Imagine: a young teenage Jewish girl in her room at night, perhaps pondering scripture or preparing for the next day, when an angel appears to her and announces that he is Gabriel. It is a name she surely knows–a special messenger from the presence of God. She also knows that it is this same Gabriel who appeared to her kinsman Zacharias some months previously to bring him and his wife the glad tidings that they would have a son who, as the angel promised, “would be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb.”

This miraculous event would certainly have been known in the family circle, especially when the belly of the previously barren Elizabeth began to swell. Even so, Gabriel’s appearance to the young maiden startles her, especially when he says, “Greetings, most favored one! The Lord is with you.”* Taken back, she does not comprehend the meaning of these words. Seeing the startled look on her face, the angel immediately comforts her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you.” What he says next leaves her totally perplexed: “You shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus. He will be great; he will bear the title Son of the Most High.'”[1]

Mary knows of the messiah promised in scripture by heart and here is God’s envoy telling her that of all the girls and women in Israel, she has been chosen to be the vessel of his coming. Her next question is as natural as would be her understanding of the process of conception: “How can this be? I am still a virgin.” Gabriel’s response does not quell her anxiety: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore, that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Still not fully comprehending, she nevertheless responds with simple faith and majesty, “I am the Lord’s servant; as you have spoken, so let it be.”

Very shortly, the divine seed planted in her womb begins causing dramatic changes in her young body, changes that are surely mysterious to her. Knowing that rumors will soon begin circulating in Nazareth, she has an urgent need to talk to someone-to another woman. The one person she knows she can talk with, who hopefully can answer her questions, is her cousin Elizabeth, who herself has had a miraculous conception.

Elizabeth lives some distance from Nazareth in the hill country and so Mary sets out alone to see her, a long and dangerous journey for a single young woman in those days. When Elizabeth sees Mary coming, she is filled with the Holy Ghost and cries out, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Mary’s response, eloquent and majestic and the longest expression by a woman in the New Testament, begins with these exultant words: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my soul hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” It is interesting that she switches from the present to the past tense in this sentence, which could be rephrased, “My soul now magnifies the Father because my soul has been rejoicing in his son whom I am nurturing in my womb.”

Mary’s “Magnificat” (from the Latin, magnificare, to magnify) as it is called, is both praise and prophesy. Like the traditional praise, it is personal: “He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.” But then she prophesies, speaking of things that have characterized her son’s role in Israel under the Old Covenant and that will characterize it under the New Covenant he will one day usher in: mercy, strength, and justice that will “scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” “put down the mighty from their seats,” “exalt them of low degree”; “fill the hungry with good things”; and send the rich “empty away.” In other words, Mary seems to see in vision her Son’s kingdom come.

We can imagine that it is from his mother that Jesus first learns to be merciful, strong and just and, perhaps especially, how to care for the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden and the dispossessed-the kind of tender-heartedness we tend to associate more with women than with men. It is easy to imagine that at some point, when he is old enough to begin understanding who he really is, she tells him about Gabriel’s visit and of the great and holy things that transformed her from a maiden to a mother and how in bearing him she has indeed come to feel blessed above all of the daughters of Eve.

Barry Taylor speaks of Mary as a prophet, “a prophet of the highest order. . . She becomes the threshold [of history], that moment when time stands still,…. when the heavens shift and shake. . . She becomes the threshold between what God has done in the past and the radically new day God promises to do in and through her . . . for the world.”[2]

Mary is the most venerated woman in history, and deservedly so. The world’s greatest artists, writers and musicians have tried to capture her beauty, her intelligence, and her devotion, but nothing tells us who she is more than the words she speaks to Gabriel and to Elizabeth. She represents that seminal moment when heaven and earth came together to produce the greatest gift the world has ever known.

In his poem, “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe,” Gerard Manly Hopkins says in giving birth to Jesus, Mary “let all God’s glory through.” It is that gift, that glory that makes Christmas the season of greatest joy. Rejoice!

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I use the text of the New English Bible here deliberately since the language helps us hear these holy words with fresh ears. Elsewhere I switch back to the King James Version.

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[1]

[2] “Mary the Apocalypse,” sermon delivered at All Saint’s Episcopal Church,” 23 December 2012. Typescript in my possession.