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What Mary knew

What Mary knewby Leila Ortiz

There are seasons in our lives that prepare us to hear the biblical text anew. It’s as if God happens over and over again so that on a particular day you have the ears to hear and the eyes to see what was always there for you to claim as your own.

This day came for me during my first year of ordained ministry. I was excited, yet overwhelmed by the weight of ministry’s significance; eager, yet afraid I would fail miserably; and confident, yet insecure about everything. During this time, I became ready to encounter the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38) again, as if for the first time.

There is something really special about the sequence of events that happens in this passage. This pattern is not new to us. We’ve read it, heard it, and seen it before in the Old Testament and several times in the New Testament. It’s that moment in the text where the main characters: Moses, Abraham, Sara, Zachariah, Elizabeth and here, Mary, are greeted by the divine and the life they knew is forever altered, never to be the same again. It’s that moment that is initiated with a truth the hearer can barely grasp, let alone understand, because they’re too startled or frightened by the address itself. They hear this great address and claim, “Greetings, favored one.” Favored one. (back to top)

When they finally get ahold of themselves, they question the favor God has found in them. “How can it be? Why are you talking to me? Why are you calling me? I stutter; I’m old; I’m barren; I’m a virgin. Are you sure you’re speaking to the right person?” (Sound familiar?) And then the divine seems to bypass the questions—and the obvious confusion—and speaks truth to the person, yet again. A truth they can barely understand, because they’re still too caught up in the address itself. The truth is that:

“Yes, you stutter and yet you will lead your people out of Egypt; out of the hand of the oppressor.”

“Yes, you are old, and yet I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.”

“Yes, your wife is barren and yet your prayers have been answered. Elizabeth will bear you a son.”

“And yes, my dear, you are a virgin and yet ‘you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High . . . his kingdom will have no end.’” (back to top)

Too much

Time and time again the characters of the biblical text present solid arguments against God’s call and each time God’s counterclaim professes a truth they cannot fully believe with their limited vision of the future or a truth they would rather not claim as their own; the weight of the call’s significance is “too much.”

What is most intriguing and awe-inspiring is that in each and every one of these cases the characters did nothing to be favored by God—they simply were. They were who God had created them to be. They were a lot like you and me, minding their own business, trying to live under the radar or expected to stay under the radar. They did nothing special to be addressed in such a significant way. What’s even more telling is that they did not seek God out. They weren’t searching for favor, and yet God seeks them out. All along they were simultaneously blessed beyond measure and completely aloof to that reality . . . until the divine pursued them and declared who they are and what they are called to do; favored ones, called to become part of salvation history. (back to top)

At this point I have to sit back for a moment. I, like the characters in the text, am fully aware that this is no small task. The question persists, “How can this be?” In Mary’s case, to what extent is this question the called-for response when it comes to this inexplicable thing God is proposing here? Karoline Lewis, New Testament Scholar at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, Minn.) argues that in this case, Mary not only questions God for her sake, but also for God’s own sake as well.

“God, is this really what you want to do? Are you sure? Become human? Are you sure you want to be born to a poor, unwed, virgin peasant girl of first century Palestine? Are you sure that you want to slip into skin, walk among us, and experience the vulnerability of humanity? Are you sure? How can this be?”

The question persists, but the response from God, through the Angel Gabriel, insists on the affirmative: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power born will be holy; he will be the Son of God.” Here, I sit with the text for a moment and see myself as Mary.

I imagine that Mary pauses before these words, stares at Gabriel for a second (or two), and finally says, “I need a minute.” (back to top)

I imagine her pacing to a corner, to find the most silent space in her heart and mind, thinking a million miles a minute, and with a clenched jaw, whispering to herself, “You have got to be kidding me. This is ridiculous. What is this angel doing here? Favored one? What is God thinking? Why is this happening to me? Do I need to get out of here? Should I run now? Can I outrun this angel? Can I outrun this outrageous call? Can I?” (back to top)

Got to be kidding

It’s not that hard to imagine young Mary, right? Of course, this too has been my reaction each time God declares an outrageous call upon my life:

God: “You will become an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Lutheran church.”

