It is the sudden silence that I notice first.
I turn, and there it is. An… an angel? I nearly drop the lamp I am filling with oil in preparation for the evening hours, which are drawing nearer.
“Greetings! You are beautiful with God’s beauty, inside and out! God be with you!”
I am taken aback. What kind of greeting is that? I grew up on the stories of my people. I could name the encounters that people have had with God’s messengers in the Scriptures. An angel with Daniel in the den of lions… an angel with the three righteous men thrown into King Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace… the prophet Elijah ministered to by an angel. But then there was also the angel of the Lord bringing judgment to Israel or its enemies… what can this angel be doing here? And what can he possibly want with me?
Maybe the angel sees my confusion, maybe he senses my hesitation, because he continues: “Mary, you have nothing to fear.” Even as I’m trying to understand the fact that the angel knows my name, he… it? is saying something even more shocking. “God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus. He will be great, he will be called the Son of the Highest. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will rule Jacob’s house forever – no end, ever, to his kingdom.”
I do not understand. The ways of God are mysterious, yes… angels often seem to be involved with the more mysterious of these events, but… “But how?” I can’t help but ask. Not out of disbelief, but out of curiosity. “I’ve never slept with a man…” Yes, God can protect Daniel in his den of lions and keep alive men in a fiery furnace… but how? Is it wrong of me to be curious and mystified?
The angel answers. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest hover over you. Therefore the child you bring to birth will be called Holy, Son of God.”
I don’t know if that really answers my question. And yet that really is a God type of answer. But the angel isn’t done yet. “Did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, even as old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”
Yes. These last words from the angel are exactly what my heart needs. I am full of questions, but the unknowable and all-knowing God will do what he says.
I give my own answer to the angel, to God, trying to keep the tremor of fear from my voice: “I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.”
As suddenly as the angel appeared, he is gone. I notice again the birds outside my window. I look out. It’s become dusk.
My hands return to the lamp. I fill it with oil, trim the wick, and light it, all without paying attention to what I am doing. My mind is still spinning. I have only questions. I still don’t understand how I will become pregnant. And maybe that is the least of my questions… How can I be mother to the Messiah? And yet… and yet if this is the Lord’s plan, then surely God will bring it about, and as I said to the angel, I am the Lord’s servant, ready to serve.
The next morning, I am up before sunrise, having awakened to a pounding heart and spinning head. My questions are not done yet. I feel like I have not slept at all. I am ready to leave at the first light of dawn to visit my cousin Elizabeth. If there is anyone that I can talk to about this, surely it is Elizabeth, who the angel said is experiencing her own miraculous pregnancy.
I set out as the first hints of orange tinge the sky, as soon as it is light enough that it is safe for me to walk. I walk, and I think.
What about Joseph? Surely he will want to divorce me now. He will certainly assume that I have broken our engagement vows.
Why has God chosen me? Out of all women… out of all ways to bring his promised one…
How will I raise this baby alone? How is God going to work this out?
And yet, as I walk, my questions fade. They don’t disappear, certainly. My brain keeps spinning, but my heart is centered. I don’t know how God protected Daniel amongst the lions. I don’t know how God protected men from a fire so hot it killed the men who threw them into the furnace, while they came out of the fire without even the smell of smoke. I don’t know how God works, but I know from the stories of my people that God does. My curiosity remains, my uncertainty, but a peace that could only come from God rests in my heart.
It is with surprise that I look up from the road and from my thoughts and see that I’ve arrived at my cousin Elizabeth’s house. An unfamiliar woman is working in Elizabeth’s garden, singing while she works. It takes me a moment of wondering why there is a stranger to realize that it is in fact my cousin herself, her countenance so changed since the last time I saw her that I did not recognize her.
“Elizabeth!” I call out, excited. But then I pause, unsure of how to begin my conversation. I had set out this morning with only questions; I arrive with questions accompanied by a peace that might be harder to explain than my circumstances.
Elizabeth looks up, and her face breaks out into a smile. Her hand goes to her stomach, already substantial in size, and her smile only grows, joy evident in her face. I can’t remember the last time I saw Elizabeth happy, let alone joy-filled. She reaches the other hand out to me and pulls me into a hug. “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the child you will bear!” she says by way of greeting. I stiffen in surprise. Another question, another curiosity. How can she know such a thing that I have only found out so recently? And yet, hasn’t my own unknowing shown me that some things cannot have earthly explanation? I sink into her embrace, tears trickling down my face. Finally, we step back. Elizabeth is brushing tears from her cheeks, just as I am.
“Why am I so favoured,” Elizabeth asks me, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” I thought I was done crying, but my eyes immediately overflow again, and I cannot speak. But Elizabeth continues: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
And I do. Despite all of my questions, I do believe that the Lord will fulfill his promises. Suddenly I feel filled with the fire of God, like a prophetess of old, like the mighty Deborah sitting beneath her palm tree, speaking God’s truth to everyone who would come to listen. Or like Miriam, picking up her tambourine and leading Israel in a song of praise. The words erupt out of me.
“I’m bursting with what God is doing! My soul celebrates the God Who Saves!
I’m only God’s humble servant, and yet God has noticed me.
I’m the most blessed woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten!
God’s mercy keeps coming, flowing in wave after wave.
God doesn’t choose the strong;
God sends away the proud and gets rid of the tyrants.
God doesn’t choose the people who think they’re the best.
But the ones who are poor? The ones who are humbled?
The ones who have been trodden down by life?
God chooses them!
The hungry? God fills them with a feast.
The rich? God dismisses them.
The powerful? God chooses the weak instead.
And his people Israel – just when we were losing all hope,
God showed us that we are not forgotten.
Why are we surprised?
This is all that God promised, from Abraham and Sarah on down the line.”
My poem of praise comes to an end. I’m a little overwhelmed by all that I have just said, but Elizabeth is nodding fiercely. She grabs my hand once more and leads me inside for some food and rest.
I stay with Elizabeth for several weeks. Her body is obviously growing; mine looks the same. But I feel different, inside and out.
Each time that we sit down to a meal together, we speak the blessing over it. “Blessed are you our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Or, “Blessed are you our God, King of the universe, through whose word everything comes into being.”
All that there is comes from God. Our spirits are nourished by God’s goodness and grace. Our bodies are nourished by the food that God gives. And now, within me, God, King of the universe, is being nourished by my own body. God isn’t just choosing the powerless; he is becoming the powerless.
Of all the mysteries of this moment, this is surely my greatest.
The time has come to set off home again. The changes within my body will soon be visible. Whatever the response of Joseph, I am ready to face it. Whatever the scorn of the world, I will remember that it is the poor and downtrodden that God keeps choosing, time after time.
I’ll keep collecting my questions. I have a feeling this won’t be the last of new ones. I’ll keep noticing what God is doing. And I’ll move forward, not with certainty about what is happening, but with faith that God will do what he has planned, and with peace that God remains in control.