On an otherwise unremarkable day, in the unremarkable backwoods town of Nazareth, God sent the angel Gabriel to interrupt young Mary’s life with some startling news.
As far as we know, Mary had no advance warning and no special preparation for the surprise God sprung on her. There’s no reason to think that she was precociously religious or unusually pious. She was a young woman from a peasant family who wasn’t looking for a heroic life. She was, instead, looking forward to her wedding day and dreaming of her life with Joseph, the carpenter.
We don’t know very much about how the unsettling encounter between Gabriel and Mary occurred. Luke doesn’t tell us whether Mary was awake or asleep, whether Gabriel slipped into her dreams, or knocked on the door, or crawled in the window, or materialized in front of her as if he had been beamed-in, Star Trek style. All Luke seems to care about is the angel’s message and Mary’s response.
Somehow, though, Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.” Mary was troubled by what she heard. Not so much by the angel’s appearance; she seems to have taken that in stride which might mean that this angel looked a lot more like a college kid delivering a singing telegram than he looked like a fearsome heavenly warrior. For whatever reason, it wasn’t his presence that disturbed Mary; it was his words: “She was much perplexed by his words.”
Her anxiety drew this response from Gabriel: “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.”
Mary must have had a thousand questions but she asked only the most obvious one: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel’s answer was, essentially, “Because of God.” Mary’s objection was clinical in its reasonableness: facts were facts. The angel answered, not clinically, but mysteriously: facts were facts, but God was God.
Mary was speaking of gynecology; the angel answered with theology. The angel said: “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.” The angels spoke of wonder and miracle, not of logic and science: “You are a virgin. You will have a son. The reason is not reasonable. The reason is God.”
Then the angel spoke words that Fred Craddock has called “the creed of all creeds,” the faith which gives rise to faith: “For nothing is impossible with God.” Parker Palmer, a Christian writer and educator tells of a difficult decision he faced. The option he most wanted to pursue seemed the hardest. A friend he turned to for advice said to him: “The thing you don’t seem to understand, Parker, is that just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.” (The Active Life, p. 76)
God asked Mary to yield, to open herself to God’s immediate and intimate presence, to allow herself—her identity as well as her body—to be shaped and reshaped by God’s purpose for her. Despite her misgivings and reservations, and despite what seemed the sheer impossibility of it all, Mary said “yes” to the will of God.
God asked Mary to say “yes” to love. God did not ask Mary to embark on a self-improvement plan so that she would be a fit mother for Jesus. God didn’t require her to show references and credentials that would qualify her for this honor. God didn’t expect her to prove that she was worthy of the grace God had chosen to give. God wanted Mary’s consent and cooperation, her vulnerability and trust—her “yes” to love.
Mary consented. She could have said “no”—God would not have forced her against her will. She chose to yield to God’s creative presence: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.” Mary said “yes.”
Martin Luther once said: “Before Mary could conceive Him in her womb, she first had to conceive Him in her heart.” You and I are called to open our hearts to Christ just as surely as Mary opened her heart to God’s will and her body to the infant Jesus. God wants our “yes,” too—our trusting openness to the mysterious and life-giving love God wants to nurture in us.