Saint Luke tells with amazing brevity the story of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary: she is miraculously to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary’s response, her subsequent visit with cousin Elizabeth, and her beautiful song of worship, are all recorded with few words (Luke 1:26-56).
But, when the news broke, were responses in family and community as completely serene as the account would suggest?
After all, how could such an announcement fail to land with jarring impact first on her parents, then on Joseph, to whom she was pledged to be married, and then on the town of Nazareth where she lived?
Here are some questions Luke, the physician, does not answer.
How did Mary’s mother find out about her virgin daughter’s angel-announced pregnancy? Did Mary tell her? If so, what was her immediate response? Imagine the response today if a teenaged girl should say to her mother, “An angel appeared to me yesterday and told me I’m going to have a baby without any man’s involvement.” Would she just say, “Fine,” and go on emptying the dishwasher? And how did her father take the news?
Then there’s Joseph, the man she’s pledged to marry. How did he find out? Matthew tells us that, so far as Joseph was concerned, Mary “was found to be with child. . . .” Did her parents tell Joseph? Or did Mary?
We know that, however he got the news, at first he was downright upset. His immediate impulse was to break the engagement (actually to divorce her according to Jewish customs at the time). But he would do so as quietly as possible so as not to subject her to public disgrace.
Was Mary in anguish during that time over what his decision would be? An angel had to appear to Joseph in a dream to settle him down. He then took Mary into his home though they were not intimate, Matthew tells us, until after the baby was born. (Matt. 1:18-25).
Then I’m curious especially about Mary’s trip to be with her aged cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). It is likely that Elizabeth and Zechariah, her husband, lived in Hebron, a town some distance south of Jerusalem.
The distance from Nazareth to Hebron could have been 80 miles or more. How does this carefully chaperoned young woman (according to the customs of the times) get from her home to that distant place? One assumes she walked, as all poor people did back then.
Going straight south, she would have to travel through the hostile territory of Samaria. If not, to avoid this course she may have crossed the Jordan south of Lake Galilee and traveled along the eastern side to another crossing near the Jericho. From there, there would be a long upward climb to Jerusalem, perhaps for 15 miles, and then still a good stretch of travel further south to reach Hebron.
So, did her father go with her? Or was she sent in a caravan of travelers? And, where did she stay overnight on the three- or four-day trip? There were no Holiday Inns.
Then, after three months with Elizabeth, she returned to her home town, Nazareth. How did the community respond? Her pregnancy would then be in its second trimester. So, when her mother sent her to the well for water and she carried the vessel on her head, did her peers snicker behind their hands as she passed by? If so, how did Mary deal with such scorn?
I believe Luke, the careful historian, would have known the answers to these questions. He says (Luke in 1:3) his research had been thorough. Years later he may have visited with Mary in Ephesus where the Apostle John is said to have taken her to live. If so, he would have had the details firsthand.
Then, why does he leave such information out? It must be because he isn’t writing a novelette to portray human conflict and struggle. He’s writing a chapter in the story of redemption. He’s reporting on the Virgin Mary’s willingness to be the servant of The Almighty in bringing into the world a Messiah. Joy is the dominant note.
Only later, a man named Simeon, a devout worshiper of God, prophecies to her that later in her life her suffering will be great as a part of this mission (Luke 2:35).
So, what does all this say about Mary? There’s no trace in the gospel accounts that Mary was to be worshiped, or even treated as in any way unique from the rest of humanity. She is simply a deeply devout young Jewish girl who has kept herself pure, and is selected by the Almighty to be the bearer of the Messiah. She is immediately willing to carry that burden.
We can’t answer the many questions Luke’s story makes us want to ask. But, during Advent, Mary, the virgin, should be held up as a model for purity and openness to God’s will for service to Him. Her response to Gabriel’s announcement rings down the centuries: “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept anything he wants. May everything you have said come true” (Luke 1:39 NLT).
Photo credit: Randy Son of Robert (via flickr.com)