Fourth Sunday of Advent | Luke 1:26-38
Gabriel didn’t tell her everything. Mary knew that.
“Greetings, you favored one!” Gabriel said. “The Lord is with you.”
Mary was no simpleton. She knew from stories that angels making announcements were just the start of the trouble, and so she stood there and tried to work out what kind of greeting this Gabriel creature was offering her.
The angel, perhaps seeing that it did not have her full trust, went on to say that she would have a child. This would be not just a child, the angel claimed, but a king, and not just any king, but king forever without end. It was quite a claim, backed up by nothing but words. Sure, these were the words of an angel, but words nonetheless.
Mary’s presence of mind was remarkable. Most of us would stare slack jawed at the spectacle of an angel, but Mary was thinking on her feet. She listened to the promise of a son, and she knew that the angel was skipping over an important step in the process.
“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” she asked. It might be the best question anyone ever asked, when you think about it. She could have asked for proof that Gabriel was, in fact, an angel. She might have asked for miracles, or gone into whys and wherefores. She might have lost her self control and fallen into a cowering heap at the sight of an angelic being. Instead, Mary (her actual name was Mariam) chose the path of empirical evidence. Mary was a woman with a scientific and logical mind.
With statues and paintings, rosaries and Hail Mary prayers all over the world, it may sound strange to say that we don’t give Mary enough credit. Maybe it is more precise to say that we do not give her credit for the right things. People speak of Mary’s purity, and her humility, and her faith, but this story reveals a woman with remarkable intelligence and courage.
Gabriel told her that a holy spirit would come upon her, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, whatever that might mean, and that the holy one being born to her would be called the son of God. Then the angel changed the subject. It began to talk about Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, who was pregnant even though she was thought to be too old, like Abraham’s Sarah. To top the announcement off, it told her that nothing was impossible with God.
“Behold, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “May it be to me according to your word.” And Gabriel, satisfied with the response or having nothing else to say, left her.
We should admire her intelligence at least as much as her other attributes. She could have objected that the angel was a little vague on the biology question, and she could have asked what Elizabeth’s situation had to do with her own. Instead, she asserted her faith, and she added a sensible, “May it be so.”
A son who becomes king sounds like a good thing. This was an angelic being standing in front of her. Whether one believes in the angel or in what it says, there is little point arguing.
In so many words, she said, “We’ll see.”
The Gospels tell us that Mary faced a pregnancy that came too early to be respectable. She traveled. She raised a family. She did all of this with courage, intelligence, and more than a little grace.
Perhaps this Advent season, we might welcome a new vision of Mary. This one has nothing to do with robes and roses. This new vision of Mary is of a woman who thinks clearly and acts with courage. Our daughters, and our sons, would do well to look past the statues and to imagine the overwhelming difficulties she faced, to learn from her sensible and steadfast nature.
In this season, we might ponder—as did Mary—the journey of God toward humanity, on unexpected paths, announced by unlikely messengers. We may meet no angels. We do not know whether such visitations are rare or whether we simply do not recognize them when they happen to us. Perhaps that was one of Mary’s gifts, to know an angel when she met one.
Hail Mary, full of grace.