In the sixth month of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, who would give birth to the one known as John the baptizer, Gabriel, an angelic messenger, visits Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, saying, as written in the Greek, Chaire kechairetōménē, “Rejoice, woman graced by God.”
What, at first glance, may appear a joyous occasion (however surprising, shocking given the appearance of an angel!) is one fraught with tension between the discomfiting, discombobulating unfamiliar and the comfortable familiar. Announcements, I think, can highlight, incite these contrasting elements of human experience.
An estate manager announces that I am the beneficiary of a bequest. An IRS agent announces that I am subject to an audit.
An employer announces my promotion, with increases in responsibility and recompense, or announces that I’ve been transferred or discharged.
A spouse, family member, or friend announces a change in our relationship – a greater sense of connectedness or a distancing and a desire to depart.
A physician announces that my medical condition has improved or worsened.
In each annunciation experience, whether welcomed or unwanted, there abides the tension of my being called into something new and being pulled by the security of the old.
Mary, for me, is a model of holding, keeping the opposites in creative tension.
Gabriel “came to her.” This angelic appearance arouses Mary’s curiosity.
“Greetings, favored one!” Gabriel says, “The Lord is with you.” Perplexed, Mary moves from curiosity to anxiety. Though probably familiar with the lore of her people Israel and the stories of those to whom God had spoken, she herself has heard no such word. Now it has come and, whatever the word, it is unfamiliar and uncertain.
The angelic announcement continues: “Do not be afraid…you have found favor with God…you will conceive…and bear a son…Jesus. He will be great…Son of the Most High…(reigning) on the throne of…David…over the house of Jacob…(without) end.” This is a heart-stopping, head-spinning, soul-stirring (wrenching?) word of deliverance and fulfillment of an age-old prophetic promise! For an oppressed people dwelling in an occupied land overrun by the Roman Empire, this is a message of hope.
However, this is no general heaven-sent word, addressed to everyone, but only to Mary. The message is great and momentous and she, so very small and insignificant, despairs. Even more, as a virgin, struck by logical and biological impossibilities, Mary, in disbelief, resists, rebels: “How can this be?”
“The Holy Spirit will come upon…overshadow you”, Gabriel answers, then offers an anticipatory sign concerning Elizabeth, who though aged “also conceived, for nothing is impossible with God.” Mary responds, “Here I am…let it be with me according to your word.”
As I read and reflect, Mary’s acceptance is no docile denial of her own will in the face of divine fiat, no servile submission to an omnipotent, overpowering force. This is the “yes” of faith. Mary’s conscious embrace of a new thing, literally a new creation, and therefore a new meaning of her life. She, struggling through the ambiguity of her longing and fear, now stands on the threshold of anticipation.
It didn’t end here. Given the gospel narrative’s progression – Mary’s marriage to Joseph, his death (or, at least, the presumption of his death, for soon he drops out of sight and is mentioned no more), her role as family matriarch, the life, ministry, execution, and resurrection of her son, Jesus – undoubtedly she embarked on the cycle of curiosity, anxiety, hope, despair, and anticipation many, many times.
The Annunciation. A story of a divine announcement. A story of Mary, a model of moving in and within the tensions of life.
Many are the announcements that come. Each presenting situations that embody tensions – simultaneous, inner, polar, conflicting, at times, crucifying pulls – which are inescapable aspects of life. It seems to me that only when I can be (dare remain) in the tension, not running too quickly to either side, not rushing to get out of that place of painful pulling, that I can continue my pilgrimage of becoming and so hear the angelic announcement, repeatedly calling me into new life: “Chaire!” Rejoice!