How shall this be?

The following reflection on Luke’s story of the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) is adapted from a sermon I preached on December 13, 2009.

You might have noticed by now that the writer of Luke gives us a lot of detail here in the first chapter. We know who was king. We know what priestly division Zechariah was in. We know that Elizabeth is six months pregnant when Mary hears from Gabriel. We know the name of Mary’s village and the name of her fiancée.

Scholars cannot say exactly who wrote the Gospel of Luke—and it’s sequel known as the book of Acts. But we can deduce that the writer of these books was articulate, well-educated, rational.

Sound like anyone you know?

Actually, tradition claims that Luke was a physician. Which, I think, makes this conversation he records between Gabriel and Mary that much more fascinating.

This scene is one of my favorite scenes in the Bible. And it has been a favorite of artists for centuries. Many of the medieval paintings of this scene show a mature woman with a beatific smile on her face gazing at a handsome winged creature.

“The Annunciation” by Henry O. Tanner, 1898

But my favorite painting of the annunciation is by Henry O. Tanner. The entire scene is bathed in an eerie yellow glow. A young Mary sits on a bed in a dingy room, considering the ambiguous presence of light that has invaded her space. The best way to describe the look on her face is skeptical.

One thing I love about this story is that–despite her youth, despite the shock of having an angel show up in her room and announce this terrible prospect of her pregnancy–Mary looks the angel Gabriel in the eye and asks, How will this be since I am a virgin?

Can you imagine discussing your sexual status with the angel Gabriel?

Which makes me wonder if this is at least as much Luke’s question as Mary’s. If Luke was indeed a physician, this part of the story must have bothered him. Even though medical technology wasn’t very advanced back then, they did know certain things about human reproduction. Perhaps Luke had a sincere physician’s curiosity about this virginal conception. He wanted details. “How will this be?”

Unfortunately, this is one part of the story for which Luke does not have details. Maybe you noticed: Gabriel doesn’t answer Mary’s question in any helpful way.

“How will this be?” Mary (with Luke) asks.

“Ummm,” says Gabriel. “How . . . let’s see . . . how will this be? A virgin you say . . . well . . . umm . . . The Holy Spirit, yeah, that’s it, the Holy Spirit will come upon you and . . . and . . . the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Luke doesn’t record the fumbling pauses, but I can certainly imagine them. The truth is that the answer Gabrielle gives is not really an answer. Certainly not a medically satisfying one.

But it is the only answer Mary gets. The only answer that Luke has. And, therefore, the only answer that we have to a question that all educated, rational people must want to ask about this story.

A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.

How shall this be?

Your child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and his Kingdom will never end.

How shall this be?

Rulers will be brought down from their thrones and the humble will be lifted up.The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent away empty.

How shall this be?

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light will dawn.

How shall this be?

Nation will not rage against nation. Neither will they learn war any more.

How shall this be?

The promises of God are beyond what reasonable, intelligent people can expect. Yet still, these promises come.

They came to Mary through an angel. They come to us, usually, in more subtle ways. Through the words of scripture. Through dreams. Through the beauty of God’s creation. Through the words of friends and strangers. Through glimpses of God’s love, justice, and peace breaking out in our world.

We read of Jesus’ healings and his promise of abundant life, and we see in this God’s promise of health care for all people.

How shall this be?

The faithful will pray. Groups will lobby politicians. Medical staff will volunteer at clinics. Mennonite Church USA will practice mutual aid so that all pastors can have health care.

This is not really an answer. At least not a logically satisfying one. But it is the answer we have for now.

We follow the Prince of Peace; we read God’s promises of peace over and over again in the scriptures. We know these promises include peace in the Middle East. Peace between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

How shall this be?

People will pray for peace. The Christian Peacemaker Teams will work with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. We will join with our Muslim and Jewish neighbors to work for the good of our communities.

This is not really an answer. Not an intellectually satisfying one. But it is the answer we have for now.

We know God’s amazing promises are not just for the world at large, but the promises are also for each of us. That we will have life abundant. Work that allows us to meet our physical needs and that sustains our spirits. Rich, deep, loving relationships. Health and happiness for those we love. Time and energy for the things that enliven us and for the things that bring life to others. These also are part of the promises of God.

How shall this be?

We don’t know, exactly. All we know is that it involves the Holy Spirit acting in our lives. All we know is that it involves the presence of God coming close.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

I’m afraid that is the only answer I have for you this morning.

For Mary, it was enough.

Thanks be to God.

3 thoughts on “How shall this be?

  1. Thanks so much! I confess that I needed to go back and read it again, because I go to the end and realized that I had been mis-reading the question as “How CAN this be?” which is sort of different.

    The Holy Spirit’s presence is answer enough. Nice!

  2. Sharon and Nancy, thank you so much for stopping by and for commenting on this post. I’m sorry to have missed the great Annunciation discussion over on the Rev. Gals site yesterday. Christmas craziness has hit for sure. Blessings on your own preaching this morning. (And each week.)

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