(The following excerpt has been adapted from chapter 19 of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative.)
No one remembers where Mary came from, but Joseph was descended from the great King David, though for his part he was a common laborer, a carpenter.
They were simple, honest people, dreaming and working toward a life they could live out together as husband and wife and, God willing, as a family. They probably expected to be ordinary in every way and perfectly happy for it.
But all this was interrupted in a moment when the angel of the Lord—the same one who visited Zechariah six months earlier—appeared to Mary and told her something that would alter the course of her and her husband’s lives—and for that matter, the world itself.
The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Though the angel’s words were friendly, Mary feared for her life. What could this messenger of the great I AM possibly have to say to her?
Mary belonged to a people familiar with the word of God. She grew up under its teachings. Since she was a little girl, laced throughout her lessons about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David was the prophetic foretelling of God’s promised Messiah.
Young and old tried to imagine what his advent would lead to. Would the Lord’s salvation come in a radiant swell of angelic fury? Would deliverance take the form of a mighty army rolling over Rome with some mythic warrior-king leading the charge? Down through the generations, the people tried to imagine it.
When the angel Gabriel stood before Mary, the hypothetical gave way to the real. The ordinary stories all at once glistened under the extraordinary light of this celestial storyteller.
As she listened, there rose inside her a sense that the glory of his tale was nothing new, but rather was older than time. She only needed uncommon light to see it. She had, Gabriel told her, found favor with God. She shouldn’t fear this visit or the message he brought.
It must have been strange to stand before this seraph dressed in light, strong and otherworldly, and hear him tell her not to be afraid. Perhaps it was even stranger for Mary to discover that God had formed an overall impression of her. She was known by God, and he favored her. He liked what he saw?
The angel then came to the reason for his visit. He told Mary she would conceive a son. He would rescue his people from their sins. God had already chosen his name—Jesus, which meant “salvation.”
But the message of the angel did not come without consequence for Mary and Joseph. It would lead these two young people to live as fugitives for a time, fleeing from the paranoia of a ruthless and powerful Roman ruler. And on top of all that, as her belly expanded, Mary and Joseph would have to endure the suspicious looks of friends and relatives who couldn’t help questioning her purity and his character. Eventually, as an old cleric named Simeon would later predict, the anguish accompanying the consequences of this angel’s news would be like a sword that would pierce through Mary’s very soul. (Lk 2:35)
All this was coming, and so much more.
The angel continued with his message. Mary’s boy would grow to reign over the people of God as their savior and king. The God who promised David so many years before that his royal line would see no end would keep that ancient covenant by bringing an heir to Israel’s throne through this young woman.
“But how can this be, since I’m still a virgin?” she asked. For her to bear this son, she must conceive. And how can a virgin conceive? Virgins don’t conceive. Everyone knows this.
The angel explained that all the laws of nature are amendable by the One who wrote them. Mary lived in the world that was made, and the Maker of this world was the sole author of what could and would happen here. The Holy Spirit would overshadow her, and when he pulled that shadow back, this virgin would become a mother to a son. How this would happen was incidental to the fact that it would. And God would be the one to do it.
Knowing his words required a shift in her understanding of how the world worked, the angel gave Mary a sign to help her believe. If Mary would only go visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth who had been barren her entire life, she would find a woman only months away from having a miracle baby of her own. Elizabeth was now six months pregnant. This, the angel told Mary, was a sign that she might understand that nothing was impossible with God.
Now it was Mary’s turn to speak. Wrapped in the vertigo of this inter-terrestrial conversation, she answered simply, “May it be done to me as you have said.”
What else could she say? The angel’s message was as much about the character of the God who favored Mary as it was about what he meant to do for his people through her.
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).