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Blessed Is She
Living Lent with Mary
By TIM PERRY
Church Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Tim Perry
All rights reserved.
You Have Found Favor
The Mystery of Grace
"And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God"
(Luke 1:30, KJV)
How does the lifelong journey of discipleship that's condensed and intensified in Lent begin? That's the first question we'll look at together. But before sketching an answer, however, let's be clear on what this journey involves. Here's a definition that will guide us throughout the following chapters: Becoming a disciple involves coming to understand, own, and live the gospel—that is, the good news that God has acted in Jesus to save us.
It's an ongoing navigation between two poles. The negative pole is what the Christian tradition has called "mortification," that is, "putting to death" those parts of our selves that don't conform God's will as it's disclosed in the Bible. Discipleship (in part) is a lifetime of unlearning those attitudes and habits that come all too naturally to fallen human beings, that appear so natural and wholesome, that are so enslaving.
The positive pole, "vivification," is just the opposite. It's the slow process of being "made alive" in and through Christ. It's the Holy Spirit-enabled and directed practicing of those habits and virtues through which our minds are renewed, our bodies controlled, our selves transformed. It's a process through which our consciences become guided by principles like moderation, patience, and generosity as we learn to love God with our whole hearts, our neighbors as ourselves, and within the boundaries of such love, to enjoy the gifts of God's creation.
Finally, this journey of dying and living is one that we take with others, beginning and ending in community. Becoming Christ's disciple begins and ends with sisters and brothers alongside us, struggling with us, bearing our burdens as we bear theirs, forgiving and being forgiven, praying with us, for us, and perhaps sometimes instead of us. It's a journey undertaken in and with the Church as the Church hears in Word and sees in Sacrament God's promise and command.
With that in mind, we turn to the text that will occupy us for the next two chapters: the angel Gabriel's announcement that Mary is to be Jesus' mother. First, an overview: although Mary is present only in the opening two chapters of Luke's Gospel, there, she is central. This is unique among the New Testament's four Gospels. In the earliest and shortest Gospel, Mark, Mary is mentioned by name only once, and in her only appearance she is in fact one of Jesus' opponents.
In Matthew's Gospel, oriented as it is toward Jewish Christians, Mary is passive, caught up in the events that revolve around Joseph, who is the main character of the opening chapters. We may even say that the scandalous situation in which she finds herself—unmarried and pregnant—is the focal point of conflict early on in Matthew's narrative. It's both an obstacle that only God can at once account for and remove, and a foil against which Joseph, the righteous servant of God, displays his upright character.
The Gospel of John is totally different again: never named, the mother of Jesus appears at a wedding where water is transformed into wine (chapter 2) and at the cross when Jesus' mission is accomplished (chapter 19). In this Gospel, the anonymous woman is lost in the symbolic way she's tied to the coming of what John calls "Jesus' hour." At the wedding she is present when the hour hasn't come; at the cross she's present when the hour arrives. Mary ties both scenes together.
Even though much of Luke's Gospel closely resembles Matthew and Mark, his portrait of Mary is different yet again. His Mary is the most sharply drawn of several characters—Gentiles, women, children, and the poor—who didn't fit easily in proper Jewish society. In Luke, stories and descriptions involving these kinds of people are always significant and sympathetic. Luke wants us to notice and to feel for them because they're on the margins of the community of faith. His Gospel isn't for saints, but for sinners.
Luke's audience—embodied in a character named Theophilus, to whom the story is addressed—is made up of people attracted to Jesus' words and example, but conscious of their place on the periphery of organized faith. Luke has good news for these people whose relationship to God is unclear, whether they live among God's chosen people (such as the shepherds in Luke 2) or are obvious yet sympathetic outsiders (such as the faith-filled Roman officer of Luke 7).
Mary, a young, single woman with a pregnancy that would have provoked questions, is one of those people on the margins. She's one of God's people who appears to almost all to be trapped by social convention in a scandalous situation. Only she and Elizabeth apparently know that what looks like scandal is, in fact, the greatest of all miracles. From this perspective, Mary truly is a three-dimensional character. Only here is she in the narrative's foreground, the one around whom the conflict seems to revolve.
She's introduced in Luke's second announcement story, which opens with the words, "In the sixth month" (1:26). Were we simply to jump in there, we might conclude that this refers to the sixth month of the year, but we'd be wrong. As Luke makes clear a few verses later (1:36), the "sixth month" refers not to a calendar but to Elizabeth's pregnancy. Luke uses this little phrase to tie Mary's story to the first announcement story: Gabriel's announcement that Zechariah and Elizabeth are soon to become the parents of John the Baptizer (1:5–25). To understand Mary's story, we must begin with Zechariah and Elizabeth's.
