Click here for the Sunday readings - December 21, 2014
What is going on in today’s Gospel?
Of the four Gospels, only two (Matthew and Luke) provide any details about the birth and childhood of Jesus. The two “Infancy Narratives,” as they are known offer distinct but complementary accounts that, amalgamated, have come to comprise the singular chronicle we generally think of as “the” Christmas story.
In both Matthew and Luke, an angel of the Lord appears to forecast the miraculous conception of Jesus by the Spirit of God, but only in Luke is the angel identified by name as Gabriel, and, whereas in Matthew the angel appears in a dream to Joseph (but not Mary), in Luke, the opposite is the case. In Luke, we see the angel Gabriel appear to Mary in the scene that we have come to refer to as, “The Annunciation.”
Just prior to this scene, the angel Gabriel had visited Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptist, to foretell the fact that Elizabeth, who was thought barren in her old age, was likewise with child. Luke not only sets up a parallel between Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, who became pregnant with Isaac long after Sarah had been rendered barren, but also a parallelism between the Divinely ordained ministry of John and that of Jesus. Both Mary and Zechariah are visited by the Angel Gabriel, and both are perplexed/terrified by the encounter. Likewise, to both Mary and Zechariah are attributed hymns by Luke, that have become known as “The Canticle of Mary,” and “The Canticle of Zechariah,” respectively, that sing the praises of the Lord and recount the marvelous deeds of God on behalf of the people Israel.
Returning to today’s Gospel passage, we see several “high context” elements of the Lucan narrative that are worth examining. The Greek word commonly translated as “virgin,” is parthenos, and it did not necessarily carry precisely the same connotation as its modern usage. It meant, in ordinary usage, a young woman of marriageable age who was not yet married. The term most commonly used throughout Western history would be “maiden.” But because sexual relations outside of marriage were forbidden, and it was expected that a young woman would wait until her wedding night to consummate the marriage contract with a conjugal act, one could generally infer that a young, unmarried woman was also a virgin in the sense of sexual chastity, the way we would use it today.
But just so that there is no ambiguity as to her status (and thus Jesus’ parental origin), Luke depicts Mary making it explicit a few verses later, saying, “I have had no relations with a man.” Rather, the Holy Spirit is identified as the source of this new life, and the child will be known as “the Son of God.” Moreover, the child will be the adopted son of Joseph, who is said to be of the House of David--and, indeed, the child will inherit the throne of David, ruling over the house of Israel. In these few, dense verses of the very first Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, are contained immense information about everything that is to follow. Jesus is (1) Divinely conceived, the Son of God; (2) Born of a human mother, and thus fully human; (3) the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies that the Lord would deliver a Messiah from the blood line of King David, who would restore the glory of Israel.
So what does this have to do with us?
In the popular movie, The Princess Bride, one of the opening scenes portrays the relationship between the eponymous title character and the hero of the movie, Wesley, whom the Princess mistreats and refers to as “farm boy.” No matter how curt her tone or demeaning the task, Wesley unfailingly responds with the simple phrase, “As you wish.” Over the course of these interactions, we are told, the Princess comes to realize that the farm boy’s words, “As you wish,” are really a way of saying, “I love you,” and that his simple acts of service were a way of expressing this.
Biblical Scholar John Pilch, who emphasizes the importance of understanding the unique socio-cultural paradigm of first-century Mediterranean life in order to interpret the Scriptures, attests that Mary’s famous phrase, “May it be done unto me according to your Word,” could meaningfully be translated as, “As you wish.” These words are most commonly associated with servants, butlers, or inferiors who are responding to the request/command of someone in a position of authority. They bespeak humble submission to the will of the person in charge, and, indeed, this facet of Mary’s response has been highlighted throughout the centuries. We celebrate Mary as humble, meek, and compliant with the will of God. But the scene from The Princess Bride above gives us another lens through which to view her unique way of saying, “Yes,” to God... one of great love.
Mary’s, “Yes,” demonstrates immense, unspeakable trust in the Providence of God. How mind-bogglingly unimaginable is the news she has just received? That she is about to become pregnant with a child conceived by the Spirit of God? That God, the Almighty and Eternal Creator of the Universe, has chosen her to be the mother of God’s child?!
Humility, yes, and trust, undoubtedly... but trust borne of what? Faith premised upon what foundation could be so unflappable as to respond so gently, “As you wish,” rather than flipping out, passing out, or running out (the door in fear of this other-worldly being who just showed up in your bedroom to tell you that you’re about to bear God’s Son)? Faith founded in love can be the only answer. Trust infused with a supreme and unfailing love. Think, in your own life, whom you trust the most... almost inevitably, it will be someone you love, or whom you know loves you.
If someone whom you love greatly, be it a best friend, parent, or spouse, were to ask you to trust him/her with some seemingly crazy plan, you would be far more likely to go through with it than if it were a random stranger. Imagine you were in graduate school, and your fiance came to you and said that s/he’d had a vision of God and came away KNOWING that s/he was called to drop out of school, move to Micronesia, and teach the faith, living in solidarity with rural villagers. Such a dramatic life shift would be overwhelming. But, if this person were someone with whom you were deeply in love, it would be far more likely that you would place your trust in this crazy plan, perhaps even responding, “As you wish.”
The beauty of Mary’s, “Yes,” lies not only in her humility, but in her inordinate trust grounded in a deep love of God. In our own lives, we are challenged to trust in God’s plan, even when it seems not to make a great deal of sense. We are invited to follow the model of Mary, and to say to God, “Not my will, but thy will be done,” or, “Be it done unto me according to Your will,” or, more simply still, “As you wish.”
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you ever felt like your life was turned upside down, and you found it difficult to trust that what was happening was part of God’s plan? How did you get through it?
2. We see the angel Gabriel speak directly to Mary and reveal God’s plan; have you ever felt like God was communicating with you? What was that experience like?
3. We often talk about “loving God,” in a generic sense, but what does that look like for you, specifically? Mary’s love took the form of great trust in God’s plan (among other things), but what does your own love for God look like? How do you think you could increase in it?