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.
Patiently telling someone who is really upset and agitated to "calm down," or a truly depressed person to "cheer up," is not only insensitive, it is most likely to elicit exactly the opposite response. I think the same thing is true of telling someone not to be afraid. For Gabriel to appear unexpectedly with the first words out of "his" mouth "do not be afraid," or the angel pronouncing to shepherds in the fields, "fear not," most likely literally put the fear of God into them. For Mary, it must have essentially been, "now don’t get nervous, but God is going to change your entire life for you in the most unbelievable way possible!" Yeah, why would she be nervous or afraid?
In my experience, we tend in the church to do a great disservice to Mary. Growing up I had Catholic friends who became deeply offended if it was suggested that Mary might have been an ordinary First Century teenager who acted anything at all like a human being. The vast majority of early depictions of her show a clean and pristine, young but mature looking white woman in fine, clean (blue) garments with a shining halo around her head, doting beatifically on an equally clean, equally white, equally glowing baby boy. There is no evidence of fear or anxiety on her lovely countenance; simply bliss, calm, tender love. Now, this is a tremendous image, but it is iconic, not realistic.
With very little research and effort, a very different picture of a more realistic Mary emerges. Imagine a small, undernourished female, dark of features and complexion, not clean of face, hands, or hair, missing teeth, and likely pock-marked and weathered – all of this true for young women by the time they reached thirteen or fourteen years of age. She was likely uneducated and illiterate, steeped in superstitious and simplistic thought. This image inspires and attracts me in a completely different way from my younger friend’s prayer card pictures. This is who God chose! This is the mother of the Messiah! A poor, simply, peasant girl; a low rung on the ladder of the outcast class. And pregnant before actual marriage by someone not her betrothed. Do not be afraid? How about terrified?
I invite you to read Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46b-55, but as you do, envision the second image of Mary I painted for you above. See how this image changes the meaning of the words, making them even more powerful and meaningful. Because our Advent and Christmas story is so amazing and miraculous, we sometimes seek to sanitize it and make it perfect, but the real Christmas story – poor young couples, stables, shepherds, journeys – is down and dirty, making it even greater than our cleaned-up versions. It can also help us look at the people around us – the poor, the less-educated, the hungry, and homeless – with greater compassion and kindness, the way God sees them as vessels for divine grace and love.
Prayer: Gracious God, we ask forgiveness for the many times and ways we miss the point you are trying to make. We too often reshape the messages and stories you send our way to fit our own needs and comforts, not fully understanding your will. When we make it simpler than it ought to be, forgive us. When we make it harder than it needs to be, forgive us. And when we get it right – remembering that love and kindness and faith and hope and mercy and justice are the essential lessons – confirm it in our hearts. We ask this humbly in the name and Spirit of the coming Christ child, Jesus. Amen.
May this devotion provide you with a moment of faithful reflection and care. You are involved in ministries of justice and witness, in ministries of standing up and standing with people working to create better systems and communities, in ministries of learning and searching and researching to become more aware and awakened, more technologically savvy and proficient, more virtually and personally present in your churches and communities and world. Each of us who serve as members of your Wisconsin Cabinet write these devotions in grateful prayer for you – for sustenance and buoyancy, for strength and courage, for safety and just actions, and for faith and love to be full and fulfilled in your daily lives. God’s grace and blessings, God’s challenge and healthy discomfort, God’s Spirit and energy be with you, in the hope Christ offers us all.