By Wesley Hill
Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day when we commemorate and celebrate the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and announcing to her that God has favored her and that she will bear the Son of God. We celebrate this wondrous promise, and we celebrate Mary’s consent, her fiat, her willing participation in the redemption of the world.
But as we encounter again an old story so familiar, how often do we meditate on just how seismic — just how personally, if not cosmically, apocalyptic — this event would have been in the life of a very young woman?
Imagine yourself in Mary’s place. An angel, appearing perhaps in dazzling fearsomeness as angels usually do, stands before you and announces that the God of Israel has taken an interest in you.
Luke tells us that Mary was “much perplexed by his words.” That little phrase no doubt conceals an eternity of anguish. What does God want from me? you wonder. Might he perhaps be about to ask me to attempt some great and costly sacrifice, like Abraham being asked to offer his beloved child and future in a consuming fire?
The angel tells you not to be afraid. And yet you are. Angels in your Scriptures have often been heralds of upheaval. One time an angel was a minister of death.
And then the announcement comes: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”
Your first reaction is to register the impossibility of it: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
But the angel is ready with an answer: “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 …. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
And now the fears really begin to tumble fast and thick into your mind.
You wonder about childbirth. Will you survive the delivery? The angel didn’t say anything about that.
You wonder about whether you will be able to afford the child.
You wonder about the whispers behind your back as your belly grows before your wedding day.
You wonder about whether your fiancé will call off the wedding.
And the more you wonder, the more it seems that this angel has come to herald an apocalypse, the complete overturning of life as you’ve known it. Suddenly the future is a giant question mark. You can’t take anything for granted anymore. The script is being rewritten before your eyes.
But then you think again about what the angel has just said to you: “You will name the child Jesus.” In Luke’s Greek, Iesous is the equivalent of the Hebrew Yehoshua or Yeshua. It is a combination of the Lord of Israel’s proper name and the word for salvation. Adonai is salvation or Adonai saves.
This event that spells the end of life as you know it will turn out to be the event of the world’s salvation. Not because you are promised that none of your fears will come true. (In fact, you receive the opposite promise: “a sword will pierce your own soul too,” Simeon will say to you in the temple after the child is born.)
But you are promised that no amount of economic and political and cultural devastation that may come, no amount of loss and grief that may wound you, no amount of suffering and pain that may afflict you, will from hereafter be able to separate you from the love of God about to be revealed and enacted in his Son, Jesus.
The apocalypse has indeed come to you — the apocalypse of an unconquerable kingdom of justice and love, the apocalypse of the world’s salvation. And you know that no matter what happens next, you will live to see the restoration of all things, the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the nations, and the renewal of the earth. The child that will be nurtured in your womb will be the Lord himself, the Lord mighty to save, the Lord who will die for your redemption.
And so you, Mary, say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The Rev. Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh.