This Christmas season I have been taken by how often vulnerability comes into play in the birth narratives of Jesus. The account of Mary’s being informed of how Jesus was to come about is no exception:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. – Luke 1:26-38 (New Living Translation)
Aside: Some people, upon reading or hearing the above text, go to some challenging places. Some go to places of sheer doubt – the science side of us says this is impossible, the critical historian side of us says Luke and Matthew’s birth narrative were fabricated for their respective audiences and are not to be taken literally. Some others find themselves going to less intellectual places and instead struggle with the emotional side of things. Perhaps they were told that if they didn’t sign off on the doctrine of the virgin birth they were not truly in the faith at all and would suffer the consequences – hell to come, and a taste of it between now and then from the displeasure of those who demanded allegiance. Still others relate to Mary as one who was not seeking to become pregnant but became so from an unsought guest. Some take the whole thing on faith and immerse themselves in the miracle of it all. My encouragement to you is to allow the story to be what Luke (here) intended it to be. He is telling us something about God, about Mary, and about the future child to be born. In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Appreciate the story “as is” and milk it for all it’s worth.
What strikes me most about the story this year is how quickly Mary got to such an astonishing response to the angelic announcement/invitation and subsequent overshadowing. If the angel was accurate, this good news was going to be accompanied by a lot of bad news that she alone would have to bear. Who would believe her? How would people treat her as one who was legally promised to another man yet carrying someone else’s child? What kind of public disgrace should she expect? And what of Joseph? We know he didn’t buy the story until an angel confirmed it – what kind of hell did he put her through? Taking the story at face value, she undoubtedly had an inkling about what was ahead of her, yet her response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” Astonishing!
The greatest thing I am seeing this year is her humility and the vulnerability it requires and risks. As a thirteen-year-old young woman living in a severely male-dominated era, she was used to living humbly, which gave her an advantage over menfolk like me regarding her capacity to be vulnerable, simply because she was used to it. Nonetheless, she got there quick, and I think her decision and words speak volumes. First and obvious, she chose to embrace her role as a servant of the Lord. Hers was a decision to be second, to acknowledge that something bigger than her was taking place. This actually speaks volumes about her faith, because at that time people thought God has gone mute. For God to act in such a way – and with a poor, ordinary young woman instead of someone important at the Temple – was preposterous. This required a childlike trusting to really believe. A childlike trust that not only would God be capable of acting, but that the God who was acting would be good. And of course, her body was about to go through an unbelievable transition, with few sympathetic bystanders to help, I bet. Lots of scorn instead.
Despite her young age, she made a very mature decision, didn’t she? She could have easily given in to doubt, skepticism, and cynicism given her context. But she instead trusted that this spiritual thing was really real, and really included her. She was dialed into what the Spirit was doing when nobody thought the Spirit was doing anything at all! Her choice to trust and move forward in vulnerability is why Jesus drew such a contrast between Mary’s move and the alternative, offered below in two translations (Matthew 7:13-14):
“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to destruction is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. (New Living Translation)
"Don't look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don't fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention.” (MSG)
Mary had chosen the very narrow, difficult road that felt risky, requiring all of her attention. The easy rout would have been to deny it, ignore it, maybe even reject it in some way. Embracing was a choice for challenge. Kind of makes you wonder that if the faith we’re living is a cakewalk, it may mean one of two things: we’re either not really on the narrow path at all and are actually on the same path as the rest of culture, or we are so completely dialed into faith and God that the consequences are overshadowed by the work of the Spirit. I think the latter is where Mary found herself, and kept herself, which not only got her through the hell she was going to live and beyond, but actually added a good deal of heaven in the process. She chose to be a servant, trusting the nature of God to be good. The love-filled overshadowing of God overshadowed the overshadowing of her circumstances.
The Apostle Paul chose to get on the narrow path himself after he had a remarkable encounter with a spiritual, post-resurrection Jesus that overshadowed his thinking, changing him from that moment forward. He stayed overshadowed by God by remaining faithful, open, vulnerable to however the Spirit of God would lead. He shared the secret to staying in the zone in his letter to the church in Philippi:
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. – Paul, Philippians 4:6-9 (NLT)
The narrow way requires some focus to stay on it. But if it means we are immersed in the Spirit and part of what God is doing in the world – part of Life! – it is so radically worth it!
I seriously doubt that any of us will be visited by God in such a way, with such a request. But I am certain that we are continually invited to join God in what God is up to in our lives and in the world. God is always speaking, always inviting, always wanting to overshadow what is overshadowing us that we might live. A few weeks back we looked at the Jewish understanding of humanity: we are dirt clods animated – given life – by the Spirit of God as breath. Mary’s prayer that everything come true was an affirmation that she wanted the words of God over her to be realized. She wanted more of Life that she might truly live according to her potential as a spiritually infused dirt clod. Her choice to say yes to the Spirit was a decision to be more and more a work of the spirit versus a clod.
The truth is that we are all Mary in terms of receiving an invitation to believe God’s word about us – words of hope, possibility, potential, Life! To say yes, however, means we are saying yes more and more to what God has for us, which may appear difficult. Some things we are overshadowed by are obvious and awful. Traumatic childhood experiences. Traumatic adulthood experiences! Abusive relationships. Dependency on alcohol or drugs or food or any number of things that we use to numb our pain. Things said to us that were incredibly hurtful. Things we’ve done that have brought shame to ourselves and families. Things that we couldn’t have expected, like a pink slip, or lost job, or fire. Or a horrible medical diagnosis. These things overshadow our lives and we know it. We obsess over them. We can’t shake them. We feel like we can’t do anything about it. We’re stuck.
Some other things that overshadow us are more difficult to discern because they include the means and ends of the system around us – the system, the road, that leads to destruction that Jesus talked about. Winner and loser thinking. Greed. Refusal to see all other people as humans just like us. Politicized rhetoric that too quickly defines reality as right or wrong, black and white, without regard to the complexity of issues or the people it tries to define. We do not even know we are overshadowed by such things until we are forced to see it by crisis or example. Mary is such an example, as are all of the faith heroes we celebrate. People who heard the beat of a different drummer, who decided to live differently, decided to pursue being more whole than being more rich. Difficult choices that brought some pain. When we trust what God is doing, and doing in us, and doing around us; when we say yes to God’s invitation, we experience an overshadowing that overshadows that which overshadows us. It brings peace that passes understanding as Paul said. As the prophet Isaiah said centuries before, the overshadowing provides an exchange of beauty for ashes, strength for fear, gladness for mourning, and peace for despair (Isaiah 61). These are things we all want, I think. These are things available to us.
But they require a yes. Which requires humility. Which assumes perpetual vulnerability. Which is terrifying. Yet results in an overshadowing of the Spirit that overshadows all that overshadows us.