A ViewPoint by Claire Beutler-Cruise
You’d think we’d come in on the middle of a Hollywood movie. The camera pans a small village in the arid Middle East, past the flock of bleating sheep being herded through the passageways between one-roomed, mud-brick houses; past a group of small, cackling children, dressed in what looks like oversized tee shirts with a rope at the waist, throwing pebbles over-handed and limp-wristed at the backsides of the scrambling sheep as they pass; past the yard where wizened, wrinkled women grind wheat into flour for flatbread to be baked on stones; past the laughing men sitting in the shade, sharing afternoon tea. Then, the screen stops on a young peasant girl, about twelve or thirteen years old, walking briskly, adjusting her headscarf across her face with one hand to keep the dust stirred up by the passing sheep from her nose and mouth as she walks. In her other hand, she carries a jug filled with water she has just pulled from the community well.
Suddenly, she stops dead in her tracks, dropping the jug, precious water sloshing all over her feet. There, in front of her very eyes, poof! an angel of the LORD has materialized. Taking a step back, her jaw drops as the angel addresses her by name, telling her not to be afraid.
We watch as the story unfolds, as the angel tells this betrothed teen about what Godde has in mind for her. “How can this be?” the girl sputters. She’s engaged, but not yet married. “How can this be?” she inquires. You can imagine her blinking her eyes in disbelief, expecting the vision to vanish.
The angel delivers the message he was sent to give, and no sooner than he’s finished, poof, he disappears again. Then, in grand Hollywood style, the orchestra strikes a tune, and, like the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, or Maria in the Sound of Music, the young girl breaks into song. It’s an Old Testament song that all good Jews in her community know from hearing Scripture read aloud in worship. You see her twirling in circles, holding her headscarf out at right angles—like the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof dancing in the field—singing the Glory of Godde for what is about to happen to her.
That might be the Hollywood version of the Annunciation, the bible story of Mary hearing that Godde has chosen her to be the bearer of Christ into the world. But just like the Hollywood version of the Exodus, that’s not how it really happened. As if we could ever know how it really happened. All we have is the story told and recorded by the faithful followers of Jesus the Christ after his ministry on earth was complete. The story passed from generation to generation before being written down after his crucifixion and resurrection. We don’t really know what, exactly, happened. We don’t know the facts that our twenty-first-century minds require to prove what really happened. So, we listen with our hearts, we listen with our faith, and we know that something as ordinary as a young, betrothed girl conceiving out of wedlock was used by Godde to turn the whole world upside down!
Mary asks, “How can this be?” In her culture, it was no mystery how babies came to be. And it was no mystery what would happen to a young, unmarried girl who was found to be with child. In her culture, it was her father’s responsibility to stone her—to death—to erase all evidence of this shameful thing she brought upon her family. And if her father didn’t do it, her brother would (a tradition still carried out in some parts of the world). If she somehow managed to avoid this judgement, she would face the high rate of death in childbirth, a rate multiplied by her young age and by lack of emergency care that complicates childbearing even today.
We would do well to ask, as Mary does, “How can this be?” How can this be, that a young, unmarried girl would believe such an apparition? How can this be that a young, unmarried girl would consent to such a dangerous assignment, knowing full well what could happen to her? How could it be that a young, unmarried girl with child would break out in song from Scripture upon hearing this kind of message? I’m not so sure I would; of course with me, it would be more like Elizabeth’s story, Mary’s aunt, who conceived when she was about my age to bear a son known to us as John the Baptist.
We ask these questions with our twenty-first-century “inquiring minds want to know” mindset. The people who first heard these early accounts of the life of Jesus the Christ would not have asked these questions. They would have heard this account with wonder and awe at the power and grace of Godde our Creator, who became flesh and blood, who became one of us, to prove how much we are each loved and to what lengths Godde goes to prove it!
We would do well to ask, “How can it be?” in our own context. How can it be that, in our world, one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty—300 during an average Sunday sermon and 1600 during each service celebrating communion? And yet Godde’s promise is that, through Jesus’ work among us, the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, with Mary, “How can this be?”
We would do well to ask, “How can this be?” that we can celebrate with a young, unmarried pregnant girl, some 2000-plus years ago; that we can marvel at a Godde who spares that newborn child’s life from a jealous, narcissistic monarch, providing for the child’s needs with foreign aid in the form of gold and expensive spices donated by foreign emissaries, and then sends the family as undocumented immigrants to hide in Egypt. How can we celebrate that one child, while 300 more will return to dust, as their helpless, heartbroken mothers watch, before I’m finished speaking this morning? And we’d do well to ask ourselves about the irony that we can vilify and ridicule and seek retribution for the ones today who “take a knee,” crying out for justice for those who don’t look or act like others of us.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, this is not a Word that I write easily today. These are not questions I want to ask myself in this season of joy and anticipation and celebration. I’m tempted, rather, to just hang up my Christmas stockings and put more Dove chocolates in them while listening to my favorite Christmas carols. But this is a Word that Godde has put on my heart.
The story of Godde’s angel proclaiming the LORD’s favor on a young, single mother gives us all a great deal to ponder this Advent. But, as followers of the child she bore, we’re called to do more than ponder. We’re called, in the words of Scripture, to bring the Good News: the good news of liberation to prisoners; the good news of food for the hungry; of dignity for those considered lowly by the powers in our world; of comfort to the widows and orphans and dispossessed.
We’re called to do that, not just in words or song but, like Mary, by giving flesh to Godde’s hope, Godde’s peace, Godde’s justice, and Godde’s love for the whole world.
How can this be? Through the same faithfulness of the Godde whose promises are fulfilled, we believe in Jesus. Through the same power that gave Mary the courage to face her family, her betrothed, her village, the religious leaders; the same power that clothed her with dignity and grace while the people of the village pointed and whispered. Through the same compassion that fed and strengthened Jesus to heal and empower the outcasts he encountered and challenge the greedy government of his day. And through the peace that comes from catching even a glimpse of just how deeply, passionately, and unconditionally Godde loves each of Godde’s children.
What Gabriel asks of Mary is what Godde asks of each of us—just in different ways. It lies within our power of choosing, to conceive—in our hearts—the Godde who chooses us. We all stand with Mary today, summoned to an adventure filled with peril and misunderstanding and mystery and unspeakable grief . . . and joy that can turn the whole world upside down! Two thousand years ago, Godde chose Mary to bear Godde’s flesh in the world. Today, Godde chooses you and me to become Godde’s flesh in the world.
The cameras are rolling. Godde has set the stage. How will WE give flesh to Godde’s story? What, or who, will OUR souls magnify? Lights, camera, action!