How Can This Be?
The angel Gabriel doesn’t get to sit on a cloud and play the harp much during the events we celebrate at Christmas. He stays busy, appearing to various people in different places with messages about the incredible things God is about to do. Many times when angels appear in the Bible, the first words they speak are, “Fear not.” The angels say this to Zechariah and to the shepherds. This standard conversation opener tells us there must be something overwhelming about angels. People become terrified when these beings appear. In fact, the word terrified is used to describe both Zechariah and the shepherds. The appearance of angels means that God is on the move, that big things are happening, that change is afoot. Even without an angelic messenger, that news would cause fear in many of us.
But Gabriel opens the conversation With Mary by saying, “Greetings, favored one,” which perplexes the young girl. In the ensuing conversation, the angel tells Mary she will soon bear a child who will be called “the Son of the Most High.” That is quite an announcement. Mary, being a rational creature and therefore my kind of girl, asks a straightforward question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Her curiosity is first a matter of simple biology. She knows how babies are made, and she doesn’t have the experience necessary for this job. But on a deeper level, her response is also a question of faith: “How can this be?” How can a human being be the means by which the “Son of the Most High” comes into the world? From my perspective, questions seem perfectly understandable in Mary’s situation.
I admire Mary. I admire her ability first to face an angel, then to voice her questions, and finally to surrender herself to the angel’s words and to God’s working. As I have heard this story over the years, I have often wondered how many young girls Gabriel visited before he got to Mary and found someone willing to cooperate with what God wanted to do. I can imagine a weary and harried Gabriel looking at a long list of candidates’ names, crossing them off one by one as young women breeze past him (unaware that God is trying to get their attention) or turn him down once he delivers the message: “Sorry, but you’ll have to find yourself another girl, Gabe. This just isn’t my kind of assignment.” Is Mary the fourth young woman Gabriel Visits that night? the fourteenth? the fortieth? The Bible doesn’t tell us that Mary is the first, the only one, considered. We know simply that she is the one who says, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me as you have said” (Luke 1:38, AP). All we know for sure is that Mary is the one who agrees-and that only after voicing her question and getting an answer.
Mary’s question goes to the crux of our human struggle to understand the coming of God into the world. After all, how can it be? Even if we remove the Virgin issue (which some do by pointing out that the word translated “virgin” here is translated as “young woman” in every other place it appears in the Bible), we still face the matter of Deity willingly accepting confinement in a human body. How can it be? We celebrate the fourth Sunday in Advent as the Sunday of mystery, illumination, incarnation. The idea of incarnation—God’s putting Godself in came, in flesh—is more than some people can accept. They can believe that God exists, that God is good, that God wills life for us and gives it. But incarnation? Well, that just doesn’t make any kind of sense.
Those of us who struggle with this question or with any other idea about God can take comfort in knowing that Mary’s questioning did not disqualify her from participating in what God was about to do. I have always asked questions myself, lots of them, and I know how disconcerting they can be to people. I remember stopping the assistant principal at my junior high school to talk in the hallway on numerous occasions. Sighing heavily during one of our difficult conversations, he said in exasperation, “Don’t you ever get tired of asking questions?”
I answered with a question, of course: “But don’t you always say that questions are the keys to knowledge?” He just walked away, shaking his head, unable to put up with any more. Most people prefer answers over questions.
Gabriel has more patience with Mary than the assistant principal had with me. Though that is not a surprise, it is worth noting. Gabriel stays with Mary as she questions. He doesn’t say, “Sorry, no questions allowed,” or leave to visit the next candidate on his list. Gabriel allows Mary to voice her questions, neither censuring her for lack of faith nor indicating that he found the questioning disconcerting or challenging. He stays. We don’t know how long the angel is With Mary, but he does n0t leave until Mary reaches the point of being able to surrender herself to what God is asking. And she does not come to that point of surrender by rational means, convinced by the angel’s arguments or by his quoting scripture at her. She simply says what is on her mind and heart. Gabriel responds to Mary by saying only, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” Yeah, right. On this, she is supposed to stake her reputation and her future? That would not be enough for me. But for Mary it is.
