I imagine that it probably started out as just another ordinary day.
Mary, a young Jewish girl, perhaps as young as 13, is doing her chores, the same routine that she follows every day – getting water from the well, working in the garden, helping her mother prepare the day’s meals.
The work is the same almost every day, but lately it has taken on new meaning for Mary. She is engaged to be married to Joseph, a young carpenter in Nazareth. They are already betrothed, legally committed to one another. Their parents have already worked out the marriage contract.
Mary really doesn’t know Joseph that well. They are never allowed to spend time alone together. But he seems like a kind and gentle man and she senses that in time she will grow to love him.
Now, as she does her chores, she often thinks about the day she will be doing these things n her own house, for her own husband.
But on this day, Mary’s dreams are interrupted by the abrupt arrival of a strange being. He looks like an angel – or what she has always imagined an angel might look like.
“Greetings, favored one!” he proclaims. “The Lord is with you.”
Mary almost drops her water jug as she jumps back in fright. Who is this and what is he talking about?
Gabriel realizes he has surprised the young woman. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” he quickly reassures her. “For you have found favor with God.”
But his next words are anything but reassuring.
“You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
“How can this be?” Mary asks in wonder.
But then she responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
We have heard this story so many times, seen it romanticized so often, that its outcome is undisputed. It is easy to overlook the amazing import of this moment, to underestimate what God is asking of this young woman, this girl, and what it means for her to say “let it be with me according to your word.”
Of course, Mary says yes to God. Who could imagine it any other way?
What we forget is that Mary did have a choice, and there were many reasons for her to say no to this strange request.
First and foremost was the culture in which she lived. A woman who was pregnant out of marriage could legally be stoned to death.
That was an extreme response and rarely carried out, but even in the best case scenario, Joseph was likely to break the engagement, could in effect divorce her before they had ever lived together.
And once that happened, she could expect that no man would ever be interested in her again.
How would she raise a child without a husband? What kind of shame would she bring upon her family? Would they let her stay? Would they, too, cast her out? If they did, how would she and her child survive?
And even if all those questions were resolved, how could she, an ordinary Jewish girl, a peasant, really, bear the Son of God? Who was she to agree to such an awesome task? Who could believe such a thing?
Surely all of these questions raced through Mary’s mind as she stood before the angel Gabriel. Surely the reasonable answer would be no.
And yet, when Mary opens her mouth to respond, she hears herself saying yes.
With amazing poise and confidence, this young girl replies, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary is often portrayed in culture as submissive and passive, the one who let things happen to her, the one who was blindly and unquestioningly obedient.
But I think Mary was a girl, and later a woman, of great courage, who knew what the consequences of her actions might be, but who deliberately and willingly chose to do what was asked of her.
Mary did not know how things would work out. She knew that the path she was choosing would most likely not be an easy one, that the life she had dreamed of for herself would be forever changed.
And yet with great faith and trust and courage, she said yes.
She would do this amazing thing, she would bring the Word of God into the world.
It is easy to hear this strange story of angels and virgin birth and God made flesh and think that Mary’s long ago life has little similarity, little to do with our own lives and times.
But angels don’t have to wear wings and haloes. An angel is a messenger from God. And the truth is that God sends messages to us all the time – through our dreams, through something we hear or read in the news, through the words of a friend or total stranger.
All of us are called to carry the Word of God into the world.
Or as medieval theologian Miester Eckhart observed, “We are all called to be mothers of God because God is always waiting to be born.”
We, each of us, may bring God to birth in the lives of others by the response that we make to God’s invitation to us.
May we, like Mary, have the courage to say yes.