The visitation (Luke 1:26-38)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
We know her well as the mother of Jesus, but her own story is not often told in our churches. Even the phrase “virgin Mary” feels strange and foreign on our tongues, and we have allowed our fears of ascribing too much significance to Mary to rob us of learning about and from her witness.
Yet she is presented by Luke in this passage as a young woman who finds favor with the Lord, a servant of God, and the first believer in the good news concerning God’s visitation in human flesh. Who is she? Her name is Mary. She is a young virgin from Nazareth, betrothed to Joseph, who gives birth to the Savior of the world and provides a model of responsive, submissive faith.
Mary is presented in Luke’s gospel as the central figure in the infancy narrative of Jesus. She is introduced as a “virgin, betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (1:27). We learn of her virginity before we hear her name, a manner of introduction (virgin, widow, wife, etc.) not uncommon in the ancient world. But in her case, her virginity underscores of miracle of birth that is to take place.
Thus, with this introduction of Mary, her story begins. As it unfolds we learn that she is of “lowly estate,” a “handmaiden,” and poor. Hers is a portrait of a powerless person favored by a mighty God. She is young in a world that respects age, a woman in a world controlled by men, and poor in a highly stratified society. Yet we discover that she is strong, and her strength comes from a submissive and obedient heart and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The angel appears to her—not in the temple in Jerusalem, the city of David—but in the obscure village of Nazareth of Galilee. We should not be surprised then, that the Angel’s greeting perplexes her: “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you (1:28). As she ponders in her heart what sort of greeting this is, the angel reveals the mystery of the incarnation and the meaning of the grace with which God has favored her. He calms her fears, and tells her once more that she has found favor with God. Then in intimate terms he describes the role of the Holy Spirit in the birth of Jesus!
Surely to a young girl from Nazareth who is just beginning to ponder the mysteries of life and birth and marriage to Joseph, the prophecy of the angel concerning this pregnancy is a lot to ponder, and no doubt the scandal it brings with it strikes terror in her heart. Thus, her response to the angel strikes at this reality: “how shall this be, since I am a virgin?” is not unlike Zechariah’s when he learns that Elizabeth will bear a son: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years” (1:18). Each expresses the incredulity of these announcements and reflects the limitations and impossibilities associated with his or her own reality in the flesh. The angel’s answer is simply, “For with God nothing will be impossible.”
Mary’s response to the angel provides the basis of a model for all who hear the good news of God’s salvation and accept the call to discipleship. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). As if in answer to her own question, “How can this be?” she answers, “Let it be.”
Mary stands in all her lowliness and womanhood, her poverty and status as a handmaiden. She postures herself as the servant of the Lord, which echoes the opening stanza of her hymn “for he has regarded the lowly estate of his handmaiden. . .” (1.48). Her words are rich in meaning and reveal the heart of this humble servant of the Lord “. . .let it be to me according to your word.” Do we not think that Mary understands the implications of the angel’s words? Her objection that she is a virgin surely reveals that she understands the scandal of her pregnancy and the reproach she will bear in a world of honor and shame? Yet this young woman who has no husband fully embraces the scandal of faith and answers, “let it be.” Thus the image is drawn of Mary of Nazareth: model believer and servant of God, who responds with radical acceptance without reservation to God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Can we not embrace Mary as a model of discipleship for the church and stand with her as we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38)?
D’Esta Love is chaplain emerita at Pepperdine University and a member of the University Church of Christ in Malibu, CA.