Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)
The Birth of Jesus Foretold
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Today, as I read this passage, I am struck by the sense of impossibility and possibility, by the potential and the sense of the unobtainable.
The conception of Jesus occurs in the shadow of the conception of John the Baptizer. His parents are old and without hope. Elizabeth has been struck with the curse of barrenness. For a couple who desire children, it is a cold and lonely sentence to serve. That kind of disappointment is met with a slow resignation, especially in a time when medical science couldn’t have confirmed whether or not you would ever be able to have a child. When do you stop hoping, I wonder? There’s no competition or lottery deadline to countdown to. When is the right time to give up? When does hope become ridiculous? When is the time to be realistic, if not cynical?
Gabriel assures Mary that she will have a miraculous baby and gives the example of Elizabeth’s miracle child to make his case. In other words, if such a thing can happen to her, then this strange thing I tell you can also happen to you. We trust in the experience of others. Recently I was in New York and trying to get a standby ticket for Jimmy Fallon’s show. We heard just over 60 people got in on standby the previous night, so when we were handed standby tickets 39 and 40, I was absolutely chuffed. Sadly, they only took 25 that night. I was wrong in this case, but it is easier to have faith in something we witness happening to other people.
Mary is supposed to be reassured by Elizabeth’s miracle baby. It probably brought many barren mothers of Jewish history to mind. I’m sure it made Gabriel’s words a little more plausible, but at the end of the day, he was still talking about a very strange thing. I know the reason I honed in on this is because I was recently encouraged at a kind of retreat event to start praying about seeing the same old, same olds of my life in a new way. The results have been incredible; friendship has blossomed in unexpected places, my understanding of prayer and trust in God has been profoundly altered because of a short conversation with a person who was there all along, and I have been greatly encouraged in my personal life and my work. That might not sound like a miracle, to me it has been.
John the Baptizer’s nativity is a fiery arrow shot into the blackness of despair that his parents must have experienced. It was hope and reassurance to Mary and should be to us as well. Though we all fall victim to cynicism as disappointment after disappointment batters the Church and the world, we know in our heart of hearts that there is always potential and always hope. We believe in a God who works miracles and defies the boundaries of what is “realistic”. After hundreds of years of silence, not a prophet’s voice to be heard, and just when it was time to give up on hearing from God ever again, He became man. It took place on an ordinary day amongst ordinary people in a way that was unexpected. Do we dare to trust and hope that God might show up in our lives? It’s a safe bet.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.