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Here in these weeks leading up to Christmas, we are posting a series of meditations focused on the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels. For more on what Advent means and why many Christains observe it, here’s a short introduction. If you’d like to make a wreath of your own for your family or study group, here’s how. The text for this week’s reflection comes from Luke 1:26-38.
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. — Luke 1:26-38 (ESV)
Elizabeth had a cousin, a young woman named Mary who was engaged to a young man named Joseph. They lived in an out of the way town called Nazareth. No one really remembers where she came from? Joseph, however, was descended from the great King David, though for his part he was a blue collar carpenter.
They were simple and honest people, dreaming and working hard toward a life they could live out together as a family, as husband and wife. They expected to be ordinary in every way and perfectly happy for it.
But all of this was interrupted in a moment.
Mary received a visit from an angelic being who would tell her something that would dramatically alter the course of her life and Joseph’s—and the whole of history.
The message of the angel was not without consequence either. It would lead these two young people to live as fugitives for a time, running from the Roman ruler Herod himself. Also, Mary and Joseph would suffer suspicious looks from friends and relatives, questioning her virtue and his manhood. And eventually, as the old watchman Simeon predicted, the anguish that would accompany the consequences of this angel’s news would be like a sword that would pierce through their very souls.
All this and so much more was coming. But for now as the angel stood before the young woman, she trembled with fear wondering what was about to happen. What could an angel of the Lord possibly have to say to her?
It was an ordinary thing for first century Jews to be familiar with the word of God, having grown up under its teachings. Laced throughout its lessons came the prophetic promise of God’s coming Messiah. Young and old tried to imagine what this would entail. Would salvation come in a radiant swell of angelic fury? Would deliverance take the form of a mighty army rolling over Rome with some unprecedented warrior-king leading the charge? Across the generations people speculated about this. But when the angel comes to Mary, the hypothetical is brought into the real. The ordinary is all at once extraordinary.
And she is as scared as anything.
The angel tries to calm her, explaining that God has found favor with her so she should not fear this visit or the message he brings. It must have been strange to stand there before this seraph—glorious, strong and other-worldly—and hear him tell her not to fear. And perhaps it was even stranger to hear that God had formed an overall impression of her. She was known by God? And He liked what He saw?
Mary, the angel tells her, will conceive a son. God has already chosen his name—Jesus, which means “salvation.” This boy will grow to reign over the people of God as their savior and king. The God who promised David so many years ago that his royal line would see no end will keep this covenant by bringing an heir to Israel’s throne through this young woman.
“How can this be? I am a virgin?” she asks without a hint of sarcasm. For her to bear this son, she must conceive. And how can a virgin conceive?
The angel explains that she has entered the world of the one who made hers. All the law of nature, it turns out, are amendable by the One who wrote them. Like a magician covering the flower in his hand with his cape, only to pull it away as the onlookers discover, to their amazement, that the flower has become a bird which flies away, the Holy Spirit will overshadow this virgin and when he pulls the shadow back, she will be a mother. How this will happen is incidental to the fact that God will be the one doing it.
Still, virgins don’t conceive. Everyone knows this.
Knowing his words require a significant paradigm shift, the angel gives Mary a sign to help her believe in the possibility, even if she has no category for the process.
If Mary would only go to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who has been barren her entire life, she will find a woman only months away from having a miracle baby of her own. Elizabeth is six months pregnant. This, the angel tells her, is a sign that she might understand that nothing is beyond God.
Now it was Mary’s turn to speak. There before the Guardian of Heaven, wrapped up in the vertigo of this inter-terrestrial conversation, Mary answered, “Alright, may it be done to me as you have said.”
What else could she say? She couldn’t prepare for this, nor could she help it along. This is something that must be done to her—something only God can do.
And this is precisely what God did.
Mary, it is said, was someone who appreciated nuance and implication. She treasured things in her heart.
Three things come across in this angelic visit that shine like gemstones for the heart seeking treasure. One, God, by the grace of His love, finds favor in ordinary people. Two, He interacts with those people in time and space so that they might receive His salvation. And three, God meets those people in the context of their ordinary lives while He Himself remains extraordinary.
The angel’s message was as much about the character of the God who knew Mary as it was about what He meant to do for His people through her. And she treasured all these things in her heart.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).