I have asked myself many times what makes Mary able to respond as she then does, saying, “Let it be with me according to your word.” In part at least, I think she can make that response because Gabriel has listened to her honest questions without condemning her. This sets both questioning and listening in a new light. You and I have the opportunity to fulfill holy roles by honestly exploring our own questions and by being present, on God’s behalf, with those who are going through times of questioning. By facing rather than burying or running from our questions, we may become able to say yes, finally, to what God asks of us. Sometimes we may be the one asking the questions, and sometimes we may be the messenger sent to be present on God’s behalf with others as they explore their questions. In Mary’s story, both roles are holy; God uses both. This part of Mary’s experience suggests that voicing our questions in the presence of someone who allows us to speak honestly can move us toward being able to say yes to God.
LIVING WITH QUESTIONS
What do you suppose Mary was like in the moments, days, weeks, and months following her encounter with Gabriel? I wonder whether her serenity and surrender wavered as she considered what was happening. Becoming a parent is a life-changing event that forever alters one’s perspective on the world, and I don’t think anyone can appreciate that change before living through the process. I recall the day my daughter was born. People had talked about the rush of love that mothers feel, but when I looked at the helpless, vulnerable creature in my arms, this tiny person for whose care and nurture I would be responsible, all I could think was, WHAT, have I gotten myself into? Can I do thisﬂ wonder if Mary felt like that in the months between the angel’s visit and Jesus) birth, as she sensed her body changing and the baby moving. And during those hours in the stable, during labor and after the birth, was she serene and submissive then? Or did she question her sanity, as well as God’s goodness and sufficiency? And this baby for whom she had accepted responsibility was not an ordinary child; he was the Son of God and the Savior of the world! But I am getting ahead of the story.
After the angel’s visit, both Mary and Joseph endure a great deal along the way to obeying God and parenting Jesus. Mary leaves home for several months, and Joseph considers divorcing Mary for adultery until a dream convinces him that he is in the middle of an unfolding miracle. But the angel’s Visit, Elizabeth’s encouragement, and the dream that causes Joseph to stay with Mary were months behind the couple by the time they set out for Bethlehem. Perhaps the reality of those supernatural encounters has faded. Mary and Joseph are required to go to Bethlehem to be counted in the census even though Mary is heavy with child, and they are going in order to be taxed. This is not a pleasure trip. (Compare their attitude to the way we feel as we take our tax returns and checks to the post office on April 15.)
Joseph has to take Mary to the town of his birth. I wonder why they don’t stay with Joseph’s relatives rather than look for paid lodging. Is Joseph estranged from his family? Is Joseph an orphan? Has he been away for so many years that he no longer even knows how to find his relatives in the crowded city? Whatever the answers to those questions, no red carpet is rolled out, no one is waiting for them to arrive. Theirs isn’t a joyous family homecoming like those we see in Christmas movies. When we begin to feel that something is wrong with us because our holidays are not free of loneliness, stress, disappointment, and unsatisfied yearnings, we do well to remember Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas. Unquestionably they have a difficult time, and it is going to get worse, ending with their fleeing to Egypt, fleeing for their lives. That eventuality is quite dramatic and far from peaceful and restful. But again, I am getting ahead of the story.
After the birth, Mary no doubt holds the baby and lets his little fingers curl around her own. Mothers and fathers do that. Considering that scene, I realize that God pays Mary and Joseph a great compliment by entrusting them with Eternal Hope. This baby is completely human and therefore vulnerable to disease, neglect, and their errors and insecurities as first—time parents. They probably don’t understand the magnitude of what is going on and how Jesus’ life will unfold any more than other parents can comprehend the future of their newborn children. Luke 2:33 describes Mary and Joseph as “amazed at what was being said about” Jesus. Like them, most of the time, we don’t step back to see the bigger picture, and when we try, we often see no pattern, nothing to reassure us that events are unfolding according to any plan we can discern.
When we consider the vulnerability of that tiny boy Jesus in the hands of an inexperienced couple far from home, the question comes to mind again: How can this be? How could God take the risk of becoming a human baby? The proposition seems entirely too dangerous, from a purely operational perspective. Too many things could go wrong with entrusting the hope of salvation to fallible folks like Mary and Joseph.
