Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone
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The Mother of God


In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” 

 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”  The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

--Luke 1:26-38

The woman who would be called the Mother of God lived in a small town called Nazareth. Nazareth was part of an unimportant district known to the Romans simply as “the Circuit,” a word that comes to us as “Galilee.”  I grew up in the West Texas Panhandle, also an unimportant district with lots of tiny towns.  Some of these only have one traffic light or one restaurant (often a Dairy Queen).  These towns are little more than wide spots in the road where a few shops and houses have been built near each other. We call them “one horse towns.”  That’s what Nazareth was--a one horse town, a rest stop between other places. A tiny insignificant place inside a larger insignificant place.

We know that Mary was unmarried and a virgin. Scholars agree that she was around the age of 14.  It is most likely that her engagement with Joseph was arranged by her parents.  There would have been a combination of political, social, and economic reasons why he was chosen above other possible suitors.  In their culture, Mary would be given over to Joseph along with some of her father’s possessions (a dowry) and she would become his wife. Being a wife was a great deal like being a piece of property.  Mary would be expected to have children, care for her family, and engage in the life of the village as she had been trained and taught since childhood.  There was no reason for Mary to believe her life would be any different from all the women she had ever known.

Mary’s life took an unexpected turn when God’s messenger came to her. We don’t know where this encounter happened, what time of day or night.  We have no description of Gabriel or of Mary.  We do know that this visit changed everything.

In just a few sentences in the Book of Luke, Mary reveals her distress, her fear, her astonishment, and her curiosity.  She is a person just like us.  When an angel from God tells her that she will give birth to a king who will reign forever, she focuses not on the brilliant future but the practical reality staring her in the face.  She hasn’t had relations with a man.  Every person who lives around animals (like girls in ancient small towns) knows exactly where babies come from.   When the angel tells Mary that this will be the work of the Holy Spirit, Mary immediately gives herself over to God. She accepts that she will become pregnant, and that this is the divine will.

I went to school in a small religious town. In my high school we had a couple of girls who got pregnant and carried the baby to term.  I saw how those girls suffered--the stares, the gossip, and the abandonment they must have experienced from former friends.  As their pregnancies progressed, our public school wouldn’t even let them come to class. Instead, they received “tutoring” in their homes.  I don’t believe any of these girls graduated.

Consider Mary’s situation.  She lived in a society that was much more sexually conservative than ours.  She lived in a tiny, close knit community.  In our society we have standing acquired through education or wealth.  These things tell other people who we are and what we are worth.  In Mary’s society, they had “honor.”  By being unmarried and pregnant, Mary had dishonored herself, her father, her family, and Joseph.  She was in danger of losing everything.  By becoming pregnant outside of her relationship with Joseph, there was a very real possibility that Mary would be driven out of her father’s house and left to wander.  She could possibly end up in slavery or prostitution or both.

Mary accepted the angel’s message and took an enormous risk.  She did this for her people and for us as well. This was not her strength alone.  Gabriel tells her that she has received grace (favor), and he’s right.  Through grace, she cooperated in God’s work.  As Advent begins to draw to a close and Christmas comes ever closer, I give thanks to God for the gift of Christ.  I also give him thanks for the grace he gave that little Palestinian girl.  She inspires me today to trust the Lord and let him take care of the outcomes.