Luke's first announcement story is full of rich allusions to the Old Testament, found in even the plainest of phrases. Consider the opening: "It happened in the days of Herod, King of Judea." At first glance, this looks like a straightforward way to anchor Luke's story in everyday history. When we look deeper, though, we find that Luke uses it also to ground his story in biblical history. These opening words look very much like the opening verses of the Old Testament prophetic books Jeremiah (1:2, 3) and Amos (1:1), a resemblance that's both deliberate and significant. It's a technique for Luke to situate his story in two ways. First, he signals to his readers that his story happens in the real world—their world—and not in one of the many legendary worlds of Greek mythology. Second, he invites readers to anticipate that the story will be about a mighty act of God similar to those in the Old Testament, from the days of the kings and prophets.
Moving past this introduction, there are even more hints of older biblical stories in the way the main characters are described. The couple, Luke tells us, is childless—Elizabeth is barren and both she and Zechariah are old. What a sparse description! And yet, to an imagination familiar with the story of Scripture, these few words offer a rich and compelling image. For through them, Luke has mentioned at least five sets of biblical parents whose children are major characters in the corporate life of God's people. And recalling their stories helps us understand the significance of what's to come.
Zechariah and Elizabeth's predicament calls to mind a narrative theme that runs through the Old Testament, in which God miraculously compensates for age and infertility. Standing behind this old, barren couple Luke intends for us to see, first and foremost, Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:11). Of course, Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 25:21) and Jacob and Rachel (Gen 29:31) are also there, as are Manoah and his anonymous wife (Judg 13), and Elkannah and Hannah (1 Sam 1). But the place of these parents in Jewish history is unrivalled not simply because of their extraordinary conceptions but also because the children conceived went on to serve God and God's people in powerful ways. They were chosen by God to advance God's plan for God's people. Abraham and Sarah bore Isaac, the "son of the promise," through whom Abraham would become a nation that in turn would bless the world. Rebekah became the mother of Jacob, who lent his name, Israel, to an entire nation; Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife, gave birth to one of that nation's twelve tribes, Benjamin, and was grandmother to two more, Ephraim and Mannaseh. And though she's never given a name of her own, Manoah's wife gave birth to Samson, the strong man who saved the Israelites from their enemies, the Philistines. Elkannah and Hannah, finally, were the parents of Samuel, Israel's last and greatest judge. And Samuel, in turn, instituted the monarchy, anointing not only Israel's first king, Saul, but also its greatest king, David.
In just that one sentence, Luke shows his audience that his characters aren't simply historical or literary devices. Instead, they stand at the end of a long line of biblical history Through just a few words, Luke tells his readers that his story isn't new. So when they meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, they understand that the next chapter in the story of God's dealings with Israel and the human race has begun.
The Old Testament traces continue as the plot unfolds. Zechariah's encounter with the angel in the temple appears to draw from two streams. The first stream is the commission of the prophet Isaiah to take what would prove to be an unpopular message to the people (Isa 6:1–13). But where Isaiah's message would lead to judgment, John's would lead to restoration. The second stream flows from the book of the Prophet Daniel, in the repeated name of the angel Gabriel. This is no accident. Gabriel is named only four times in the Christian Bible—twice in Daniel (8:16; 9:21) and twice in Luke (1:19, 26). Gabriel is that angelic messenger charged with interpreting Daniel's visions about the end time. His presence in Luke's Gospel signals that what was future for Daniel is now present. In the ministries of John and Jesus, the Day of the Lord has come.
And Gabriel's description of John likens him to two or three great biblical figures. Like Samson the judge, John will take the vows of a Nazirite, abstaining from alcohol (compare Judges 13:7 and Luke 1:15). Like Elijah the prophet, he will teach the people (compare Malachi 4:5–6 and Luke 1:17). John himself will stand in a line of judges and prophets sent by God to God's people to herald their salvation.
And Zechariah's response to Gabriel's strange declaration reminds readers of Abraham. When God promises Abraham that he'll have an heir of his own, a physical son who himself is but the beginning of numberless descendants, as well as a land in which these descendants will live, Abraham's question is shockingly blunt: "How am I to know?" (Gen 15:8). Similarly, having heard Gabriel's announcement, Zechariah recovers from his initial terror enough to ask, "How will I know that this is so?" (Luke 1:18). Both the patriarch and the priest seek certainty before they trust in God's promise.
Finally, when Elizabeth finds that she is pregnant, she withdraws from public life with these words: "This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people" (Luke 1:25). Her declaration recalls not only the similar situation of Sarah (Gen 21:1), but also the very words of Rachel at the birth of her son, Joseph: "God has taken away my reproach" (Gen 30:23).
Luke peppers his story with references to the stories of the people of Israel, and that communicates two ideas. First, God is acting again. Readers shouldn't be surprised by John's arrival—after all, God has done similar things in the past. Second, God is acting in the same way as in the past. Throughout the history of the Hebrew people, God made promises and brought them to fulfillment, sometimes in miraculous ways. God is doing the same here.
