage virgin, would have her character called into question. She knew there would be rumors and gossip. Mary knew the scandal of the incarnation would be felt heaviest by the one bearing the Word made flesh in her womb.
Mary was different. Her child would be different. And Mary knew it was all true
It is easy for us to look back on the story of Mary and romanticize the role she played. It is easy for us to see how she truly was favored by God as she was invited to be the theotokos, “Bearer of God.” It is easy for us to assume that the incarnation was not difficult for Mary.
But being favored meant that she could lose it all if things did not go according to plan. After all the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will be “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit. While she had not felt anything yet, she knew what the term “overshadowed” meant. Mary knew that King David, generations ago, overshadowed King Saul. She knew the story of David bringing the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation rather than fear of its presence. She knew that the power of the most high overshadowed the ark.
Mary knew that to be overshadowed by the presence of God would have meant to have the immediate power and presence of God before you. And whether you are male or female, when this happens God takes possession of your very being. In these moments, questions like “how can this be” are of no challenge to God because God does the impossible.
In the incarnation God does the impossible. What Mary thought was inconceivable, God does.
Gabriel failed to mention to Mary that the angels would be visiting her fiancé in a dream. The angel does not tell her that there will be no room for her family in the inn and as a result the favored lowly mother will have to give birth in the lowliest of places. So, while knowing so much about what was to come, on her journey to Elizabeth’s home Mary would have had many questions still unanswered.
Knowing that the Lord has done great things with her, Mary’s submission as servant of God is sealed.
As scandalous as this story is, as unbelievable as it is that God’s favor is shown in the womb of an unwed, teenage virgin, God is empowering those who are least likely to view themselves as being favored by God. God empowers those who know it or not, are capable of miraculous tasks when overcome by the Holy Spirit.
God empowered Mary to this journey and just as God awaited Mary’s response of “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to you word” God waits for us today to respond in a similar manner. The story of the incarnation is not a story to keep in the books, its not a story limited to 2000 years ago. Each day we are invited to see God’s favor upon us and respond, even when we feel unworthy to the task.
Ernest Cardneal’s book, The Gospel in Solentiname, recalls conversations among peasant farmers and fisherman living in around Lake Nicaragua. The commentary from these farmers and fisherman on the annunciation of Gabriel echo the response of Mary. They see the favor and blessing extended to God’s servant also being extended to them. Because of Mary’s circumstance (lowly, poor, without power) they see her as being one of them, and thus God’s servant was not being called from the priestly class of first century Israel or from the social elite of 2017. One of the campesino commentators said, “the rich and the poor will be liberated.” Through the lowliness of God’s servant, all will be liberated.
Walking through the door of Elizabeth’s home Mary knew. In her knowledge, we too can respond by saying, “Here I am” because the incarnation is less about our credentials and more about God’s ability to overshadow what we see as shortcomings.
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