Mary's response to the angel's announcement provides a powerful contrast with Zechariah's pained cynicism. And here we first experience one of Luke's distinctive qualities among the gospels -- while the movement of Jesus was always powerful for women, opening doors of opportunity and status that had long been closed in Judaism and paganism and Greco-Roman culture, Luke especially champions woman as role models, as powerful and faithful followers of Jesus. So Mary who has very little power in Jewish circles of her day becomes an incredible model of trust for us.
Not that Mary is perfect, and the whole business of "venerating" Mary -- making her a fourth member of the Trinity, etc., that has been done through the years especially in Roman Catholic circles is wholly without biblical warrant, but Mary is powerful for us precisely because of her accessible humanity, not because of some exalted quasi-divine status as "redemptrix" or any of that. Mary is a young Jewish girl, learning and growing, full of the insecurities and limitations and hopes that are common to humans in that period between childhood and adulthood. She's probably in her mid-teens when Gabriel finds her, though we don't know for certain.
Make no mistake about this story: the announcement Gabriel brings will cause trouble and discomfort and social upheaval and relational distress to Mary. When God starts to move in our lives, these things follow, because by nature we tend to create stable systems that obey human laws and restrictions, that help us avoid shame, that keep our self-respect intact. And God tends to break those systems. For a deeper reflection on some of that breakage in Mary's life, check out this post I wrote almost a decade ago.
In some English translations Mary's question sounds a lot like Zechariah's, but the two could not be more different in Greek. In contrast to Z's "Says who?" Mary asks a question borne out of genuine desire to understand and to be obedient. There is not a hint of bitterness or rebelliousness or cynicism when she asks her question, just honest confusion that wants to trust. Her question is a good example of what Anselm centuries later would call "faith seeking understanding." Mary, betrothed to Joseph, understands where babies come from. Does this mean they should speed up the wedding? Will there be some other human agency to initiate this pregnancy? No, Gabriel says, this is going to be a unique pregnancy, a Holy Spirit initiated embryo that will grow in her. Such things were common in Greek mythology, though the squabbling, venal Greek gods themselves were a far cry from the Jews' One Holy God. The focus here is not on any kind of sexual encounter between God and Mary -- far from it -- but rather on the incarnation itself, on God becoming human. That is where the focus will remain throughout the story, and the encounter between Mary and Gabriel sets the stage.
Mary's willing, trusting obedience sets a challenge before us. What is my response when God shows up and invites me into something greater, more risky, more disruptive than I have planned? Am I willing, or horrified? Do I welcome God's plans, though they may complicate my life, or do I retreat into the comfort of my own plans? Mary doesn't know up front all that this announcement will cost her, but she is willing and ready to jump into all God has for her. And through her, God is at work for the rest of his creation, for all of us. In a lesser way, this is the invitation of God to each of us today. He comes to us with an announcement that he is ready to become enfleshed in our flesh, to take up residence in our lives, to make himself a reality to the world in and through us. How will we respond? Will we be willing, even eager, to let God's love become an incarnate reality in us, that his love might be visible to the world through us? Mary leads us here.
And yet even for Mary, prudence dictates that she makes the journey to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for a few months, that she get out of town before that baby bump shows up, before the betrothal with Joseph needs to be called off (we see that from Joseph's perspective in Matthew's gospel) -- Mary is not superhuman. She needs the encouragement of her older cousin Elizabeth, whose swelling belly becomes the tangible reminder of God's goodness and faithfulness to fulfill his abundant promises. Elizabeth in her joy and her humility becomes a witness, a mentor, an encouragement for Mary, and their babies together will shake the foundations of the Jewish nation and the world.