Yet except for their ending up sleeping in a stable, everything seems all right on the night of Jesus’ birth, in spite of the people involved. A remarkable fact about the Christmas events is that God works through n0t simply ordinary people but through those who are despised and dismissed—widows, women who can’t get pregnant, babies born to poor families in obscure places. Mary isn’t a nice middle—class girl, and she and Joseph don’t check into a Holiday Inn or a Hilton. They are poor. And another thing: In a culture where women were property and men held most of the power, the “speaking parts” in the Christmas drama go to women. Up to this point the men are, in fact, curiously silent (especially Zechariah, who is silenced for months). Conventional wisdom held that God moved through kings, wars, armies, plagues, through stunning miracles like rolling back seas and stopping the sun—not through babies and women. These are not among the usual cast of characters in epics. In Hebrew scripture, most of those God uses seem certain of their tasks and message. They don’t ask questions; they answer them. They thunder, “Hear the word of the LORD” and “Thus saith the LORD,” and similar intimidating phrases. Not the questioners in the Christmas story. They don’t always seem to know that they are in the middle of God’s acts, and they use questionable methods.
Tamar and Rahab use outright trickery and lies; Ruth and Naomi cleverly use custom to snare Boaz. Elizabeth secludes herself in her home. Mary questions an angel (and gets away with it, though, curiously, Zechariah does not). These are not arrogant, self-assured, seasoned leaders.
One lesson I draw from Mary’s questioning is that we have permission to ask questions, to be less than sure, to engage God and God’s messengers when we have questions when obedience does not come automatically. That knowledge comforts me because I too have questions. I admit that I envy those who seem certain of everything about their faith. I am not always sure about everything in mine. I know from many conversations that I am not the only one either. Somewhere along the way in growing up, many of us have lost some of our certainty about God and Other truths. Some of us have left behind the ability to embrace easily truths that don’t make sense to us rationally. And along with this loss, we have also lost our ability to accept faith’s contradictions and ambiguities.
THE VALUE OF QUESTIONING
Facing our questions and our doubts can lead us to discover the truth. In discussing with a friend a matter I had been praying about, I admitted that even as I had asked God to do something, I did not really believe God would do it. I told my friend that this realization made me hesitate even to pray since it seemed arrogant or disrespectful or somehow negative to ask when I did not think it likely that God would act. My friend replied, “I think we are supposed to come to God with the faith we do have, mm the faith we don’t have. And God accepts that.” Thinking about his words, I would now add, “And God is pleased with that.” It is our approaching as much as the amount and content of our faith that pleases God because what God desires is not intellectual assent from us but a relationship with us. Reason and intellect will never get us where we need to go. Miracles of any sort—babies for the barren, belief for the skeptic, transformation of a “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh”-ate counter rational. Always have been, always will be. Yet Mary surrenders herself to irrational truth and cooperates in what God already is doing. It always comes back to that kind of surrender.
Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem. That is significant, but it is not all that significant. Many others do the same. What is eternally significant is that God comes to Bethlehem, and God takes on a body. We may not feel at home with all we hear at Christmas, but God will still come to us. Every year, God says, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” And our welcome is what God wants.
We don’t have to understand what God is doing in order to participate in it or to know that it is real. If complete understanding were necessary in order to know that something is real, in order to use it, few of us could use telephones or computers or electricity because few of us understand those technologies. But we can accept them as gifts and benefit from their presence in our lives without understanding them.
God doesn’t want us as a business partner, as a distant relative, even as a close friend. God wants to live with each one of us, as one of us. That is the miracle of Christmas. God takes on flesh. It sounds impossible. Do we choose to believe it anyway? The angel closed the conversation with Mary by reminding her who is behind it all: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” God’s coming doesn’t depend on us, on the depth or steadiness of our believing. This miracle depends on God, Whom we cannot understand or contain, who reaches out to us at Christmas and every day of our lives. As Mary shows us, finding ourselves slightly puzzled and in awe before this mystery is a faithful response.