Luke's second announcement story seems at first like a continuation of the first one. In both, the main characters are introduced: Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5) and Mary (1:27). Next, a condition preventing conception is described: Zechariah and Elizabeth were old (1:7) and Mary is a virgin (1:27). Both Zechariah and Mary are "troubled" by the angel's sudden appearance (1:12; 29). Gabriel calls both characters by name and offers them words of comfort (1:13; 30). Both announcements follow the same pattern: a child's birth is predicted, his name is given, his future is foretold, and the role of the Holy Spirit is described (1:13–17; 30–33). Both Zechariah and Mary question Gabriel's words and receive a sign, and then Gabriel departs (1:18–22; 34–38). These aren't accidental intersections; there are just too many of them.
But despite the parallels that pull us into the two stories, a new list of contrasts exposes the uniqueness of the second one. First, look at Gabriel's words to Mary. His announcement to Zechariah is a response to prayer (1:13). His announcement to Mary, on the other hand, comes from out of the blue—entirely by divine initiative (1:28). Elizabeth's conception is like a miracle of healing and is foreshadowed in the infertile parents of the Old Testament. Mary's, however, is without biblical precedent and is better understood as a miracle of creation. Gabriel greets Zechariah by name; but for Mary, adds the title, "Favored One."
Then there are the sharp contrasts between the promised children. John, we are told, will be great in God's sight (1:15). Jesus' greatness is unqualified (1:32). John would be made holy by his vows (1:15). Jesus, says Gabriel, will be holy from conception (1:35). John will prepare the way of the Lord (1:16–17). Jesus will reign on David's throne as the Son of God (1:32; 35). John is filled with the Spirit from his conception (1:15). Jesus' very existence is by the power of the Spirit alone (1:35). The contrasts clearly intend to highlight the relationship between John and Jesus as that of herald to King. The former comes as the King's representative, a vitally important—but only preparatory—role. Having prepared the way and the people, when the King comes, his mission is completed. John, though older, will serve his younger cousin.
The main characters are also different. Zechariah is a priest; Elizabeth descends from the line of priests. They are old, married, righteous and childless. Taken together, these qualities mark them as exceptional. The reason is simple: God should have rewarded an old, priestly, righteous couple with many children and even grandchildren for their piety and obedience. Their childlessness doesn't fit the Old Testament ideal of an upright married life blessed by God. That they haven't been so blessed is a public disgrace and a reproach because it calls into question whether the apparent righteousness of this couple is, in fact, true. Without children, it will always be possible for their neighbors to wonder whether Zechariah's and Elizabeth's holiness is a sham.
Now look at Mary. She is obviously not a priest and, though Elizabeth's cousin, her lineage is unclear. Where Zechariah and Elizabeth stand out as part of the deep biblical tradition of infertile parents, everything about Mary is, well, normal and nondescript. She's young, engaged, not renowned for her piety, and (presumably) fertile. And yet it's Zechariah who can't believe the announcement (1:18), while Mary declares herself ready to be a part of the divine plan (1:38).
Luke opens his Gospel with two stories with two sets of parallels—one linking, the other contrasting. On the one hand, the similarities are clearly designed to show that the God who opened the wombs of Sarah, of Rachel and Rebekah, of Manoah's wife, and of Hannah is acting again, both in Elizabeth and in Mary. In the Old Testament, God miraculously compensated for barrenness and age, so that special sons might be conceived and born in the usual way: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Benjamin, Samson, and Samuel. Both John the Baptizer and Jesus stand together in the Bible's tradition of improbable pregnancies, promised sons, and the fulfillment of God's plan.
On the other hand, something new is going on with Mary, setting her apart from both Elizabeth and the other famous Old Testament mothers. But Luke doesn't tell us what it is. When he records Gabriel's greeting, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!" (1:28), Luke wants us to be baffled. Is there something about Mary we don't know? What has she done to deserve God's favor? Who is she to have merited such a title?
As we read on, it's clear we aren't the only ones who are surprised. Mary herself is troubled and confused by Gabriel's words. Yet when he speaks again, he offers no explanation for the title. He says, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God" (1:30). In other words, Mary is the Favored One simply because she's the recipient of God's favor. That's no explanation at all! Although Mary may well have been calmed by the angel's second speech, her confusion (and ours) only grows. Then the angel continues. Mary will conceive a son. She will name him Jesus. He will be called the Son of God and reign on his father David's throne forever. "How can this be," responds the bewildered girl, "since I am a virgin?" (1:34).
Excerpted from Blessed Is She by TIM PERRY. Copyright © 2006 Tim Perry. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing, Inc..
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