It’s a story that we’ve heard in many different ways over the years. It’s a story that we’ve heard many different spins on; a story immortalized in children’s books, in songs, in pageants, in TV and movies. And each has their own dramatic twist or their own amounts of creative license.
First, the story itself. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary. He greets her, calls her “favored one,” and says, “Do not be afraid…you will conceive and bear a son, and name him Jesus.” He rattles off a lot of terms and phrases about her son’s significance, in quick succession: Son of the Most High, heir to David’s throne, he’ll be holy, he’ll be called Son of God.
When it comes down to it, Gabriel is incredibly vague about what Mary’s son is going to do; who he’s going to be. She’s certainly familiar with the terms he uses. They show up in Jewish and Roman culture. For instance, when David’s throne is mentioned, she can probably figure out that he’s talking about the arrival of the Messiah pretty easily. More interesting is his use of the term Son of God, a term usually reserved for Caesar.
Still, this is a barebones explanation. You’re a virgin, but you’re pregnant. Your baby will have all these royal designations assigned to him. Your relative, who can’t have kids, is also pregnant. And before we know it, we’re at the end of the story, when Mary says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
All in all, it’s a very brief story. It’s short on details, short on explanations. Gabriel gets in and gets out. And we’re left with Mary’s words: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
And yet, as brief as this story is, we’ve managed to embellish on this story and the rest of the nativity scenes so much. We’ve taken Mary’s words and developed entire biographies. We’ve judged her character; talked about how brave she was or celebrated her submissiveness.
Our carols in particular spiritualize and romanticize these stories a little too much. We tend to read a lot of theology and doctrine back into these passages, and it shows in the songs that we sing this time of year. And sometimes it gets downright gooey.
Take “Away in the Manger.” “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” How do you know? You weren’t there! He’s a baby - I bet you a million dollars he cried. But perhaps because it’s Jesus, there’s no way he could have kept Mary and Joseph up during the night.
Or take “Silent Night.” We get to the third verse and sing, “Radiant beams from thy holy face,” as if Jesus’ face was glow-in-the-dark with God’s goodness or something. It’s as if he was born with a special halo around his head.
These claims of divinity, all the big debates over how exactly God was in Jesus, are read back even into his time as a baby in these songs.
And we get that with this story about Mary, too.
Again, we have her agreement: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
And 2000 years later, we’re treated to performances like this. Someone steps out to the center of the stage or chancel, a look on their face that communicates extreme piety. They look off into the distance: very pensive, starry-eyed, melodramatic….and then they begin to sing: “Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water? Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?”
And on and on it goes, naming a few of the other signs and miracles that appear in the Gospels, reading back into this moment a few big spiritual claims about who Jesus was and how God was a part of him. This song speculates on whether Mary knew what she was getting into, whether she truly knew what her son would go on to do.
Some common wisdom seems to suggest that she somehow did. She hears these words from Gabriel, words that include all these royal and divine titles. And of course she says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.” So sure, she knew – she hears it, and says, “let it be.” And just like that, she becomes an icon of piety and submission.
Mary, did you know? Yes, and how wonderful that she accepted!
No, Mary didn’t know.
When Gabriel first greets Mary, we read that she is perplexed – she wonders why Gabriel calls her “favored one,” why he states that God is with her. She questions how she could possibly be pregnant.
When we read of the shepherds’ visit later on, she ponders the strange story that they bring about angels visiting them in the fields.
When Jesus is 12 and wanders off to the temple by himself, Mary and Joseph both don’t understand why he’d do such a thing, even after he explains that he needed to be in his Father’s house.
Picture her watching her son tortured and hung on a cross. All those claims by Gabriel decades earlier about how he’d take David’s throne and be known as Son of God, and this is what it’s come to. When she’d spoken those words – “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word” -- could she truly have foreseen this? Could she truly know that this is how things would turn out?
She didn’t know – but nevertheless, she says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
The word “servant” here can be translated “slave.” She doesn’t seem to really think she has a choice. God is going to work through her regardless – she accepts that. And she’ll do her best to live into what God is doing even though she doesn’t always understand it.
As such, Mary does become a symbol of piety and submission. But moreso, she becomes a symbol of faith. She becomes a symbol of faith seeking understanding, sensing that God is calling her while pondering its meaning. Willing to be surprised by what this calling produced. Taking it in as it happens and reflecting on its implications.
Mary didn’t know – but she knew enough. She knew enough to be able to say “let it be” and to see where it was all going.
Our journey to Bethlehem is almost complete. Are we willing to see where it’s all going, too?