angel, betrothal, Christian, Elizabeth, Gabriel, God, Holy Spirit, HolySpirit, Jesus, Jewish tradition, Joseph, Lord, Luke 1, Mary, Messiah, Mosaic Law, testing the spirits, the Lord's will, Transition, Transsexual, virgin birth, Zachariah
Yesterday’s sermon in my church was about Mary’s reaction to the message from the angel Gabriel. I meditated on that sermon this morning. What follows in this post, until my last four closing paragraphs, is basically what I wrote to him regarding the fruits of that meditation.
The reaction of Mary to the announcement by Gabriel is one that I have considered many times over the years. I find that it continues to hold my interest. Occasionally, the Lord unveils another element of the story to me: not a new truth, but a truth newly seen by me.
First of all, regarding how this would have affected Mary, there is another significant thing to consider. It was the hope and dream (and perhaps prayer?) of every Jewish girl that she would become the mother of the Messiah. One of the things about living in a community with such a large Jewish population and having many Jewish friends and acquaintances over the years, there are certain things I have learned about Jewish tradition. In turn, that knowledge invites me to do further research. One thing I learned in connection with this is that at the Bris (ceremony accompanying the circumcision of a male child when he is 8 days old), a prayer is spoken that this child may indeed be the Messiah.
So while the responsibility that Mary was facing was indeed daunting, while the questions about her reputation and the reaction of Joseph indeed induced anxiety, she also felt the joy and humble gratitude that God had chosen her to be the one to have the honor of giving birth to the long-awaited Messiah. This, along with the encouragement of Gabriel and later Elizabeth, were gifts from God that helped her bear the burden. The revelation by dream to Joseph about how the child was conceived added the final and perhaps most necessary support, for Joseph would now provide for their everyday needs and social covering.
Now as to her initial question to Gabriel, I always go back and contrast it with the initial question by Zachariah. Mary wants to know how it will happen, which may or may not question the power of God. For example, there might be something I am praying for. I wouldn’t pray for it if I didn’t believe it was in God’s power to do it. But, if He chooses to do it, I might still be curious as to how He will do it.
Doubt is much more obvious in Zachariah’s response. He asks how is he to know that this is going to happen. I can imagine one of our talented teens writing the angel’s response for a skit: “Duh! You should know because I just told you! How is it that you, a priest of the temple, don’t recognize an angel sent by God?”
And we see that the angel’s answer to Mary is gentle, but to Zachariah it is somewhat harsh.
But here is the new thing that I saw this morning. There is also a moral component to Mary’s question. It is seen more clearly in the KJV than in more modern versions. In this version, her question reads, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34b). Of course, Mary had male acquaintances. This is the use of the verb “know” the same as Genesis 4:1 (“And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and bare Cain …“).
Mary is betrothed to Joseph and has pledged herself to him. To break any vow under Mosaic Law is serious sin. Since betrothal was more than our engagement, it was the preliminary part of the marriage process, to break that vow was doubly serious. Legally, only the husband could break it by a bill of divorce, and the wife’s parents could insist on him paying a fine for doing so.
Further, even though betrothal was part of the marriage process, it did not convey with it (according to my research) the right to consummate the marriage until the betrothal period was completed and the husband took his wife to his home.
Also, regarding the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 that the Messiah will be born to a virgin, the word translated as virgin is the Hebrew word “almah“. While the KJV translates that as “virgin” in four of the seven times it appears in the Old Testament, the other three times it is translated as “maid” or “damsel”: in other words any young woman who has reached marriageable age, or even one who is newly married. Apparently, it is the latter meaning that most Jews give to this verse.
Therefore Mary would not have expected the angel’s answer, that the child would be born of the Holy Spirit. To her the only answers appear to violate the Law or at least do something unconventional. At best, perhaps the answer she was hoping for, Joseph would have to agree to shorten the betrothal period and move up the marriage. However, to many people, that would still be scandalous, for what other reason to do so besides Mary’s obvious pregnancy in a few months?
The other choices are worse: consummate the marriage during the betrothal period or violate her vow entirely and sleep with someone other than Joseph. With her question, I see Mary doing something that all Christians are called upon to do: test the spirits.
The angel’s answer satisfies her. She need not know a man for this child to be conceived for the child will be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon her. She will be doing nothing contrary to the Law and she will be totally in God’s will and His service. She is also given a sign (her cousin’s pregnancy in old age) that confirms the angel’s message. Hearing this, she immediately makes herself available to the Lord’s will, without reservation, trusting that God will help her through whatever trials she may face. Yes, there are things she may ponder in her heart, but never to the point of disobedience in this matter.
I feel that I understand what Mary faced more than ever before. My experiences during transition, particularly coming out to the people in my life, is a major reason for that increased understanding. If the people in Mary’s community would only understand and believe her story, they would certainly share in her joy. They would honor her, and the fame of that honor would be spread far and wide.
But would they believe her story? Who could she trust to react positively upon her telling them? Somehow, perhaps because of Gabriel including her name in the message, she could tell Elizabeth. She didn’t have to: the reaction of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit revealed the truth to Elizabeth and that Mary was blessed, not dishonored.
Mary’s parents and Joseph would have to be told. They would be able to see for themselves soon enough anyway. But as to the rest of the people she knew, telling any of them was fraught with danger. No matter how many accepted, tell one person who disapproved, should the story reach the ears of one influential leader who would rebuke her, and it would bring shame to her family and ostracism to her and her baby.
I faced transition without close family, so the ostracism was upon me alone from those who rejected me. But like Mary, the path was made straighter and easier once I had confidence that I was walking with the Lord.
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. – 1st John 4:1