Mary’s encounter with Gabriel in which he offers the startling news of the baby she will have is recorded in Luke 1:26-38. Verse 34, unsurprisingly, ends with a question from Mary – how, then, can this be?
The context in which this question is originally asked is very much the bombshell of the news of her pregnancy. It can’t be. What’s going on? While Mary clearly accepted what was happening to her, there is also a sense in which she couldn’t believe it – in which she needed to question it. It didn’t make sense. It was going to totally disrupt her life. This was chaos with a capital ‘C’. How, then, can this be?
It is a question that we, too, are quite likely to ask. And not infrequently. And in a variety of contexts. When something dreadful happens, whether personal or global – how can this be? When we have some great opportunity that we never dreamed would come our way – how can this be? When our church life is struggling and the surrounding secular community seems to be entirely indifferent – how can this be? When God seems to be calling us to do something that we consider to be beyond our capability or our resources – how can this be? Challenges, struggles, opportunities, possibilities – how can this be?
Way back in the seventies and eighties, when something called Liberation Theology was at its height, small communities, especially Roman Catholics, and especially in Latin America, used to gather to discuss the Scriptures and to try and discover just what the Bible was saying to them in their context. These were usually very poor communities, often struggling against the difficulties of life and the oppression of more powerful people. The basic idea which emerged was of the freedom which the Gospel offered. Hence, the term ‘Liberation Theology’. A theologian called Ernesto Cardenal, in a book called ‘The Gospel in Solentiname’, recorded some of these conversations from a community in Nicaragua.
There is a conversation about this passage which records the angel Gabriel’s appearing to Mary – and they explore how Mary’s experience has parallels with theirs. “She must have been scared. She was very humble, a poor little girl, and she’s frightened when they tell her she’s going to be so important.” So says one of the group. Another responds: “But there’s no reason to be afraid of that. We also could be afraid of being important, because we have to have an important mission too – perhaps being leaders, some of us …. to liberate others, to carry out a mission in the community and [perhaps] even [beyond] … we don’t know.” They go on to comment how “Mary joins the ranks of the subversives, just by receiving that message”. This, in turn, leads to a careful thinking about what this means for them. “It seems to me that here we should admire above all her obedience. And so we should be ready to obey too. This obedience is revolutionary, because it’s obedience to love. Obedience to love is very revolutionary, because it commands us to disobey everything else.”
The question ‘how can this be?’ reminds us that God engages with us. It reminds us that things happen to us that we don’t fully understand, can’t fully explain. The prophet Jeremiah tells us, Jeremiah 1:4/5 – The Lord said to me, ‘I chose you before I gave you life, and before you were born I selected you to be a prophet to the nations’. Jeremiah’s experience and Gabriel’s words serve as a reminder of God’s bigger plan. We like to know everything, but that is not how it is. Sometimes we need to ask: how can this be?