And the angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Growing up on the farm during the lean, hard years of the Great Depression, my parents were sensitive to people in need. In their early marriage they practiced an open hand for people who were hungry, and a spare room for those on the road. Not infrequently my mother would recite to me the admonition of Scripture: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
The very real possibility of entertaining angels without knowing it comes to mind as I reflect on today’s Scripture text. I wonder if this happened as Mary offered a stranger a cup of water, or a place to rest from the noontime heat? I wonder if Gabriel appeared alongside Mary as she hauled firewood, or was fixing the evening meal? I wonder if Mary understood immediately that she stood in the presence of God’s messenger angel, who “stood in the presence of God”? (Luke 1:19)
When Gabriel was sent to the prophet Daniel he showed “the appearance of a man” (Daniel 8:15). Daniel even referred to the divine messenger as “the man Gabriel” (Daniel 9:21). Earlier in this chapter of Luke when Gabriel appeared to the priest Zachariah in the temple, Zachariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him” (Luke 1:12). But Mary is perplexed, not by the angel’s appearance, the text says, but by the angel’s gracious salutation: “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you”.
Gabriel’s first word, “Greetings”, was simply the usual, ordinary Greek word (chaire) for saying “Hello”. If he were speaking in Mary’s Hebrew, he probably said, “Shalom”. But it was the words “favoured one” that so perplexed and puzzled Mary. She was, after all, merely a poor unknown girl from an ordinary little village, but God’s angel calls her “favoured one!” Mary certainly didn’t feel that life had favored her, and is perplexed by the grace being shown to her by God’s angel.
It is significant for our understanding of the story to note that the word translated as “favoured” means “to be the object of grace”. The Greek word used here (kecharitomene), is used only one other time in the New Testament, in Ephesians 1:6. Here the Apostle Paul revels in God reconciling us to Himself as “he freely favoured (kecharitomene) us in the Beloved” (Christ). With only the word “favoured” Mary knows she has been graced by God and embraced by His kindness. Mary is amazed by God’s grace to her, and left wondering, “Why me?”
Perhaps you are more familiar with Jerome’s Latin translation of this text, made in the fourth century, as Jerome translates these words: “Hail, full of grace” (have gratia plena). Yes, Mary is full of grace, but so is every member of God’s family. Mary is the receiver of God’s grace and not the source. The emphasis is not on Mary’s merit, but upon the grace God heaped upon her. She will be the mother of the Messiah! The way we receive grace is not through Mary, but through the precious Son she will bear!
Gabriel assures Mary of God’s presence with her for the difficult, uncertain days ahead: “The Lord is with you”. God Himself will be with Mary for the task He calls her to carry out. The Child she will carry will be called “Immanuel”, God-with-us.
This was a lot for young Mary to hear in just minutes, and she will “ponder” the grace shown to her. Mary is one of the great ponder-ers of the Bible, one of the great thinkers about God’s mystery of grace. Throughout the Christmas story Mary will be pondering on all that happens. “Ponder” is a translation of the Greek word dialogizomai, from which we get our word “dialogue”. Mary carried on an internal dialogue about God’s favor and the things happening to her. She thought about it deeply, turning it over and over within.
When the shepherds of Bethlehem told Mary what the angels told them about her newborn Son, “she treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”. (Luke 2:19) Mary’s pondering will grow more intense as Jesus grows, leaves home, and forms His new family of faith (Matthew 12:46-50).
This is the season for us also to ponder the Christmas story and God’s amazing grace. Like Mary we are asked to let go hasty conclusions about what must or will be, and instead remain open to what God wills to do through us. We also are greatly favored by God, with big things He wants to bring forth through us. May we, like Mary, ponder the mystery.
- Do you think that you might have been visited by an angel “without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)? If so, explain.
- Take a few moments to sit with the mystery of God’s favor shown to us:
“God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his gloriousgrace that he freely favored us in the Beloved”. (Ephesians 1:5-6)
What feelings do the words of Ephesians stir within you? What do you want say to God about this?