A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Katherine Grieb
Meade Professor of Biblical Interpretation and New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Wednesday, March 22, 2017
One of the best things about this wonderful story is the way it begins. It was customary for ancient historians – like the writer of the Gospel of Luke – to begin a story by anchoring it to the dates of an important (male) ruler: “in the days of King Herod of Judea” (Luke 1:15); “while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2); but our story begins with the phrase “in the sixth month” which refers to the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptizer. The date of the story is set, not by referring to important rulers, but with reference to the pregnancy of the wife of a priest in some obscure unnamed town of Judea in the hill country. Right away, we are alerted to the way the reign of God is not like the politics of the Roman Empire.
Then Gabriel comes, not to Herod’s wife or to Pilate’s wife, or to some powerful woman, but to a young woman in Nazareth, a very un-important village in Galilee, north of Judea. The angel of the Lord said to Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” And before she could say, “Oh no, I think you may have the wrong address, Mr. Angel,” he added, “Don’t be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.”
It seems like that’s what biblical angels always say to whomever they are sent: “Don’t be afraid! Fear not!” I often tell my students: when you think of an angel, don’t think Hallmark, think Hagrid! Big, hairy, scary Hagrid, smashing open that huge door on Harry Potter’s eleventh birthday. As Rainier Maria Rilke once said, “Every angel is terrible.” Mary has the grace not to run away, but to listen. What she hears is simply amazing. “You will bear a son and name him Jesus. He will be great, the Son of the Most High and will ascend the throne of his ancestor david. Of his reign there shall be no end.”
We are not told how Mary felt, or if she was shaking in her sandals, as she heard those words. But we do know that she heard them, because she asks the obvious question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Gabriel explains – sort of – how this will happen. The words “Holy Spirit” and that the child “will be holy” may have been some comfort to her. I would guess that even more comforting was the news that something amazing like this had already happened to her relative Elizabeth. The angel concludes by reminding her – and us – that “nothing will be impossible for God.”
It was as if the word “God” settled it for Mary. She knew who she was and whose she was. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Did it ever occur to Mary to say “no?” She seems not to have hesitated, even though she must have known the kind of things people would be saying about her, during those nine long months, and for a long time afterwards. Her life in a small town like Nazareth – or anywhere, actually – was going to be very hard. People can be brutal.
What she probably did not know, historically speaking, were the words which Luke the Evangelist gives her to say: “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
But many generations already have called her blessed, and we do now, and we will continue to do so as long as God gives us voices to sing her praises.
“Most highly favored lady, Gloria!”