Having set the scene by telling the story of Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel and the news of Elizabeth’s unusual pregnancy, Luke advances his Nativity narrative by allowing us to eavesdrop on the visit of Gabriel to Mary.
From an old couple whose hopes of a child seemed to have been consigned to the dusty archives of an earlier stage of life, to a young virgin with the excitement of marriage and family ahead of her. If Zechariah thought that fatherhood had passed him by, Mary imagined that motherhood lay at some point in the future.
She may well have been no more than a teenager.
Her fiance was Joseph. Royal descent. Line of David.
Like Zechariah before her, Mary got to hear those wonderful, comforting words:
Do not be afraid
Not, this time because her prayers had been answered; Mary had found favour with God.
The news was that she would have a son. Not any son. Her son would be called Jesus and he would be king. Finally, God’s promise to David would be fulfilled. Mary’s son would reign forever.
Like Zechariah she had a question for Gabriel. Unlike him, she does not ask for proof (‘How shall I know’). It was not unreasonable for a young woman to wonder how this would happen. She was not yet married and was still a virgin.
Whereas John’s birth was remarkable, given the age of his parents, the birth of Mary’s son would be truly miraculous. No man would be involved. God’s Son would be born to Mary through utterly supernatural intervention. News of Elizabeth’s pregnancy however, was evidence to Mary that nothing is impossible for God.
Would the Christian story be more easily believable without this episode? Would it not be better to leave it out, or dismiss it as a fruit of the overactive imagination or theological naivete of the gospel writers? After all, did they not know that the Hebrew word really means a young woman? Should Luke, a doctor, not have known better? Would the wheels really fall off Christianity if we left these weird bits out?
In fact it is remarkable that it is Luke, a doctor, who tells us this story. Not only a doctor, but a writer who has been very careful to check his sources (that’s what he tells his friend Theophilus at the start). Attempting to correct him, with our 21st century sophistication smacks a bit of historical arrogance.
In fact, this is a vital part of the story. For it tells us that this is God’s work. God is no absent, distant watchmaker who has wound up the universe and disappeared. This is God stepping into human life to give us Jesus.
And in Mary, he chose a humble, noble young woman who was willing to accept the awesome calling of giving birth to his Son.
Perhaps the Protestant tradition has too often been guilty of neglecting someone who said,
Behold, I am the servant of the Lord