‘How will this be?’ It’s not a bad question to ask, is it? You’ve just received some of the most extraordinary – and shocking – news anyone could imagine. Perhaps as you’ve read today’s passage, you found yourself remembering such a time in your own life, when you received news it was hard to take in. And Mary asks a natural follow-up: but what’s striking in her reply is that she doesn’t question the fact of it, only the process.
This is in stark contrast to Zechariah earlier. He asks: ‘How can I be sure?’ (i.e. ‘…that what you’re saying is true?’) Mary doesn’t doubt the message, only the method. And her faith is rewarded with a direct answer from the angel.
The text doesn’t tell us what she felt emotionally after receiving this visitation. The hundreds of portrayals of this scene in art through the ages tend to reflect the values of the society of the time. Mediaeval paintings picture her receiving it demurely, like a good lady of the court. Modern versions tend to emphasise the emotional shock and even pain, reflecting our more therapeutic culture.
In some ways, this is good – it means that we see Mary as fundamentally one of us – a real human being. And yet, we can so easily read into her response what she ‘must’ have felt. Luke cleverly avoids such guessing. Instead he tells us simply that Mary accepted the word, whatever it would cost: ‘I am the Lord’s servant…. may your word to me be fulfilled.’ (v38)
It is a remarkable encounter – and at its heart is a remarkable young woman showing even more remarkable faith. This single scene changes the course of history, and in its turn transforms this anonymous young villager into the most famous woman in history. Lady Di might have been photographed more often, but nobody has been captured more in art and literature over the course of 2,000 years. I do wonder what Mary herself would have made of that.
But let’s close with a glorious affirmation: God’s word never fails (v37). It didn’t fail for Mary – it doesn’t fail for us, too. The bible is full of promises – and ‘all of them are yes in Christ Jesus’ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Because God’s word never fails, we can say ‘yes’ to God’s love, to his salvation, to God’s gift of the Spirit to dwell in our hearts, bringing peace that passes understanding, joy that gives us strength, and hope in times of trial.
Christ comes into the world as the fulfilment of God’s word – today let’s spend a few moments reading any one of our favourite passages and choosing to rejoice in those promises again. ‘For no word from God will ever fail.’