Christmas Stories: Theotokos (God-bearer)

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

You may have imagined it was night when Gabriel came to give Mary the big news, but it wasn’t.  It was broad daylight when he met her, at the well outside town where she came to draw water.  Mary was running a little late that day – drama at home with her younger siblings – and so she came alone, when it was already late morning, long after all the other women of Nazareth had drawn their water and gone home.

The first thought Gabriel had as Mary approached the well, empty water jug in her arms, was how very young she looked.  He knew it wasn’t so long ago that she had been just a kid on the streets of Nazareth, with unruly hair and scuffed-up knees.  Some people would say that God had chosen Mary for this job because she was pure, pious, and deferential.  But the truth was Mary wasn’t known around Nazareth for being any of those things.  Mary, instead, had a little bit of fire to her.  She was tough, stubborn, willing to break the rules for a good cause.  She was always ready to stand up for someone less powerful who was being or hurt or taken advantage of, even if it got her in trouble. That, Gabriel thought, was why she had found favor with God, even if she often exasperated her parents and made the neighbors talk.  Of course, Mary was a woman now – about to be married – and the days of childhood scuffles and adventures were behind her, her tangled hair and scuffed-up knees now well-covered.  A woman – with all the expectations that came along with that.

He watched her as she approached.  From a distance she looked slight, even wispy, but as she got closer Gabriel could see how she walked with her shoulders straight and head held high.  Gabriel had relayed a lot of divine messages to powerful men in his day, but out of all them, this young woman was someone he sensed you didn’t want to mess with.

She stopped short when she saw him.  In their tradition, love stories often took place at wells.  But Mary, though young, wasn’t stupid.   This was real life, and in real life a woman had to be careful.

Gabriel got up.  “Greetings, favored one!” he said with a flourish.  “The Lord is with you!”

Confusion – maybe even fear – flashed across Mary’s face momentarily, as she wondered what he was getting at with this greeting and perhaps realized at the same time that this man standing before her wasn’t quite human.  But she regained her composure and looked Gabriel straight in the eye.  “Who are you?” she asked.  “What are you doing here?”

“Mary,” Gabriel said.  “Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” she said, and though Gabriel knew that this was probably a lie, her voice didn’t falter or give her away.

Gabriel continued.  “Mary, I’m here to tell you that you’ve found favor with God.  This is what’s going to happen: you’re going to get pregnant and you’re going to have a son, and you’ll name him Jesus.  He will be great and powerful and reign on the throne of David forever.”  He finished the speech he had prepared, and waited.

Mary stared at Gabriel, eyes narrowed, as if sizing him up.  “I’m not married yet,” she said, a hint of challenge in her voice.  She stepped forward, as if to walk past him and continue on her original mission of drawing water.  But before she lowered her jug into the well she looked back at him, skeptical – but intrigued.

“We’ve got it all worked out,” he said.  “You’re going to conceive by the Holy Spirit.”

She just stared back at him.

“Mary,” Gabriel said. “The baby you’re going to have will be holy.  He’ll be the Son of God.”

Mary held his gaze for what seemed like a long time.  Gabriel could imagine the thoughts that were going through her head.   Wondering if all of this was for real, if she was being played somehow, if she was imagining things. Wondering if she really had a choice.  Thinking about the consequences – what her family would say, what Joseph would say, what everyone would say.  If she would be ruined, if she and her baby would be consigned to a life of poverty, if they’d have to beg, if she’d have to do dire things to keep them both alive.  If she even wanted a kid who was supposed to reign on the throne of David and would probably meet an untimely end like everyone else who aspired to power around here – instead of you know, just a regular kid, who would run and play on the streets of Nazareth.  There was always, thought Gabriel, a risk involved in answering the call of God.  Sometimes a big one.

Gabriel wished he could tell her that the risk would be worth it.  That this was her chance for her life to be something bigger, to mean something more, to be part of God’s greater plan for the world.  That there would be sacrifice, and heartache, plenty of it – but also so much love and beauty.  There always was, in answering God’s call.  “Don’t be afraid,” he wanted to tell her again, more gently this time.

