How Can This Be?
“How can this be?” This is Mary’s response to the news the angel shares with her. “How can this be?”
And what the angel tells her is difficult to believe. I mean – can you believe it? Do you believe it? Do you live your life in a way which bears witness to the news shared by the angel?
What the angel tells Mary forever changes the way mere mortals understand themselves and their role in the cosmos.
The angel tells Mary that God – GOD – is leaving behind the heavens and taking on the very flesh and blood which mortals too often seek to abandon.
The angel tells Mary that God – GOD – is entangling Himself with the very creatures whom He created and entrusting these creatures to carry to term His own life.
What the angel tells Mary forever changes the way we understand ourselves and our role in the cosmos.
How can this be?
Some of you have, no doubt, moved on to the second phrase uttered by Mary in verse 34. Ah, but here is where your drive for logical explanations stands in the way of the reception of spiritual insight. Tradition reminds us that Mary is a virgin, and too often (yes – I did say TOO OFTEN) we fixate on this and thus fail to comprehend the true magnitude of what the angel tells Mary.
Put this in perspective; and consider the magnitude of each. A virgin giving birth – and – God turning to a human in order to accomplish His will. Consider these two, and evaluate the magnitude of each.
I am as aware of biology as any of you. But my working knowledge of biology tends to diminish the magnitude of a biological creature giving birth without the aid of another. I know that I trust news sources that are not trusted by some of you. Is the BBC on that list? The BBC has an article – on line – titled “Spectacular real virgin births.” Read it if you wish.
Maybe I am more aware that some of you, of the magnitude of the other statement I have asked you to ponder. A virgin giving birth is one thing; but God entrusting his fate to a human carrier is the truly astounding storyline of the angel’s announcement.
Think of all the places that this plan of God’s could have gone wrong. In the account of the story told by Matthew, Joseph considers putting Mary away, quietly. “Quietly”!!!! There was no way to quietly put away a young woman who was found to be with child outside of wedlock. Maybe some of you have lived in big cities where such a thing could happen, but not in a small village of a couple hundred or possibly a thousand. Think of how well things are kept “quiet” in this little town.
The best Joseph could do was to return Mary to the home of her father where, if folks didn’t get all riled up, she could bear her child and live her life under the protection of her daddy. Under her daddy’s protection, till he died. Then. Who knows. What Joseph was willing to do was to ignore Mary’s pregnancy and not expose her to the appropriate recourse of the day – death by stoning.
How Joseph responds to the news shared by the angel is only one step in the process. And see how terribly wrong it could have gone? What about crib death? Or infant malnutrition? Or measles, whooping cough, or a thousand other diseases to which Mary and Joseph might unknowingly allow this child to be exposed?
Am I beginning to impress upon you the magnitude of the news the angel shares with Mary? Mary, a fragile, simple, humble, impoverished human being is given the opportunity (she might have felt it was the responsibility) of carrying into the world the very presence and being of God.
Let me say that again: Mary, an unknown, nobody from the far reaches of the civilized world is being pulled into partnership with God to forever change and transform the way the world will see itself – as well as the way the world will perceive of God.
Forget the virgin birth. This other part of the announcement is what is amazing.
Have I swayed you? Are you beginning to see this perspective? Cause I’ve got one more thing to say – and it really is the point I want to make out of all of this.
Placing the emphasis on a virgin birth allows us to escape the impact of the angel’s announcement. “How can this be? For I am a virgin.” Distracts us and allows us to hear the announcement as one meant for Mary and Mary alone. Placing the emphasis on a virgin birth allows us to exit ourselves from the story and fail to comprehend the way in which God is entrusting us with carrying to term his purpose and his gift to the world.
“How can this be?” is our reaction practically any time it dawns on us that God’s work is dependent on our hands.
“How can this be?” is our attempt to dismiss or diminish the significance of how we are called to live our lives in the aftermath of the angel’s announcement.
“How can this be?” that God would turn to us and depend upon us to ward off the dangers and perils which threaten His life?
“How can this be?”
The Christmas story forever changes the way we see God and our role in the world. The angels serve to tell us what God intends and to announce what God hopes from us. But the angels were not sent, into this world of pain, to do in Jesus’ name, the do the work that was left for you and me to do.
I do not want to suggest that virgin births happen every day. They are rare enough that even the BBC has to do searching for spectacular occurrences. Unfortunately, another aspect of the angel’s words do not happen every day, either. We do not respond like Mary.
The God which Christianity seeks to reveal has made it clear, on a clear night in Bethlehem. If the world is going to change, it will change because of those whom God has visited and asked to bear His word. If God’s will is to be done, it will need to be done by the Mary and Joseph’s who are shown how to be kind and caring and humble and serving. And then live lives consistent with what has been revealed to them.
How can this be?
I don’t know.
I only know that it is.