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The Virgin Mary, Handmaid of the Lordby Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Fra Angelico (Florentine painter, c. 1400-1455), "The Annunciation" (c. 1437), Fresco, Monastery of San Marco, Florence. Fresco, 230 x 321 cm. Larger image.
"Did you go to the betrothal celebration yesterday?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world. I wept through the whole thing. It was so beautiful."
"It's about time Joseph got himself a wife! A man his age ought to have a flock of children racing in and out of his shop by now."
"But he's so old for her. If he were twenty, maybe, a fourteen-year-old bride would be all right. But thirty?...
"Oh, he'll make her a good husband, mark my words. But I don't know about her. What kind of cook is she?"
Just then they had noticed Mary and the jabbering ceased. She could see them looking at her, though, sizing her up. It's not as if it's the first time they've seen me, Mary thought. I was born in Nazareth.
Bethrothed. Engaged. Mary smiled. Every girl's dream has come true for me. People already look at me as Joseph's wife. How can I stand to wait another whole year for the wedding ceremony? Oh, well, all the other girls wait, too, and they survive. Her thoughts began to picture what the wedding would be like....
Suddenly she heard a commanding voice: "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
She glanced up, and then gasped. A huge man stood over her. Mary instinctively cringed back into the corner. What kind of greeting was that for a peasant girl? What was going on here?
"Do not be afraid, Mary," the man went on, "you have found favor with God."
Favor with God? Who was this man? Mary relaxed a bit. He didn't seem threatening....
The man proceeded. "You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus..."
What? She had just been betrothed a day....
The man didn't pause. "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
The ancient throne of the fabled King David? Certainly she was descended from David, as were thousands of others in Israel. But her son? Her son would be the Messiah prophesied of old? She was stunned. She looked around the room. The man made it sound so immediate, so imminent. Who was this man, speaking so boldly the promises to Israel? She looked up. An angel? Could it be? It seemed as if he was waiting for her to respond.
"Ah... how will this be," she stuttered, "since I am a virgin?" He must know she wasn't married yet!
The angel answered, but more slowly now, as if he had delivered his proclamation, and now was taking time to explain it. "Dear child," he began, "the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."
Her thoughts raced. So it wasn't going to be Joseph's child after all, but one conceived by God's Holy Spirit. Who would ever believe that? What would Joseph say? Divorce me as soon as I started to show, probably! How could he ever understand? And who would ever consider marrying the mother of a ... She couldn't bring herself to even think that bitter word. She could feel her face starting to flush and her ears burn.
And what would I do with such a child? I'm not some princess in a palace raising a king! Just a poor girl in an obscure mountain town. Doesn't he know how they treat children in this town whose mothers get pregnant before they marry?
But the angel was still speaking. "... Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month."
Elizabeth? She was nearly sixty! Mary hadn't seen her for years. How could it be? But it was! Elizabeth? She must be bubbling over joy right now! Six months pregnant? That would give the women in her town something to talk about!
The angel had stopped now. He was just standing there. Friendly, but with the bearing of a royal messenger awaiting an answer for his lord.
What should she say? Part of her wanted to shout, Oh, yes! The mother of Messiah. How exciting! How grand! What an honor...
But inside she felt a trapped, crawling sensation. What would it mean to become pregnant out of wedlock? Divorce, shame, shunning. A son who would never be really accepted by her neighbors. A boy they call cruel names. And she ... she would never be asked to marry. She'd live out her days alone, in her parents home....
Mary weighed the glory and the cost. But finally she knew what she must do. Glory and cost weren't the point at all, she realized. God has chosen me to be His special servant. He wants me to do this special thing for Him. And, even though it costs me everything I hold dear, I will do it! I will say Yes ... for Him!
Mary looked up at the man. And then reached out to the window sill to pull herself up until she was standing her full fourteen-year-old height before the towering angel. Her eyes met his, and she said very quietly. "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."
She thought she could see the great man smile gently for a long moment. Then he turned and was gone. Even as she felt the tears starting to well up within her, Mary stood tall.
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- Songs of Ascent (Ps 120-134)