But Gabriel stuck to his lines.  Sure, God had a way of chasing people down when they ran away from God’s call.  But in the end, he knew, the answer had to come from Mary, uncoerced.  He had presented his case – or rather, God’s case.  He simply offered these last words of comfort: “Your cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, too, even though she was called barren.  Nothing is impossible with God, Mary.”

Then Gabriel waited.

After a long silence Mary took a deep breath as if to prepare herself for all that was to come.  And then she said, clearly and firmly: “I’m in.”

For a long time afterward, Gabriel wondered what had made Mary say yes.  Maybe because she already knew what he had wanted to say, about being part of something bigger, about heartache and beauty.  Maybe it was simply because in the end, when God calls, you answer.

As he left, he saw what looked like fire in her eyes.

Let’s do this, he whispered to himself.  This young, fierce woman was about to bear God into the world.

Gabriel thought of all the people he’d delivered divine messages to before, and all the people he would in the future: important people, normal people, scared people, broken people. All called, in their own way and their own time, to bear God into the world.  He knew not all of them would be as bold and brave as Mary in accepting that call.

But he hoped they would be.

He wished her well, and vanished.

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Christmas Stories: The Silencing

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25

Before there was Jesus – at least as far as the world was concerned – there was John the Baptist.  John was the Forerunner, the one who would call people to prepare the way of the Lord.  A wild-eyed prophet on the margins of society, he ate locusts and wore camel hair and told the people who flocked to the banks of the Jordan River for baptism to repent.  But that was all later.  Before there was Jesus, there was John, and the story of his own miraculous birth to his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah.

On the day that Zechariah came to call The Silencing, he thought he had been cursed.

It would be a lie to say the day started off like any other, because it wasn’t every day that his section of priests was called up to Temple duty.  Still, that happened twice a year, and the long walk into Jerusalem that morning was old and familiar, as was the commotion outside the Temple, and the sweet smell of incense mixed with blood from the previous day’s offerings.  Zechariah knew the routine.  Each morning, lots would be drawn, and whichever priest was chosen would enter the sanctuary – not the very inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest could enter once a year, but the outer inner sanctuary – to light the incense offering.  Zechariah had been serving as a priest for many years, but he had never been chosen to light the incense offering.  In fact, he had kind of given up hope that he ever would.  Zechariah had given up hope about a lot of things, to be honest.  He could hardly believe it when his lot was drawn.

But it was drawn, and so that morning Zechariah found himself stepping – hesitantly, reverently – into the sanctuary of the Lord.  And for a moment, he felt a strange feeling that he hardly remembered anymore, as much as he prayed every day, as much as he could recite the Psalms by heart.  It felt something like hope.

He was just about to light the first stick of incense when he saw him.

The person – could he call him that? – the figure, the creature, standing on the right side of the altar, didn’t move at first.  Afterward, all Zechariah could remember was that he glowed.  And that he spoke with the most booming voice Zechariah had ever heard, like thunder.  Zechariah cried out, and jumped back, and cowered, though in retrospect, he could have told you as well as anyone that when an angel of the Lord appeared, you were not supposed to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” the creature told him.  “I have good news for you, news you’ve prayed for for a long time.”

Zechariah’s first instinct was to laugh, though luckily he didn’t do so out loud.  It was true that he and Elizabeth had prayed for a child, almost from the time they were married.  In their world, though later generations would argue the point, children were a sign of God’s blessing, and if you didn’t have them, well, that said something too.  Barren.  He’d heard that word whispered about Elizabeth, and it always stung.  Barren, such a cold and empty word.  He supposed over time his prayers had become somewhat barren too.  He said the words, but it was hard to believe deep down that anyone was really listening.  In time, he had made peace with it all, he thought.

So Zechariah didn’t laugh, but he did shake his head at the pure cognitive dissonance of standing there, in the sanctuary, incense stick in hand, being told by this glowing creature that now, now, his prayers had been answered. “How can this be?” he said, mostly wondering aloud.

That was when The Silencing began – this time in his life that made Zechariah think he had been cursed.  “Because you didn’t believe me,” the creature said, “you won’t be able to talk until your son John is born.”

