In our Lutheran calendar of lesser festivals, we remember Mary, Mother of Our Lord, on August 15.
The gospels don’t tell us a lot about Mary’s personality or what she felt about the unexpected things that happened in her life. Luke comes close a couple of times, especially when he writes that she was “much perplexed” when the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared, right there in her house, right there in dusty little Nazareth, and greeted her so politely (Luke 1:29, NRSV). Other translations say she was troubled, confused, bewildered, even startled (I bet!). And then Luke goes on to say that she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Now that’s interesting. Contrast Mary’s perplexity and pondering with her relative Zechariah’s response when Gabriel had appeared to him just a few months before: Even before the angel said a word, Zechariah was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him (1:12).
When the angel did speak to Zechariah, his first words were, “Do not be afraid” (1:13). That’s what angels almost always do when they meet human beings: they start with, “Don’t be afraid.”
But not this time, not with Mary. Here, the first thing out of Gabriel’s mouth is that very polite greeting: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:28). Only after that, while she’s pondering, does he go on to say, “Do not be afraid.”
Fear is the mind-killer
Who says she’s afraid? Startled, yes; but afraid? No, that was old Zechariah who was afraid. This very young woman (some old traditions suggest that she was only about 12) from this dusty little town isn’t especially afraid of this archangel who stands in the presence of God (see Luke 1:19). She’s thinking about what’s going on here, pondering what it all means.
And that’s what’s so interesting.
“Fear is the mind-killer,” wrote a science fiction author, and he’s onto something. We’ve all felt that flash of fear at one time or another, that flash of adrenaline that screams at us to fight, flee, or freeze, right now.
Experts say that comes from a brain structure called the amygdala, which is a primitive, lizard-brain thing. The amygdala is just doing what it’s made to do when it revs up that flash of fear. Why? Well, when there’s a saber-tooth tiger on our tail, we don’t have time to think, we need to run away right now. So, the lizard brain shifts resources to our muscles, our running apparatus, and away from the neocortex, the thinking part of our brain. We don’t think; we just run.
Mary pondered, paid attention, compared what she heard with the facts she knew, and asked for answers before she said yes.
We really can’t think about it, because the fear response is directing resources away from our thinking brain. That’s why we say, “I was scared out of my wits!” And that’s why the writer said, “Fear is the mind-killer.”
We don’t have very many saber-tooth tigers trying to catch us for lunch these days (thank God), so we don’t need that lizard-brain reflex quite so much anymore. But it’s still there. And there are other things that can nudge it into action.
Stop to think
Do you ever come away from watching the nightly news feeling scared and helpless, like a tiger’s planned lunch? Of course we do. (The advertisers who keep the nightly news on the air want our attention, and they know that the best way to keep our attention is to stir up our fear and anger.)
But we don’t have to give in to that fear. Stopping to think before we speak or act is always the wisest course of action.
And that’s what Mary did when the angel suddenly showed up and spoke to her. Startled, she might have been, but she stopped to think. She paid attention. She took in what the angel said, compared it with the facts she knew, and asked a question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34). And it was only after her question was answered to her satisfaction–with another fact she knew, that Elizabeth was pregnant–that Mary agreed to what the angel had proposed: “Let it be with me according to your word” (1:38).
Over the centuries, Christians have remembered Mary for her gentleness, her faith, and on and on. On this day when we remember Mary, we modern Christian women can remember Mary especially for her response to Gabriel’s startling visit: She didn’t panic. She pondered, paid attention, compared what she heard with the facts she knew, and asked for answers before she said yes.
Mary’s example of calm thoughtfulness is one we can follow. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Audrey Novak Riley serves Women of the ELCA on the churchwide staff.
P.S. The University of Minnesota has a wonderful free online resource about facing fear and anxiety.