The 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