"And [the angel Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus." (Luke 1:28-31, NRSV)
Mary seems to belong among the glittering images on holiday greeting cards, the porcelain figures in a nativity set, or in the familiar words of a carol. It is easier for us to see Mary as a Christmas-only character, a virgin awarded an extraordinary task based on her super-human merit.
But if we take Scripture seriously, we find that Mary would not have located herself in any of these places of glory. Even when the angel Gabriel meets her with what seems like an entirely positive greeting, Mary cannot figure out why she might be visited by a heavenly messenger. Nothing in the story tells us that Mary was chosen for her special holiness or her piety. Instead, Mary is favored precisely because God chooses her.
In the midst of her normalcy, her inadequacy, her inexperience, God chooses her to bear his Son. Faced with this call, Mary asks the inevitable "How?" question, asked by all of us who are faced with a task that is greater than we are. She understands human limitations: she is a virgin, and virgins do not have babies. The angel does not rebuke her for her lack of faith or her inability to understand God's plan, but reassures Mary that she is in contact with the God who can do the impossible.
The Creator of the universe is about to inaugurate the New Creation in the inexperienced, fragile body of a Jewish peasant girl from Nazareth. The "I Am" of her forefathers will be intimately connected to a particular person, dependent upon the womb of an ordinary woman. Mary's questions may not have ended there. Unfortunately, we don't have the complete transcript of the many concerns, fears, and doubts that might have filled her angelic encounter. But ultimately, Mary aligned herself with the will of God.
Her words reflect her consciousness of God's history with inadequate humans like her. She may have recalled Abraham (Genesis 22), Samuel (1 Samuel 3), and Isaiah (Isaiah 6:8), when she echoed the words of the obedient people of God, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38, NRSV).
With God's constant faithfulness toward his people adding solidity to her belief, she stepped forward into an allegiance with God.
She could not have known the sort of path her obedient response would lead her down, but she knew the sort of God who had chosen her.
This is the same steadfast commitment to following God's will—despite personal cost—that we see evidenced in Mary's son. He had a good example to follow. Maybe, just maybe, even Jesus learned something from Mary. When he was faced with a task that seemed too grand, too horrible, too difficult to undertake, he too aligned himself with God and said, "Not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).
It is in this trusting step that God can work the impossible through normal people like Mary and like us.
Kara J. Lyons works in the Nazarene Archives and will graduate from Nazarene Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree in May 2005.