Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advent Reflection: Mary the "Favored" One

Luke 1:26-30

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!"

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God."

This is one of my favorite paintings of the Annunciation. It was painted by Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1898. Even though I don't think angels are celestial beings, I love the way that the angel's radiance overwhelms the young Mary as she seems to tremble in the corner (the word "angel" is literally just "messenger" in Greek; but Hallmark doesn't want you to know that). The painting is a beautiful display of God's message as light to a darkened world. It conveys the warmth of that message as the sun kisses your face on a cold winter day; and it also displays the frightful surprise of that message. Warmth and surprise. This is what happens when God's grace finds us.

"Greetings, you who are highly favored!" As I mentioned in the previous reflection, we haughty modernists are often inclined to read this as if Mary is somehow deserving of an angel visit. Mary, we think, must be special; she must have done something right to be chosen by God.

But Luke reveals something different in his original Greek writing. Our English translations have butchered the original Greek's emphasis on grace. When we read in verse 30 that Mary "has found favor with God," the Greek reads much differently. The Greek word translated "favor" is actually the word χάριν, which means "grace." Hence, the clause altogether could be read: "You have found the grace of God" or "the grace of God has found you." The same word for "favored" in verse 28 is also a form of charis (grace). The point, then, is Mary's encounter with the messenger of God is an act of God's grace.

As the painting portrays, these are some of the most difficult words to hear. Luke confirms this by telling us that Mary was troubled "at his words." It is not the celestial glow of the messenger that troubles Mary, it is the message of God's grace.

How does it feel to hear the words, "You _____, have found the grace of God"? It is quite an unsettling greeting to receive, is it not? It is what C.S. Lewis often called the "intolerable compliment."

But perhaps it is a greeting that we need to hear during Advent. After all, the news that comes to both Zechariah and Mary is not just news of grace for them alone. It is news of grace to the world.

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