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Questioning an Angel – Part II

WisdomThe angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. [Luke 1:30-38]

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It is always interesting to find “pairs” in Scripture. Mary asks a question of the angel in this conversation. Zacharias did so a few months earler. But while Zacharias’ question resulted in criticism and a “proof response” of becoming mute for more than nine months, Mary’s does not.

Why not? Favoritism… or her youth… or perhaps she was just better looking than her cousin’s husband? What is the difference between what she said and did, and what he said and did?

No, none of that really makes sense, does it? After all, there are other differences in the encounters, besides the announcement of a pending birth. The angel comes to her having sought her out, she does not show fear but wonder, she is confused as to what all this means.

But both of them ask a question of their angel when told that they are going to have a child. At first glance, the questions may look the same.

Zacharias asks: “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

Mary asks: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

I mean, just LOOK at that. They look like equivalent questions, don’t they? Astonishment, followed by the reason for the astonishment?

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This time of year brings out the best in So many commentators and devotional bloggers, that I’m not going to apologize for neglecting all the wonderful, warm, reverent and loving observations and musings prompted by this astonishing passage. The recent poem quoted from Juan de la Cruz of “If You Want” certainly elevates the soul to ponder one’s personal conception of Jesus.

So I want to share just the single laser-specific gleam that God focused my heart on time and time again right here this year. It was this contrast/comparison thing between Zacharias and Mary in their angelic encounters. Most specifically, the spotlight falls on these two questions and their responses.

My question arose: What made the difference here? Rather like the offerings of Cain and Abel… one was “acceptable” and the other “not”. But why?

Here are my conclusions, and should your own ponders bring new petals to light, I’d love to hear them.

Like so many things of God, perhaps the ultimate key lies not in the “words” but in the “heart”. What underlay the questions they asked? It seems to me as if there is a vast difference of heart between the two.

Zacharias is faced with a miraculous angelic apparition, receives wonderful news, and “doubts”. What does he doubt? His own sanity? Does he wonder if he is just imagining all this, whether this is just what we would call “an hallucination of wish fulfillment”? After all, isn’t this the dearest desire of his heart? (I have to wonder, would I do this?) Or does he doubt the identity, the alignment of the celestial being, concerned that this may be a demon rather than an angel? (I know many associates for whom this would be a major concern.)

I think not. It seems that Zacharias measures the angel’s words against what he knows to be fundamental common sense, his knowledge of “science”, and his own judgment… and concludes that being as old as he and Elizabeth are, God simply cannot accomplish this. Perhaps Zacharias’ question comes from his common sense conclusion that God has bitten off more than He can chew, and he seeks some sign from Gabriel that God can back up His boast.

Zacharias will believe this, when he is satisfied by a proof that God can make good on His claim. His question is an expression of “test”, a demand for a “proof”.

God honors this. He always has (and always will). BUT, one would think the “being chosen by lot”, along with the seeing an angel sitting alongside the altar and discussing any/all of this with him would be proof enough. Nonetheless, the angel (messenger) conveys God’s willingness to meet Zacharias’ need. Elizabeth will conceive… BUT since he doubted, he would remain mute until her pregnancy has fully passed.

So, what is so different about Mary’s question? Now, here we have to judge a bit post hoc, propter hoc, I’m afraid. Looking at the full passage, there is no sense at any point of her saying, “I don’t believe this!” Her question to the angel seems more “mechanical” than “interrogative”.

She asks a question of how this will come about, not whether. She does not demand any proof of the angel, but seems to ask more what role she is to play in what is happening. “How can I conceive, being virgin?” Is she to have relations with Joseph? What is SHE to do, not what can GOD do?

The angel answers her question, but then offers what she did not ask for. On his own initiative (at behest of God), the angel offers a proof and sign of his truthfulness. Interestingly, rather than just taking this as a validation of truth, she perceives this as a “call to service”, and once this encounter is finished she goes to minister to Elizabeth until the birth.

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Lots more can be said, but we don’t need to.

I question God and my angels. I don’t always mean to, but I do it all the time. (Well, I used to do it more than I do now. Still…) Just as we see in the Psalms, people approach God with a variety of states of mind and heart. I realize, God has no “unaskable questions”, and never forbids this conversation. But as my own faith and trust in Him grow, I find fewer of my questions focus on, “I can’t believe this until You prove it to me.” Rather my questions are more centered on, “This is incredible, but how do I most readily work WITH You on this, rather than not.”

How about you?

Grace to thee — Gentle Reader

 

 

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Making an Entrance

WisdomThe people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute. When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home.

After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” [Luke 1:21-29]

We see Zacharias, first finishing his duty, his time as a priest in his division.(I cannot imagine what this would have been like for him, unable to speak, yet unable to have relations with his wife (in order to remain ritually clean for Temple service), and having both this tremendous promise from the angel and his constant reminder of its truth through his inability to speak.) Only upon completion of his service does he return home, and John is conceived. Did Elizabeth believe him when he wrote out or pantomimed this incredible revelation?

Elizabeth then shuts herself away for the first five months of her pregnancy. I am struck by her blessing of God, in its focus on her disgrace. How deep must her bitterness have been across those barren years? Her focus is not on the glorious power of God in miracle, or on the joy of a son and heir coming into the world, but on her relief from shame and disgrace. I don’t judge or condemn this… I am simply struck with compassion at how great her suffering must have been up until then. Why, I wonder, did she not allow herself to be seen by the other women during her first two trimesters? Did she fear, I wonder, that this might be snatched away from them and she miscarry? I cannot imagine that she could bear the bitterness, shame, or disappointment of that. Did she fear even greater ridicule if she lost the baby?

It is from there, from that point of Elizabeth’s seclusion, that we see God send forth Gabriel to Mary. Scripture highlights the time, measuring it from the starting point of John’s conception. How interesting! John, as forerunner and herald of Jesus, is the first tick of the clock timing Jesus’ advent.

Then we see an amazing thing. Gabriel is dispatched by God to go find Mary in her own city, and he walks in on her! Now, most angels in the Bible are “encountered” when the person walks up on them… or God sends angels off to “go before” people, leading them somewhere. Only a few times do the angels walk up to encounter people, and even less often is that their primary mission. (E.g. The angels walk up and encounter Lot on their way into Sodom.)

Likely we have seen, read, and pondered the Luke narrative of this encounter many many times, Gentle Reader. So this year, my attention has not so much been drawn to the momentous and incredible wonders of this meeting. For some reason, and I invite you to join me here, the Lord’s spotlights have been focusing on much littler things…

In this case, I’m amazed at the “everyday-ness”… the seeming “ordinary-ness”… of the opening of this Cosmically Incredible Encounter. Gabriel goes to Mary’s city, commissioned to find her and announce this wonder, and he simply “walks in on her” and greets her with the Angelic Salutation… the “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

And her response? Makes me smile… No sign of fear or even questioning words, just simplicity and a bit of confusion… “But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.”

How would we likely respond in similar circumstances? I am struck by the “taking in stride” of it all.

 

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