The angel tells a young woman that she will give birth to a very special child. Oh, the difficulties which the announcement could have brought to mind: Mary is favored by God, honored above other women, the child will ascend David's throne, the kingdom ruled by Mary's son will have no end.... Of all these difficulties and more, Mary might have posed her question, but the poignancy of her ever so practical concern rings as true today as it did then. Clearly focusing on her now problematic virginal state, she asks “How can this be?
Perhaps the affairs of state were too complex to try and comprehend. Perhaps the knowledge of her own (and of Joseph's) Davidic genealogical roots produced an everyday attitude of possibility: someday, someone might get back the throne, why not my baby boy? Perhaps the history of the Jews, chosen by God without regard to external right or claim, made all of this believable in a general sort of way. After all, God could and did favor people from time to time. But Mary's sole intimate and practical knowledge of her own body and actions placed this single angelic statement beyond the boundary of her acceptance, and so she made her question plain.
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The immediately previous story recorded in Luke's Gospel is a similar announcement made to Zechariah, the aging husband of Mary's cousin, and Zechariah asks a similar question of the angel. Mary's question is met by an explanation, while Zechariah is rebuked for a lack of faith. Though Luke does not provide an explicit rationale for the difference, it seems apparent that Mary's situation runs contrary to the created order, while that of Zechariah and Elisabeth is merely a return to the way in which patriarchs would produce children into their second century. Perhaps Zechariah could have asked why things were normally no longer thus; Mary must inquire of such a new event, “How can this be?
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Such a query must have been founded on a fair amount of fear because a young woman in Mary's situation would face strict social discipline. Ridiculed by her village; outcast by her family and by Joseph who knew he was not the father of this new and growing life; perhaps even killed for daring to flaunt the sacredness of life and family by becoming an unwed mother. This brings quite another sense to Mary's question: if she were so favored by God, how could she end up unwed and pregnant through no decision of her own?
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The angel's response provided an answer to both levels of Mary's question. The mechanics of the situation were that God himself would impregnate Mary through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Not such a comforting thought, unless one is reading about the story from a safe distance of two millennia. But, at least Mary is told how this is going to happen. As far as God allowing this favored young woman to enter such a difficult situation goes, Mary is instructed to go hide away with Elisabeth and Zechariah. Who else would be more ready to believe Mary's story than an old woman who is herself blessed by pregnancy, and her aging husband who is being rebuked by God for disbelief?
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The young woman who has kept herself within the boundaries of God's standards for purity and sex, is made pregnant as though such boundaries did not exist. The one who pleased God is for this very reason placed by God in a state of great danger, and subjected to the ongoing possibility of ridicule. Yes, provisions are made for Mary to survive and even to accept the events that have been announced, but Luke gives no hint that she can truly understand. Perhaps, as with the broader aspects of Christ's incarnation, the only response available to Mary's “How can this be? is “Only God knows.
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