Zechariah opened his mouth to protest, but no sound came out.  And just like that, Gabriel was gone and Zechariah found himself alone in the sanctuary once more.

“That’s not fair!” he tried to cry out into the empty sanctuary, momentarily overlooking the actual good news the angel had delivered.  “I wasn’t doubting you!” he mouthed, at the space where Gabriel had stood.  “I was just wondering about the logistics!”  Nothing.

Zechariah slumped down by the altar and buried his head in his hands.  Leave it to him to get the best news of his life, and ruin everything, all at the same time.  He, who had always been faithful, he, who had kept saying his prayers even when they seemed to go into an empty void, he, who was known as righteous and blameless before God, was being punished for his lack of faith.

After a while he realized that those gathered outside were waiting for him, and probably wondering what was taking so long.  So Zechariah sighed, got up, and walked back out of the Temple into the courtyard, into a sea of people who looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to offer the benediction.

He made one last valiant effort: “The Lord bless you and keep you!”  No sound came out.  The crowd continued to look at him expectantly.  “The Lord make his face to shine upon you!” he tried.  Nothing.  People started to whisper.  Zechariah threw up his hands and gestured wildly.  Finally, someone in the crowd cried out, “He can’t talk!  He’s seen a vision in the sanctuary!” and the whole crowd began to roar.

When it was time to leave Jerusalem, Zechariah walked home alone in silence.  He had never minded those long and quiet walks before.  But this time silence felt like prison.  Now, more than ever, he had so much to say.  He still had questions, questions the angel hadn’t given him the chance to ask.  He had people wanting to know what had happened in the sanctuary, what he had seen, if they should be worried.  He wanted to tell God he was sorry for doubting, not just then in the Temple, but all these years.  After a while, he even remembered that this was good news, and wanted to praise God, but he couldn’t even do that.  He couldn’t even fall back on his old, familiar prayers, though he said them to himself as his old feet plodded their way back home.  Most of all, he wondered – what was he going to tell Elizabeth?

Nothing.  That’s what he was going to tell her.

He felt a pang of guilt about Elizabeth, who was oblivious to all of it.  He wouldn’t be able to prepare her for what was about to happen.  There would be no planning together, no discussing their hopes and dreams and fears for the future, no talking late into the night about the bigger thing that God was apparently about to do in the world.  And then Zechariah envied Elizabeth, because she would be able to talk about all these things, just not with him.

When Zechariah arrived home, Elizabeth was confused at first, then frustrated, then amused.  And, in a matter of weeks, Elizabeth discovered for herself the news that Zechariah hadn’t been able to tell her.  Zechariah waited, from behind his wall of silence, to see what her reaction would be.

And then a strange thing happened.

Because when Elizabeth found out, the first thing she did was close the doors and sit – in silence.

Months went by and Zechariah watched his wife, amazed.  There had, as far as he knew, been no glowing creature that stole Elizabeth’s voice; she hadn’t doubted and been punished for her disbelief.  Yet now, at this time, when there was so much to say, so many questions to ask, so many people wanting answers, Elizabeth chose silence.  It was as if, Zechariah thought, it was the only fitting response – not just to their own answered prayers, but to what God was getting ready to do.

Five months later, when Mary came to stay, Elizabeth broke her silence and sang the praises of another miraculous child.  Zechariah’s sentence, on the other end, wasn’t over.  But surprisingly, he found that he minded less now.  He found himself thinking of all the words he had said before: beautiful prayers, advice offered to friends, theological ponderings, hastily made promises, arguments, the occasional soapbox – and somehow, now, none of them seemed as important as they once had.  He began to think that maybe, in the end, there wasn’t so much to say that couldn’t wait.  That maybe the world didn’t hang on his words as much as he had once thought.  That he even prayed better when he didn’t always feel the pressure to articulate things too precisely.  That he could sit with the mystery of it all a little more.

When John was born, the curse of The Silencing was lifted, and Zechariah sang: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them!”

But by that time, Zechariah could look back and see that The Silencing had been a gift.[1]

[1] With inspiration from Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro