“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town in the Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the name of the virgin was Mary.” If you’ve been a Christian for more than five minutes, you’ve heard these words before. These are the opening words of The Annunciation, that part or the Christmas story we all know and love so well when Gabriel tells Mary she will become the mother of Jesus. We know this story. We know this episode of the story by heart. But I wonder… When is the last time we really listened to it or read it carefully?
Look again at the opening line: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town in the Galilee called Nazareth…” I have always pictured Gabriel just suddenly appearing before Mary and probably startling her. Certainly it’s depicted that way in any number of paintings. But look at what Luke has actually written here—he is bringing the focus of the story from heaven to earth, to a specific territory, then a town, then to a person. Gabriel comes from God to Galilee to Nazareth to Mary. As I re-read this, I suddenly had a picture of Gabriel arriving unseen on a hilltop in Galilee then making his way down the hill past grazing goats and sheep to the road, cloaking himself to look like a traveler as he made his way into town and found his way through Nazareth’s dusty streets until he came to Mary. Maybe she saw him coming and was watching him as he walked toward her house. Maybe she wondered who this mysterious stranger might be as he approached and then became a bit wary as she realized he was coming directly toward her. Maybe she thought he had some business with her father.
When you picture it this way, it opens you up to the idea that maybe angels walk among us all the time. Maybe they emerge from heaven make their way into town then find their way through the streets until they get to where they were sent. It makes you wonder how many times you might have walked right by an angel or sat a few seats away from one at McDonalds.
So maybe she saw him coming, but even if Mary had seen Gabriel approaching, it really would have been a surprise when he spoke to her. And what he said was so unusual: “Rejoice, favored one! The Most High God is with you!”
Between timidly formal translations, millions of persons repeating the rosary millions of times, and Franz Shubert’s lovely but overly romantic musical setting of Ave Maria, the shock value of Gabriel’s greeting was bled off a long time ago. And that’s unfortunate, because what he said rocked Mary’s world and, if we’re paying attention, should rock ours, too.
Hail Mary, full of grace? Not exactly. First of all, “Hail” or “Greetings” are subdued translations of the angel’s first word to Mary. “Chaire!” is what he says. It can mean “greetings” or “hail” but those are timid choices. Chaire!, which is what Gabriel says in the original Greek text, is the imperative form of Chairo – to rejoice! Rejoice, favored one! The Most High God is with you! Rejoice!
No wonder Mary was “thoroughly troubled by what he said and tried to discern what sort of greeting this was.” Some translations say she “pondered” what sort of greeting it was, but the sense of the Greek word, dialogizemai, is that she had a pretty serious inner conversation with herself as she tried to sort it out. The word dialog is in the word and the word means inner dialog, to think or thoroughly reason through something. It’s easy to read right past all that, or listen right past it, but this is one of the places where we really are supposed to slow down or even stop for a moment and stand a moment in Mary’s bare feet.
Imagine what she was thinking. Who is this mysterious stranger? Why is he telling me to rejoice? Why is he even talking to me, which is not exactly smiled upon in our society, and why did he call me “favored one?” Favored by whom? What does that mean? He said the Most High God is with me. Why me? What makes me so special?
Now imagine Gabriel watching her as she puzzles through his words and wonders about his intentions. Imagine him seeing that she is thoroughly troubled by his presence and what he’s said. Imagine him letting her take a good long moment to think before he speaks again.
“Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” That’s the second time he has told her that she is favored. Favored by God.
And now he will tell her what that favor brings with it.
“You will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Sovereign God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his sovereignty there will be no end.”
“Hang on a minute,” said Mary. “Let’s back up to the ‘conceive in your womb’ part.” Actually, what Mary said is better than that. “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I have not known a man intimately?” In one question she does three things: she lets the angel know that she knows how babies are made, she makes it clear that she has no personal experience of that kind of relationship, and she challenges the divine messenger to explain how this impossible thing will be accomplished.
The name Israel means “wrestles with God” or “contends with God.” It is an important part of the tradition of Israel to question God, to ask for explanations, to challenge God or bargain with God. Jacob physically wrestled with God. Abraham bargained with God. Moses tried to talk God out of using him to lead the people because he wasn’t good at public speaking. Elijah on the mountain top begged God to just go away and let him die. And now Mary, good daughter of Israel, says to God’s messenger, “Hang on a minute…I know how this works and what you’re describing is simply not possible under the current circumstances.”
It’s okay to argue with God. There is a lot of precedence. If you find yourself arguing with God, contending with God, questioning God, you’re in good company.
“How can this be?” asks Mary. So Gabriel explains how it can be.
And here is a place where we have missed something important in just about every English translation ever. In Greek, the word spirit, pneuma, is gender neutral. All our translations simply say, “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you.” What we miss is this: Mary, in Nazareth in Galilee, would have been speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew, most probably Aramaic. In both Aramaic and Hebrew, the word for spirit is feminine. Ruach in Hebrew. Rukah in Aramaic.
So what Mary heard Gabriel say would have been something like this: “The Holy Spirit, She will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one born will be holy. He will be called Son of God.”
The feminine aspect of God would envelop her and bring the power of God to do the impossible.
What does that do to your understanding of this story? What does that do to your understanding of who God is and how God works?
Gabriel then tells her that her pregnancy is not the only “impossible” conception. Her kinswoman, Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years has also become pregnant. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary surrenders to God’s plan. Mary surrenders to God. And once again, most of our translations have drained most of the power out of Mary’s words by being too genteel. Most of our translations say something like, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” Some use a more gender-specific term; she calls herself a handmaiden or maidservant. But what she actually says is, “Look! The woman-slave of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word.”
“Look, Angel. See me. See what saying yes to God, yes to this plan will make me. You make it sound so glorious. You tell me I’m ‘favored.’ But I know that saying yes to all this makes me a slave. So look. See the slave woman of the Lord.”
Have you heard a different story now? Have you heard this familiar story in a different way?
What is the takeaway? For me there are four.
- If you take time to look again at things you think you already know, you can learn a lot. You can hear old stories in new ways. And maybe they can speak to you in a new way to draw you deeper into the mystery of the presence of God.
- It’s okay to wrestle with God, to debate and discuss and challenge God when God is calling or challenging you to embark on something impossible.
- When you do say yes to the thing God is asking, God will take you at your word, so it’s best to surrender completely. Mary understood that.
- When God asks you to do the impossible, it helps to remember that “nothing will be impossible with God.” And you have an angel’s word on that.
 Translation by Dr. Wilda Gafney, A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W