So St Luke sits down sometime around the year 80 AD, which is to say a good half a century after the death of Jesus, and he begins to write his Gospel. In the back of his mind is the need to explain how this obscure rabbi who preaches a radical message of self-giving love and divine forgiveness, who is executed by the Romans for insurrection but whose followers are transformed by the wildly improbable but firmly held conviction that he continues to appear to them more alive than ever - living through a later age of oppression and disappointment Luke needs to explain to the remnant who still follow the way of Jesus how and why this man - not just his teachings but his life, death and resurrection - are a message of hope.
And he begins with a conversation between a young girl and an angel. I don’t think he made this up. Luke would have had his sources, the legends and stories that over three or more generations had fired the imaginations and sustained the wonder of his Christian community. But he also had a particular narrative purpose, and it is Luke who places in Jesus’ mouth the words of the prophet Isaiah in his very first sermon, in his home town of Nazareth: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me , because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the lord’s favour’. Jesus quotes these verses from Isaiah 61 and then he sits down and says, ‘today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Lk 4.18-19, 21). In other words, ‘watch this space - this is what I’m about’. All the Gospels show this side of Jesus, but Luke emphasises it - Luke is interested in the Jesus who is good news for the poor, good news for peasants living in conditions of dire poverty, good news for women who in the ancient world were almost totally powerless, good news for the sick and the outcast. It’s also, incidentally, Luke who most notices the natural world, the world of animals and plants and soil and seasons which are the context for our lives and which are part of God’s concern. Luke’s Jesus proclaims God’s interest in the small and powerless, and God’s priority for the weak and vulnerable, and he wastes no time in setting the stage.
In a conversation between a young peasant girl and an angel. This is a frail and luminous story, and if we lean on it too hard with our 21st century world-weary and cynical hard-headedness we can do it damage. It comes to us from an age that knows nothing of chromosomes and gametes, but which does know that offspring resemble their parents and if we want to say that who Jesus most resembles and most reveals is God, then God’s spirit is in Jesus from the very beginning and even his birth must reveal to us God’s miraculous purposes. Undiluted divinity will flow through this child’s veins. The age of the New Testament is pre-scientific but not not naïve or ignorant - yes, they knew where children came from! And yes, as 21st century Christians we recognise the obvious mythological elements of the birth stories of Jesus. We can also imagine how believable we ourselves would find Mary’s story of a divinely initiated pregnancy and a conversation with an angel if we heard it on the lips of a modern teenager on Oprah Winfrey.
But it’s a story that invites us - or even forces us - to suspend our disbelief because we know that if we do not, then its truth will slip from our grasp. If we want the story of the angel to speak to us then we need to receive it gently and allow it to live in us.
One thing the angel’s annunciation to Mary does not do is disparage human sexuality, as though virginity is somehow more pure than a life fully engaged in sexual intimacy. There are angels around in moments of ecstasy and the divine Spirit is regularly linked in biblical tradition to conception and birth. Even the language used here contains echoes of such stories, especially later in the Magnificat which recalls Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam 2:1-10). The caring lover or mother can be as immaculate as any virgin.
The second thing to notice is that Luke carefully weaves his story of intimacy between God and creation on the loom of Israel’s hopes for liberation from Roman oppression. In Isaiah chapter seven, written at another time of national crisis when the southern kingdom was threatened by Assyria, the prophet writes, ‘‘A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us’. Isaiah was offering the people a sign of deliverance - ‘look, in the time it takes for a young woman to conceive and bear a child your enemies will vanish like the mist’. Both the young woman - almah in Hebrew or in Greek parthenos which has the additional connotation of virginity - and the child are the sign that God is in the business of life and liberation. But like the time of Isaiah, the time in which Luke tells the story of Jesus is also one of God’s faithful people crying out for liberation from oppression - in terms that we perhaps over-spiritualise and over-generalise but in fact are frankly political and nationalistic. But Jesus’ vision of the kingdom in Luke’s Gospel especially includes the good news of liberation for people who have lived under the yolk of foreign oppression. We do the story and the Gospel a disservice if we make it too ‘nice’.
We also do it a disservice if we romanticise the young woman who holds conversation with the angel. The story then becomes just a comforting sentimental self-indulgence instead of what it really is - an invitation and a challenge. The fact is that Mary is a nobody from a rural backwater, a peasant child on the edge of womanhood - which is to say, utterly powerless. Looking into her eyes we see the innocence and vulnerability of a twelve year old girl from the two-thirds world caught in a web of poverty and deprivation, momentarily glimpsed, perhaps, on the nightly TV news. We may think of village girls forced into urban prostitution, to survive maybe 10 – 15 years with AIDS rather than die of starvation at home. Or any one of the half a million teenage girls living in poverty in a refugee camp in South Sudan right now. The point, I think, is two-fold. In Mary we see epitomised God’s priority for the poor and God’s preference for transforming the world through people the world dismisses as small, or unimportant, or not respectable. And that if we want to sign up to God’s agenda then we ourselves need to have a heart and a mind that can enter into solidarity with those who are marginalised in our world.
And the second point is this. We are right to see in Mary a model of trust and availability to God’s purposes, but she is also a good precedent for healthy scepticism. She is a realist - when the angel explains the plan the first thing she says - like teenagers everywhere - is ‘yeah, right!’ She doesn’t see how it is possible but chooses to trust God and says "may it be done to me according your word." But she isn’t passive, she is an active partner in what comes next. She understands that what the angel is offering is the opportunity to partner with God in the ongoing work of creation. God chooses to come into the world through Mary. God chooses to need her help. Mary, for her part chooses to allow God to use her, to be God’s vessel of the Incarnation. This is what we are called to do as well. And this is the second point - the Incarnation isn’t just a one-off event that took place 2000 years ago. It is an ongoing mystery that we are called to participate in as Christians. We are called - in our own time and in our own corner of the world - to incarnate - which means to be the flesh and blood for - the promises of God.
So the question for today, as we approach the celebration of the Incarnation, is how we, right now, are able to incarnate Christ in our world in whatever we are doing? How are we, like Mary, called to co-create with God and bring Christ to the world and live out the Incarnation? Part of the answer, of course, is that the initiative and the power for us to live God’s promises comes from God. Our part is to say ‘yes’ - to commit ourselves to being available and to listening, to let the Holy Spirit come upon us and the power of the Most High overshadow us and empower us to be Christ’s body here on earth.