Me: “You have got to be kidding me. This is ridiculous! I’m not even Lutheran.”

God: (After I’ve accepted the call and can’t wait to serve as pastor) “You have a gift for teaching. You will pursue a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology and become a teacher to future pastors.”

Me: “What is God thinking?! Why is this happening to me? I’m not a scholar. I’m not an intellectual. I just want to preach and teach in the congregation. Can I just do that?”

God: (After I accept, successfully complete my coursework and exams, and begin teaching future pastors) “You will serve as associate pastor of a white suburban congregation.”

Me: “I need to get out of here. Should I run now? Can I outrun this outrageous call? Can I? I mean, I’m Puerto Rican Latina from Bronx, New York. What do I know about serving a white suburban congregation?!”

To be completely honest, this last response is more of what I’m feeling today given the racial climate we are living in as a country and as a church. I’m not fully convinced that I have the strength and the wisdom to be “part of salvation history” in this setting. I’m not fully convinced that I have what it takes to walk along- side my church and together become complicit in the transformation and restoration of our minds and souls; of our church and world. I’m not fully convinced. (back to top)

Highly favored

Am I the only one that isn’t fully convinced when con- fronted with God’s call upon our lives? Especially when it seems bizarre and completely off the wall. Maybe you know yourself as a historian, an analyst, an engineer, or a lawyer and you have suddenly been called to work with children and youth, to teach in the inner city, to start a non-profit, to become an advocate for the least of these. Or maybe you’ve known yourself as economically poor, and/or poor in mind and spirit; or you know yourself as limited by status, society and self-esteem, and you’ve suddenly been called to be a leader, a prophet, a reformer. “You have got to be kidding me! This is ridiculous! What is God thinking?!”

Here’s the thing, Mary couldn’t outrun God’s plan for her. We could try, but it’s not very likely that we’ll succeed. Just as God found favor with Mary, God has found favor in us. We didn’t do anything for it; we didn’t seek it out; and to borrow from Beyoncé, “we woke up like this”: blessed and highly favored. We have gifts and talents and abilities that often hide behind layers and layers of constructs that deny us a clear view of who we are really in and with: God.

After Mary takes her moment in the corner, after she realizes there is nowhere to run, and no reason to run, known before, and responds, “Here am I.” (back to top)

Like the prophets of old, this young peasant girl musters the courage to look at Gabriel, and respond and commit herself to the God who chooses the unexpected: “OK. Let it be according to your word.”

She entrusts herself to a new self, to a willingness to imagine a future beyond what she knows, to embrace an identity of which she has little knowledge or under- standing, but to which she willingly commits.

So much of how we experience God’s address can be identified with or connected to this pattern—God naming our truth, our utter perplexity, the great debate between us and the God who calls, our pouting, our acceptance, and then a response reminiscent of the prophets of old: “Here I am, Lord. Use me.”

The beauty of Mary’s story is that she could not have known all that she would experience firsthand with God incarnate in her womb, in her arms, as a boy, a healer, a teacher, the messiah, the embodiment of salvation. She could not have anticipated all the wonder and amazement she would experience simply because she said “Yes” to the God who had found favor in her, even while she was unaware. (back to top)

What wonder and amazement could we be inviting into our lives with a faith-filled yes? A yes to the one who has found favor in us, even while we were unaware, even while we are not yet fully convinced?

I pray we can all find the courage previously unknown to us to say, “Here I am, God. Let it be according to your word.”

The Rev. Leila Ortiz is associate pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Gaithersburg, Md., and a doctoral candidate at the Lutheran theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She is especially interested in Latino/a “Luthercostals,” who bring the Pentecostal experience to their now Lutheran theology. Ortiz believes belonging to the Lutheran church “does not erase one’s formation,” but rather “gives a bright new flavor to the tradition already in place.” (back to top)

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