Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 1:26-38
One day, Gabriel came to Mary and greeted her: “Hello, Mary. God is especially fond of you!”
In response to the greeting, we are told, Mary was perplexed and pondered what these words might mean. So I thought, maybe I should be perplexed and ponder what these words might mean. Seems like an ordinary greeting to me. Why would it be confusing to Mary?
In first-century village society, life was ruled by strict conventions. For a man to address a woman directly in a public place would have been very inappropriate. Any man, as a matter of decency would keep at least several yards between himself and a woman he might encounter in the village. A woman would rarely be seen outside her home. If a woman was ever in the streets, she was to be heavily veiled and was prohibited from conversing with men. Pretty much the only public places women were allowed to go were the village well or market – at the time the other women were there, or to the synagogue, or to visit a female villager to give assistance in some way. Women were just not allowed to wander outside the home.
When this stranger spoke to her, Mary would be alarmed. To be spoken to by a man in public could bring shame to her, to her family and to her husband-to-be.
Strangers did come through town from time to time. Since it was a walking society, the villages which dotted the countryside would have guests coming through on their way to somewhere else. There may have been a village inn, but it was also common to seek hospitality in homes. Houses were designed with rooftop sleeping areas where such travelers might be hosted. And they traveled with their own sleeping bags – called “cloaks.”
A legitimate Jewish guest would have approached one of the elders in the village for hospitality, not a young woman in the street. Gentile visitors would have been treated with deep distrust and even fear. Mary may have pondered whether this person was Jew or Gentile. He was definitely a stranger, but friend or foe, she did not know.
Robbery and violence were very real fears. The Jews were an oppressed people. And soldiers were known to rape at will as part of their oppression and humiliation of the people. We know from history that there were always Roman soldiers in the area of Nazareth because Sepphoris, less than four miles away, was a violent point of contention between Rome and the Galilean rebels.
To complicate Mary’s confusion, remember what we said about angels a few weeks ago? We tend to imagine them as softly robed, glowing white with halos. Soft and maternal. Our images come to us from the icons and paintings of the European church. But John the Baptist was called and angel and he lived in the desert, wore camel’s hair and ate insects! Gabriel, too, is misunderstood in most of our portraiture. Gabriel was the angel of war, God’s Commander of the “heavenly host.” The mere mention of Gabriel would have conjured up images of a fierce warrior clothed in armor, ready to do battle.
Gabriel doesn’t give his name to Mary. But the fact that he is recognized as Gabriel is pretty good evidence that he looked like a warrior! So if Gabriel appeared in anything like this visage, Mary would certainly have been perplexed by the greeting of peace, by his greeting from God. What could these words of blessing mean from a stranger, a soldier-looking stranger, no less?! Why would a soldier tell her that God was with her?
We learned in Greek class that whenever an author uses repetition, it is a form of emphasis. So when I see these two similar words – perplexed and pondered – in Luke’s description of Mary’s response to the angel, I know it means something. The encounter caused Mary to be confused, to stop and think rather than run for her life. She took a holy pause.
Why was she perplexed? What was she pondering? What hints, clues, was she picking up? Hints of hope? If I were in her shoes, what would cause me to pause, to wonder? For me, it would be the eyes. What I saw there was not the dead hatred I would expect from a soldier. The eyes were alive. There was light there. Something in the body language held respect, not threat. Do I read this right? I don’t feel threat. So why not listen?
What courage to take this holy pause to consider that this might be something she needed to hear!
“Hello, I came to tell you that God especially loves you.” This is the angelic message which we all want to hear. It is the one which brings us to church on Christmas Eve. That we are loved. God is fond of us, has taken notice of us. We are not isolated in this old world of woe. It is the message which leaves a seed of hope in our souls and gives us courage to take the next step – to put aside our fear.
The angel said, “Don’t be afraid.”
Putting aside fear, is possibly the biggest step of all. There is something in us as humans which goes to fear first when we are faced with the unknown. It is in our animal nature, our fight or flight mechanism. I am certain that Mary’s heart was racing in this moment. Fear was at work in her.
Don’t be afraid, Mary…. I wonder how many times Gabriel had to repeat that. Until her heart calmed down enough for her to be curious, to ponder what this might mean.
Somehow, this angel became believable. In that moment Mary chose to trust him. Then he delivered her assignment. He opened a path forward in her life. The new kingdom of David was coming. And she would open the door.
Mary has come to be known as Theotokos, the God-bearer, or mother of God. She had a unique role in the drama which would play out. But, at the same time, it is the same call we each hear – to bear the God of love and light into our world. Even – especially – at its darkest moments. Each of us is given the opportunity to say “yes,” like Mary did. In the darkness of our world, we need those who will ponder the words of the angel, who will be perplexed at the presence of the Holy One in unexpected places. Why? Who me? Yes, you. God has noticed you and is particularly fond of you. You have just the right heart for carrying love into the world.
Will we notice, pause, ponder? Denise Levertov wrote a poem called, “Annunciation.” I won’t read the whole poem, but in a few stanzas she recognizes the same invitation. Listen:
… Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes….
She did not cry, “I cannot, I am not worthy,”
nor “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
Mary had the courage to say yes. Mary had the courage to let something grow inside her. She had the courage to harbor a Child of God in her body. Do we have the courage to harbor Christ in our bodies? When the power of the Most High overshadows you, will you have the courage to trust God as Mary did in the shadow of that angel soldier? Will you have the courage to be a bearer of God to the world?… When God sends a messenger to you, will you have the courage to say “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word?
May it be so, oh God. May it be, according to your word.