And [the angel Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. —Luke 1:28-29
In this story we meet Mary, the mother of Jesus, for the first time in Luke's Gospel, and we are surprised to see much of ourselves in her. Mary is often put on a pedestal, someone thought to be so holy and pure as to be out of reach to us mortals. But though she is a saint—as we are—she is also like us, someone who could become "greatly troubled."
She's so "greatly troubled" here that the angel asks her to sit down and catch her breath. "Fear not," he says in an attempt to comfort here. "You really are favored by God!" As if that would help: it's actually Gabriel's message of favor—not the presence of an angel!—that concerns her and makes her wonder "what sort of greeting this might be."
Then again, it's not every day that one gets a cold call from a divine messenger. But we do get them from time to time, don't we? Those moments in a sermon or conversation, during a quiet walk in the woods or in prayer, when Someone taps us on the shoulder and says, "Hey you. Yeah you—favored one!" It scares the heebie jeebies out of us. "Me? Favored? By God? You must have mistaken me for someone holy."
But no matter how many times—or in what form—we hear, "Hey, you. Yeah you—favored one!" we have the hardest time believing we're the ones being addressed. For some, it's because their relationship with God is grounded in fear—it's more about obedience to a sovereign, doing what's right, or signing up for afterlife insurance. For others, it's because faith is overshadowed by disappointment—something horrible has happened to them or their loved one, and they find it hard to trust God. For still others, it's because the message of unconditional love is just too good to be true: surely God demands something in return! It's hard to believe we're favored ones when we think along these lines.
So, when we hear that still, small voice whisper, "Hey, you. Yeah, you—favored one!" we too are often greatly troubled. Some simply can't imagine that the Creator of heaven and earth can possibly have time for their parochial concerns. Some strike back, "If I'm so favored, why did you allow that to happen to me?" Still others think, "This can't mean me, the poser disciple, whose prayer life is in shambles and for whom self-control is but a wistful dream."
And yet there it is, in all its stark wonder, in all its simplicity, it all its miraculousness, God's word to Mary, God's word to us: "Hey you. Yeah you—favored one!"
Biblical commentators and novelists have fun speculating why Mary was greeted like this. She is often pictured as a devout young woman, pure in heart, whose righteousness won her the honor of bearing Jesus. But in fact, the Bible shows no interest whatsoever in Mary's life prior to this moment (and relatively little afterward). This announcement to Mary comes completely out of the blue, as if it were an act of sheer grace.
Indeed, an act of grace to Mary and to us. Before we could decide for or against God, before we could show him how religious we are, before we could ask forgiveness for our first sin, before we were the apple of our parents' eyes, before the foundation of the world, God favored us. Not because he knew we would blossom into greatness. Not because he saw that we would become good Christians someday. Not even because we were humble enough to know we are not good Christians (which is really a kind of stealth pride!). No, we were favored when God knew well enough that we would fail to live up to our potential, that most days we would be miserable little disciples. Yes, in spite of the fact that we would be sad, fearful, doubting, anxious, and sinful people, he favored us.
He has shown his favor in many ways, more than the number of hairs on our head, but every sign of his favor is grounded in the one sign: when he became one of us, one with us. He did so that we might become not only like him, but—and here's the sheer grace of it all—one with him. Jesus is God with us that we might be men and women with him, sinful creatures drawn mysteriously into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. Is there any greater favor than to share intimately in the life of God himself?
The words of Mary echo in our hearts, "How can this be?"
Like many of our questions, this one too is ignored by God. Instead, he just keeps showing up in Jesus Christ, saying, "Hey you. Yeah you—favored one!"
After a while, his gracious greeting just wears us down. Just when we instinctively start to reply, "Me? Favored? By God?" the Holy Spirit reminds us of the gospel, and we wave the white flag and like Mary reply: "Lord, let it be to me according to your word."
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).
More articles on Advent and Christmas are available in our special section.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
The Great Incompatibility | Jesus is interested in the oddest things. (Dec. 16, 2010)
Evangelizing Ourselves | The gospel is for Christians too. (Dec. 2, 2010)
Blessed Are the Unoffended | How can Christians communicate what we believe without being denigrating or inflammatory? (November 18, 2010)