The story is told that one day in heaven Jesus approached Peter who, acting in his roll as admissions officer, was sitting at the pearly gates. Jesus complained about the quality of people Peter was admitting into heaven, noting how many of them were of significantly questionable reputation. Peter responded, "I know Lord. But what am I to do? They come to me here and I turn them away. So they go around to the backdoor, talk to your mother, and she lets them in."
Mary has acquired such a reputation over the years. To the Medieval church, Mary was the approachable one, her Son, the coming judge of the living and the dead, more feared than revered in people's minds. Mary was the welcoming, understanding one, full of grace, to whom anyone could go for help, pleading that she beseech her son on their behalf. She was holy, because her son had been holy; might not her holiness have some benefit for us, just as his does? This, of course, is what caused the reformers to give up on Mary, returning and singling the focus to her son. Since then, Mary has been something of an embarrassment to Protestants, either because of the way in which the other Christian traditions have esteemed her as Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, or God Bearer, or, in this age of modernity, because of her self-professed virginity. I sometimes wonder how many of you have your fingers crossed when we confess, "Born of the Virgin Mary," or "incarnate of the Virgin Mary." Not knowing quite what to do with a virginal conception and birth, most Protestants have either made it a fundamental tenet of the faith, which of course, it is not, or, limited by their conceptions of what is and is not possible in the physical world, have allowed science to trump theology. Consequently, most talk about Mary today focuses on the romantic and subjective, giving us the young, innocent, compliant greeting card girl whose life is caught up in a whirlwind called God, reducing the story to an example of faithfulness.
A theological look at this lesson reveals something startling: it's not about Mary. To be sure, without her, there would be no gospel. But that said, this story is far less about Mary than it is about God. New Testament scholar Beverly R. Gaventa identifies three major themes within today's Gospel lesson. First is the one the angel Gabriel announces as his parting words to the wondering and confused Mary: "Nothing will be impossible with God." Gaventa notes that these words spoken to Mary not only sum up the birth stories of both John the Baptist and of Jesus, but also invoke a remembrance of other occasions of improbability in which God intervened, whether with the barren Abraham and Sarah, Hannah and Elkanah, or Zechariah and Elizabeth. But as Gaventa notes, each of those situations of barrenness was only improbable, improbable because at their age and in their circumstances, who would expect a child like Isaac, Samuel or John the Baptist? But the birth Gabriel is announcing to Mary is not improbable, it is impossible: Mary is a virgin. That is beyond anyone's comprehension--no more plausible to Mary than to us--as Mary so openly testifies when she demurs: "How can this be, since I know no man, since I am a virgin?" The angel responds in much the same way the angel responded to disbelieving Abraham and Sarah, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" It is a reminder that the God we worship and serve, the God about to be revealed in the babe soon taking shape in Mary's womb, is a God of power and wonder, wonder and power beyond any limitation that you and I might conceive.
But this is not simply about the wonder of God's power to do the impossible in Mary. This is about the wondrously impossible things God is going to do in and through this child. This conception is just the beginning of the wonderful and impossible things Luke wants us to know that God has done in him: forgiving sins, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, strengthening the lame, and raising the dead. All of that will be reported in this gospel Luke is writing. It will come to its climax with an even greater wonder and even more astonishing impossibility: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, his appearance to his followers, and his ascension into heaven. Yet the wonder and impossibilities do not stop there. In Luke's second volume he will report that the same Spirit who conceived Jesus in Mary's womb will be the Spirit poured out upon believers to virginally conceive them as brothers and sisters of Jesus, to make them, like Mary, God-bearers. Here then is the first great theme for today: with God nothing is impossible. Those who discredit this event and the truth behind it, because it is scientifically impossible, miss the entire point Luke is making: we are not talking about a receptive virgin, we are not talking about what is plausible or scientifically possible, we are not talking gynecology; this is theology--this is God talk. As Fred Craddock has written, "This is the creed behind all other creeds." For God, nothing is impossible. We must confess that daily, not simply at Christmas, not simply at Easter, but on every occasion of impossibility you and I encounter in life.
The second theme this story reveals is that the God of the impossible is also the God of grace. In our subjective romanticism, we ponder the dilemma of the twelve-to-thirteen year old girl lying on her mat, staring up into the face of Gabriel as she tries to comprehend what he is saying. Consequently, we miss the fact that this is not about Mary's ability to say, "Let it be to me according to your word." Again, it's not about Mary. This is about the grace of God entering human life. Gabriel's greeting to Mary reveals it: "Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.... You have found favor with God." It slips by us in English. But the word behind "favor" and "favored one" is the word for grace. It can equally be translated, "Greetings graced one...!" Mary is being caught up in the drama of God's grace; she is graced. But once again, it's not about Mary. As Gaventa so rightly points out, there is not one hint in the text as to why this should be. If there is something about Mary, we certainly don't know it from what Luke tells us here. All Luke says is that she is a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, who is of the house of David. Beyond that, she is no different than anyone else listening to me, at least in moral character or attribute. There is not one word here about her virtue, her worthiness, her suitability or predisposition to faithfulness, not one word that would explain to us why God should choose her--simply that God did.
