In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured 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 favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’
The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’
Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
- Luke 1:26-38
There's an awful lot that we'd like to know about this stuff. Yesterday I found myself in a long Facebook thread about Mary and Joseph and the virgin birth and Jesus' genealogy. And another priest friend jumped in to comment on just how literal we were all being.
Well, that's because we want to know! Was Mary really a virgin? If she wasn't, then were the gospel writers lying to us? Were they printing falsehoods, trying to pull one over on us? What about that "of the house of David" thing? If Jesus was conceived not by Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit, then was he not literally descended from David? And if that were the case, how could he be the Messiah? "How can this be?"
One thing I've come to depend on is that God will always shatter my expectations. I've also come to learn this (as a seminary professor put it): living in a "post-Enlightenment, post-Kant, post-Descartes world" has put severe limits on our imagination. When it comes to crucial matters like our eternal salvation, we don't know how to relax into the poetry.
Six years ago today I posted a whole bunch of artistic portrayals of the Annunciation. Spend some time with those.
I notice that in the story just prior to this one, Zechariah is also perplexed when an angel comes to him to announce the miraculous birth of John. Zechariah is struck dumb for answering questions. But when Mary asks questions, she is honored. What's up with that?
What is the significance of virginity? Certainly there's something in here that resonates with similar stories in Greek mythology that announce the birth of someone truly divine. There's something in here about God's ability to create ex nihilo.
And there's something also that smacks of patriarchy: overtones of the importance of women remaining "pure," but men not so much. In our own time we rightly reject this double standard. I balk at Christmas hymns that rhyme "mother mild" with "undefiled." Yuck!
There are so many rabbit holes we can go down, and those can be fun if you want to spend all your time in your head. Instead, try moving the conversation down into your heart and make it personal. Spend some time in contemplation of God's visitation to you. When you imagine God appearing to you, from what direction does God approach? Is it an angel sent as a messenger, or God's very self? (Often in the Bible the distinction is blurred.)
If God were to give birth to something through you, what might it be?