“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’”
The virgin’s name was Mary. She was favored. The Lord, YHWH the God of Israel, was with her. We’ve been talking all season about how God breaks into the world in unexpected and sometimes terrible ways to make room for his Son—tearing open the heavens, as Isaiah pleads God to do; crying out in the wilderness of Judea in the voice of John the Baptist; anointing the believers in faith and fire as John promises the Messiah will do. And now this last, simple, awe-inspiring interruption of the world, in favoring the virgin of Nazareth.
Mary was favored first with a name. Not everyone in the Bible is favored in this way, particularly the women and children. We hear in the Gospels these incredible, vivid, world-altering stories of women whose names are lost: the Canaanite woman who argues with Jesus after he calls her a dog, the woman who wipes Jesus’ feet with her tears, the Samaritan woman at the well who tells her town about the Messiah. These are heroes of the Gospel, warriors of faith and they have no names.
To have a name is to be somebody instead of anybody. To have a name is to be part of the story, instead of something that happens in the story. And in this story, Mary is lifted up, singled out, given an identity—not just a virgin, not a woman engaged to Joseph, not a mother but Mary. Favored one! The Lord is with you, Mary.
She has a name. And God favors her in a different way, too. God speaks: “You have found favor with God. And now, 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, and YHWH God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
You have found favor! You will conceive and bear the Son of God!
This is a strange kind of favor and a strange kind of blessing. This is not a pat on the head from God, not a “way to go,” not the remission of some petty sin or the infusion of some spiritual energy for which I tend to pray in my smallness. This is not a message of good news and hope for humanity in general that Mary happens to hear first. This is not an angel saying “Hello Mary, you may be pleased to hear that God is love and that God loves all people and isn’t it wonderful?”
No, it isn’t that. It isn’t that kind of favor and it isn’t that kind of grace. This is Gabriel telling Mary that what God has in store for his people and the world is going to happen in and through her. There are great things in store, Mary, but they will come through your anxiety, and your pain, and your organs straining against each other, and your blood. Because you have found favor with God.
Of all the ways that God’s glory could be made known and his grace shared, it would be through a human child. And of all the women who could bear this child, of all the girls in Israel it is Mary who is called to do it.
And after all these years isn’t it still fair to wonder, with Mary, whether there might not be some other way? God, can’t your Spirit call forth a new Moses who will reveal God’s law of love more fully to all the world? Can’t your Spirit find a new Elijah to call the rulers of the earth to account and demand justice in their works? Can’t the Wisdom that you gave to Ecclesiastes and Sirach and Solomon dawn gently in the hearts of all humankind, easing our lust for gain and opening us to the beauty of the created world? Why must the good news be a child, a Son? It’s not as though people are crazy about the Old Man, after all.
And why Mary? Why not someone in a dynastic line herself? Or why not someone with some experience doing this? Or even doing it?
That’s a mystery still, I think. God did not choose to be distilled in the world like dew. He did not choose to thunder on the mountaintop for the world to behold with awe. He did not choose to place himself in our hearts and minds one beautiful day. He chose to be born. He chose a mother. Before he became God for me and for you and for everyone he became human, a child, for Mary. Before Christ went with his church to the ends of the earth, he was a few cells in a womb. Before he was everywhere, he was somewhere.
This is really important. I’m not going to tell you to be like Mary, because my point today is that none of us can. Mary is not a generic good example that we can imitate in this way, because she was herself. She was plucked from the mass of humanity by God and given a task that no one else could have again. She was somebody, her body was somewhere.
And so her story shows us how God chose to act, and still does choose to act. God chooses to be somewhere in the bread and wine we share today. God chooses to be somewhere when we splash water on the head of a new Christian. God chooses somebodies, not anybodies. God entered our own hurting world in this particular way, with this particular person, because God’s love is not generic. It bursts into our lives not when we go looking for it but when God reaches out to us.
And Mary sings, in the words of the prophets that she absorbed even as a child: My soul proclaims the greatness of YHWH, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, who has looked with favor on me, in my lowliness, and filled me with favor. God is always the one who pulls down the mighty from their thrones and destroys the proud in the thoughts of their own minds. God is always the one who lifts up the lowly, who feeds the poor and starves the rich and helps Israel and remembers his promises but today, in this moment, God is the one who does this for Mary.
That moment of favor, that instant of redemption, is what will grow to touch us all.