And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. –Luke 1:28029
When I was seven years old my parents sat me down and said, “We are moving to California.” I was much perplexed by their words. I mean, I understood all their words… individually… as words. I even understood their words as they had put them together in that sentence: we are moving to California. It conveyed coherent meaning to me. But that was the problem. There was too much meaning in those five words strung together like that. They were heavy with meaning. They meant that I would be saying goodbye to life as I knew it in Kansas City, Missouri, saying goodbye to my best friend Dennis who lived right next door and all my other friends and cousins and Daniel Boone Elementary School and the woods where we played and fireflies in the backyard in the summer and sledding down the little hill in front of our house in the snow in the winter and a million other things that were crowding into my seven year old mind all at once. Mom and Dad tried to make it sound like it was good news. Beaches! Disneyland! New Friends! (Are there any scarier words in the world for a kid than “New Friends?”) But while I was still feeling the shock of their words, still being perplexed and wondering in my seven-year-old mind if maybe I had somehow caused this terrible thing to happen, I realized that things were already in motion and there wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it.
“Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you.” When I read that Mary was perplexed by the Angel Gabriel’s words I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t feeling something like what I felt that day when my parents told me that my life was about to change completely and utterly. Perplexed is a pretty tame translation for the word that’s in Luke’s Greek text. Perplexed sounds like she was a bit puzzled, perhaps a little confused. Diatarasso, the verb in the original text means she was distressed, disturbed, deeply troubled by the angel’s words.
Mary apparently knew that the ones who are highly favored by the Lord, those whom the Lord was with, were not folk who tended to have quiet, easy, uneventful lives. The Lord tends to use his favorites to get things done. The Lord tends to move them around like chess pieces. If an angel shows up to tell you that you are favored by God and that God is with you, hold on to your wallet. It means that God has plans for you. Mary may have only been a teenager, but she was smart and she knew the stories about those whom the Lord favored. So she pondered what sort of greeting this might be and waited for the angel to say more. What was God up to? What was God planning to do with her?
After a long moment of Mary saying nothing, Gabriel cleared his throat. He had a message to deliver. God had given him a script and told him not to deviate from it. So he launched back into his speech. It’s a nice speech, a very formal speech, the kind of speech you’d expect from an archangel.
He told her she would conceive—in her womb, just in case she was uninformed about where conception happened. He told her that the child would be a boy and that she was to name him Jesus. He would be great. He would be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord would give him the throne of David. His kingdom will have no end.
Up to this point Mary had been silent, but now she interrupts. “How can this be,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” She’s got some moxie, this young woman. She’s not afraid to stop an archangel in the middle of his spiel and say, “Excuse me, but you’re forgetting one very important technicality. I don’t know how it’s done with angels, but for humans there’s a part of the process missing in your plan here.”
“Ah, yes,” says the angel. “I’m coming to that.” And he resumes his recitation. He told her that the Holy Spirit would initiate the pregnancy, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, so the child would be holy. He told her that her relative, Elizabeth, who was getting along in years and had never had children was now pregnant because nothing is impossible with God. And with that Gabriel reached the end of his script and stood there waiting for a response.
Finally Mary has a chance to speak again.
Our translations soften the impact of her words, I think. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That’s how it reads in the NRSV and our other versions are in the same dynamic range. They sound so docile compared to the force of the words in the original language. Even the Latin toned it down from Luke’s original Greek where there are hints of both fierceness and resignation in her words that don’t come through in the niceties of our translations.
The first thing she says is rather startling, especially if you remind yourself that she is saying it to one of the seven archangels that stand at the throne of God. The first thing she says, literally translated, is, “Look.” She invites the angel to really see her. “Look,” she says, “the slave girl of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word.”
“Look at me, angel, before you vanish back to heaven. Really pay attention for a moment to the one who is highly favored, the Lord’s slave girl. Let it happen as you have said. But before you go, see me. And think about how your visit will change my life. See me, and think about what it will cost me because the Lord is with me. Think about what it means to be the slave girl of God, even if the slave agrees to play a part.”
Then the angel departed from her, and Mary went to see her relative, Elizabeth, and her miraculous pregnancy.
Now here’s an interesting thing. Have you ever noticed that in the original Advent, that time building up to the birth of both John the Baptizer and Jesus, the men in the story are silent? Well, Gabriel talks a lot, but he’s an angel and everything he says is a message from God. Otherwise the male voices are almost entirely silent.
Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband doubts Gabriel when Gabriel tells him he’s going to be a father so late in life, so Gabriel makes him mute for the entire time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Joseph is visited by an angel a few times in Matthew’s gospel, but Joseph never speaks.
The women, though, the women speak powerfully and prophetically. Elizabeth silences the gossipy busybodies of her community saying, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
When Mary comes to see her, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and blesses Mary with words so powerful that they have become engraved in the psyche of our faith for all generations. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And then she affirms Mary for agreeing to her role in God’s plan: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Elizabeth speaks in the tradition of the five women prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and the unnamed prophetess mentioned in Isaiah 8. She speaks in the strength of Judith, the conviction of Tamar, and joyful mirth of Sarah.
Moved by her words and stirred by the Spirit, Mary begins to sing a prophetic song full of joy and power to proclaim the work of God. Young, poor, unmarried and pregnant, she becomes a prophet.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She rejoices that God isn’t transforming the world through the rich and the powerful, but instead is working through the poor, the humble, the disenfranchised and marginalized—through her and people like her.
She sings of things to come as if they are already accomplished, a proleptic vison of God remaking the world from the bottom up. “Prophets,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it — not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone, maybe even God.”
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung,” said Dietrich Bonnhoeffer. She sings of a sweeping change in the social order, a change so radical that her Magnificat has been regarded as politically dangerous in places where despots and tyrants have tried to maintain control. It was banned in India during British rule. When Guatemala was ruled by a military junta in the 1980s they outlawed her Magnificat, and it was outlawed again during the “dirty war” in Argentina when the mothers of disappeared children began papering the streets with posters of her song. When you’re trying to rule people with an iron fist you can’t have them singing about power being overturned.
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
In a time when her own land and her own her own people are burdened by the yoke of Rome, she sings of God’s faithfulness: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary sings an overture for the work of her son, The Son of the Most High. She sings to proclaim God’s vision of justice. She sings to remind us that we are called to share the vision and to share the work of making God’s reign a reality on earth as it is in heaven.
Look. See the slave girl of the Lord. An angel speaks to her and she is much perplexed. But she is not silenced. She sings the song of Advent, the song of God’s revolution.
When the men are silent, the women sing. And their songs change the world.