what sort of greeting is this?

Luke begins his gospel with the birth story of John the Baptist, a wondrous story of an utterly implausible promise given to a barren couple. But even though the promise came to Zachariah via an angel in the temple’s holy place beside the table of incense (on the right, to be precise), Zachariah protested, “How shall I know this?”

“And another thing,” he added, “I am an old man. And my wife is an ol…well, er… she’s advanced in years.”

Why Zachariah thought that it would be helpful to explain geriatric biology to a supernatural being, I don’t know. Could this be the first recorded example of “mansplaining”? It didn’t seem to impress the angel, who then explained that he wouldn’t be doing any more explaining since Zachariah was going to be struck dumb. And so he was, until the implausible birth was accomplished.

The point here is that Luke begins with an implausible promise to Zachariah, but he is just getting warmed up. Next up is an impossible promise to Mary.

The story unfolds similarly with another angelic visitation. But this time, it was Gabriel sent by God, not to a capital city, not to a temple, and not even to a priest. Instead, Gabriel finds a young peasant named Mary in her home in a little-known town on the far edge of an empire.

Who is she? We know only a little: she was Elisabeth’s cousin and betrothed to Joseph. Luke’s doesn’t tell us much about Mary’s background, but he reveals a lot about her heart. And maybe something about our own?

“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” I picture Gabriel suddenly appearing in a blaze of light, like how the angels appeared to the shepherds. But the text doesn’t say one way or another; maybe he came to her slowly and gently. But either way, it was an angel–an archangel–and he was talking to her.

Mary’s response bothers me. Well, actually, only half her response bothers me, and actually I am more than bothered. I feel something more like an unstable mix of wonder and terror. Luke describes her response this way: “She was greatly troubled at the saying and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”

Okay, then. The first half of her response seems right. Being “greatly troubled” is consistent with other accounts of heavenly appearances. When mere humans encounter spiritual beings, they are thrown off balance, even knocked down. Something supernaturally dense has stepped onto the temporal plane and the earth’s axis tilts. The sudden tilt causes disequilibrium, even nausea to the the point of feeling “undone,” as was the case with Isaiah. The presence of angels is an uncanny otherness that makes us afraid, even sore afraid. The shepherds felt this, as did Zachariah, Isaiah, and Moses to name a few. So it was with Mary, she was greatly troubled. This part of her response seems right.

But then comes the second part of Luke’s description. He tells us that Mary “tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Does that seem odd? You have an archangel light up your house and yet you wonder about his word choice? You have questions about his greeting?

But Mary was onto something, something that we miss. And it is something far more overwhelming than even an angel standing in your room. Despite Gabriel’s dreaded presence, Mary actually hears what he is saying. “Wait,” she seems to be thinking, “What did you just call me? O Favored One? What does that even mean?”

How she had the mind space to wonder at this I don’t know. Maybe it was the way Gabriel said it. But the Spirit quickened in her, not just the language but the logos. Mary felt the greeting penetrate her soul like a lost key snapping open a lock. To be named by God O Favored One arouses a forgotten yearning. The word “favored” used here can mean “made accepted”. The sudden realization that you have been granted “a belongingness” to God outshines even the blaze of an Angel. Here is the astonished actualization of being divinely loved.

New life stirred within Mary in more ways than one. This raises the question: who exactly is being conceived here, the baby Jesus or the Mary? And so she struggled “to discern” what it all meant. Later, at the end of the annunciation, Mary utters her more famous words, “May it be unto me according to your word.” This too, is a truly remarkable response of humble trust to the message of an impossible birth.

But this, her initial attempt to grasp the meaning of the greeting, strangely disrupts me. I think I know why. It is because her response to the greeting of God, is also available to me. I’ll never be told that I’ll be pregnant with Jesus, but I am being told that Christ is in me. I am being told that I am “made accepted”. I am being told that I am named Dearly Loved Child. Do I hear that? Do I discern what is being said to me?

You see, Mary wasn’t just submitting to being impossibly conceived, she was submitting to being impossibly re-conceived. She wasn’t just submitting to bearing forth the redeemer, she was submitting to being redeemed. Yes, Gabriel wasn’t just saying, “You are soon to be the mother of Jesus,” he was also saying, “you are already the daughter of God.” Being the mother of Jesus, that’s no small thing. But it is built on an immense thing: that Jesus brings God’s favor to us all. It is “the good news of great joy, for all the people.” Not just Mary, but for all people and for you. For unto you, this day, is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Do you hear what is being said to you? Will you let yourself be knocked off balance enough to believe an impossible promise? Your ancient yearning for new life is actually being offered. Could it be that your half-forgotten yearning to belong is there because there is an actual home to return to?

Do you hear what is being said to you? Will you let yourself be greatly troubled by the impossible Christmas promise? Can you let it be unto you according to His word? God does indeed favor you, enough to send his son to make you His child.

Or will you mansplain to God about how this couldn’t possibly be true?




Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean; they have seven children and nine grandchildren.

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