Nothing Will Be Impossible

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. Luke 1: 26-38.

So, we pretty much all know this story.  In fact, most of us have heard the Annunciation story so often that it’s lost some of its impact.  If we’re not careful, we can forget just how remarkable and surprising this story is.

In the first place, let’s look at the context.  After centuries of war, occupation and exile, the Jewish people were mired in hopelessness.  Mary, or Miriam as she would have been called, lived on a dead-end street in a long-forgotten town at the far corner of the Roman empire.  More importantly, she was a woman. In that culture at that time, being a woman means nothing much that’s important would happen to her.  So, the angel Gabriel’s announcement that “The Lord is with you” would have startled Luke’s audience. 

This passage clearly echoes Gabriel’s earlier announcement to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  So, St. Luke reminds us that God is up to something astonishing here, involving both Mary and Elizabeth.  God’s action in this regard actually begins much earlier, in the creation story.  In the birth narratives of both John the Baptist and Jesus we find God engaged in the same sort of thing we encountered in Genesis:  creation ex nihilo (from nothing).  The angel even tells Mary that God is doing precisely that with her cousin Elizabeth.  The notion of the virgin birth therefore raises the idea of the Lord resuming the work begun in creation:  re-creating the world.

But let’s return our focus to Miriam, the Theotokos.  Gabriel announces that she will bear a son and name him Jesus. (The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.  Thus, his very name involves the notion of God keeping his promises, fulfilling the covenant.) As was the case with the John, God seems terribly interested in Jesus’ name, as though the words themselves would act as icons of God’s power working in the world. 

Now, while the coming of the Messiah might have constituted very good news for the people of Israel, it might not have sounded like such good news for Miriam.  An unwed mother, at best, would provide the people of Nazareth with a fine scandal.  It’s the sort of thing that could get a girl killed.  I think the Holy Mother understood perfectly well the cost that she might have to pay for bringing God into the world. 

Jesus’ conception through the Holy Spirit will resonate later in the story of his baptism in the Jordan, as a dove descends and the voice of God announces that Jesus is God’s beloved son.  So, these two birth narratives (Jesus and John) will reconnect years later as Jesus begins his public ministry and God claims him as his own son.  All these things happen through Mary’s “fiat”:  “Let it be done with me according to your word.”  Mary thus serves as the real gateway of the Incarnation.

I wonder how many of us are able to hear God’s message in our own lives:  “The Lord is with you.”  Can we come to think of ourselves as  “favored ones”?  Can we bear the Christ child, and are we willing to bring him into the world?  Are we willing to respond, “Let it be with me”?   I ask these things because those same questions that the Holy Mother faced, well, I think the Gospel asks them of you and of me.  While it’s certainly true that God intended to draw Mary into his plan to re-create and redeem the world, I  believe He has exactly the same intent for us.

The Advent message centers on hope and promise, and setting aside our despair and our terror.  The season of Advent recognizes, as it’s so desperately difficult for us to see sometimes, that nothing will be impossible for God.   And while Gabriel says that as a matter of fact, I think for most of us it’s a kind of a prayer: a prayer we might say more often.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P. 

© 2011 James R. Dennis

14 responses to “Nothing Will Be Impossible

  1. Thank you for connecting Mary’s story with a personal and present day context. We are in concord here, I think, in that the bible and stories within it are a dynamic and recreating creation story that is always now, here, at this time, for us, today. I have never thought of Mary’s Conception of Jesus as being something I could take on board for my own daily living. i shall now, gratefully and prayerfully consider the options!

    • Constantina,

      It seems to be that these stories tend to collapse time and space, making themselves present within our lives today, if we let them. The Incarnation provides a particularly strong example of that capacity of Scripture to envelop us within the narrative. Shalom,

      Br. James

  2. Beautifully written, James. Mary’s response to God spoke deeply to me (and still does) during my discernment. God’s word is ever present and active. Thank you.

    • Nancy,

      Thanks so much. I think you’re precisely right: the process of discernment must be the process of our response to the Word, which always locates itself within the present tense.

      Pax

  3. Can we bear the Christ child…can we bring him into the world? These words resonate deeply within me, reminding me of the larger purpose of all I mean to do. Thank you.

    • Heather,

      I’m so glad you liked the piece. In a very real sense, the evangelical impulse (bringing Christ into the world) begins with Mary. It’s my hope and prayer we continue that work.

      God’s peace,

      Br. James

  4. Brother James,

    When you mentioned how startling it is that the angel visited Mary, it brought to mind an old cliché: that if we were ever visited by extra-terrestrials, they would greet us with the words, “Take me to your leader.” Gabriel bypassed the leaders of both Jerusalem and Rome. If he were to do that today, I don’t suppose it would play well over at the Department of Homeland Security. This story really is startling, as you say.

    But what’s even more startling is that it wasn’t just a private religious experience. The “impossible” was transacted in that moment, and the result was world-altering. Your post reminds us that God is still here… and still willing the impossible. Thank you for challenging us to make God’s will our prayer.

    • Ron,

      I think the message “Emmanuel”, that God is really with us, really for us, is always startling. Thanks for your thoughts.

      Shalom.

  5. Great message. I love the idea of advent as a metaphor for our response. I believe it is also a reminder that one day Jesus will return. Will he find his church ready – particularly in the West. Thanks again.

    • You’re most welcome, Pieter. I don’t know what Jesus will think of the Western church. I think it should keep us all awake at night. And yes, Advent always means His coming is “yet to happen.”

  6. What I especially like about the first two chapters of Luke is all the coming and going, up and down, over the hills, into Galilee, Jerusalem, Bethlehem. The Temple, Mary’s home, Elizabeth’s home.
    God stirring and mixing things up.
    Making the impossible possible.
    Divine activity skipping and dancing, and singing,
    “Nothing is impossible for God! Nothing is impossible for God!”

  7. I want to comment her on the iconographic tradition of basically never portraying Mary with out her Son. All her glory is from her relation to him; being Theotokos i more important than being Mary. I was thinking yesterday that while we do portray Christ independently of her in iconography, in life we don’t; or rather, we cannot. Christ had to be born in context and he must be bourne in context. When Christ is preached, the preacher is part of the picture. The Church’s presence effects the Christ the world sees and hears. Jesus does not enter life as a “deus ex machina” now any more than he did through Mary. He is implanted, incubated and brought forth by a faithful, humble Church. He cannot be shown without the Mother.

    • Prior,

      The writers of icons have a good deal to teach us about Marian devotion. The other part of this notion is of course, just as Mary is the “context” for Christ’s original entry into the world. We must be the context now.

      God’s peace, Guy,

      James

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