This, of course, is the point: God does choose to do things simply out of God's grace. God chose to create the world out of nothing--speaking of the impossible. Those who are troubled with the virgin birth need to spend more time conjuring creation, which God accomplished with a word. God chose Abraham and Sarah, simply as an act of God's grace. Had that choice depended upon integrity and virtue, God's choice for Abraham and Sarah would have been a poor one indeed. God chose David to be king out of grace; and when David decided it was time to build a house for God, God said "No. You've too much blood on your hands for that. Rather, I will build a house for you"--more grace! "I will raise up your son who shall build a house for my name, and will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me," words which Luke echoes as Gabriel tells Mary who her child will be. This is about God's grace breaking into the world for everyone.
What does it mean to respond to such grace? Here is the third great theme we lose when we try to make this about Mary. We have so focused on the prosaic "Let it be to me," that we have missed the precondition to those words. Mary's first response is an acknowledgement: "I am the Lord's slave." This is not a voluntary relationship dependent upon Mary's cooperation or volition. God has spoken, it is happening; can Mary do anything but embrace it? This is what it means to be the object of God's grace; it binds us. I mean, truly, could Mary do otherwise? Can we? God's grace descends upon us, captures us, and binds us in a slavery which is perfect freedom. Luke will later tell a story about another upon whom the grace of God descended, blinding him, halting his persecution of the church, and binding him to an apostolic slavery which in today's epistle lesson, Paul describes as "the obedience of faith." Mary says "yes," in much the same way Paul does: "It is your word; let it come to be."
Here is the final truth about all of this: it is about God's Word. The Word God spoke at the beginning, through whom all things came into being, is the Word being spoken over Mary to begin a new creation in her. It is that same Word that is spoken to you and to me, that same Word we speak in pulpits, over fonts and at table--the creative and gracious power of God, not only to cause things to come into being, but to give the gift of God's self to whom God chooses--each of us.
It's not about Mary. It's about God, for whom nothing is impossible, God who is first and foremost a God of Grace, God who chooses ordinary humans of all stature and circumstance to become slaves for and to God's own purposes, God who speaks and comes to birth in us as members of God's new creation. In this story her name happens to be Mary. But hers is not the only story being told here. It is your story; it is my story as well. God has chosen each of us, favored each of us, graced each of us, and spoken God's Word to, over, and in each of us. By the power of God's Spirit, God has descended upon us and conceived Christ in us. Like Mary, you and I are God bearers, an identity and vocation that brings with it extraordinary privileges, significant hardships, and enormous burdens. But the promise remains the same: no matter the hardships or impossibilities this graced vocation may bring in life, nothing is impossible for the One we serve and bear.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
Let us pray. O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us this day. Born anew again and again we pray in your Holy name. Amen.
1) The Swiss reformed, Huldrich Zwingli, was very reluctant to give up Maryology within Protestant thought, but was finally convinced that he must.
2) Beverly R. Gaventa, et al., Texts for Preaching Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), p. 39f.
3) Luke 1:37.
4) Luke 1:34. This is the literal rendering of the Greek text, with the word "know" a metaphor for sexual intercourse.
5) Genesis 18:14, see also Job 42:2 and Zechariah 8:6 for examples of God's response to the human objection that something is impossible.
6) Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity International Press, 1993), p. 26.
7) Roman law allowed girls to be married at age ten. In Jewish practice, marriage generally took place before a girl reached twelve and a half. Cf. Joel B. Green, "The Gospel According to Luke," The New Interpreter's Study Bible, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 1853.
8) Luke 1:28,30b.
9) Charizomai and charis.
10)Interestingly enough, scientists can trace the beginning of all that is to one trillionth of a second before it began, but cannot move further back than that. As humans we cannot measure the beginning, let alone what took place before that with scientific methodology. This is the realm of Theology. Creation is, itself, and act of grace, whereby God "withdraws" from all Reality to make space for the physical world.
11) Chronicles 28:3.
12) 2 Samuel 7:llb-14a.
13) Interestingly enough, the NRSV translators regularly render the Greek doulos "slave," but have chosen here to soften it to "servant" as though Mary had some ability to do otherwise.
14) Romans l6;26.
15) Luke 1:38.