The angel Gabriel is a well-known messenger of God who appears in several places in the Bible such as the book of Daniel, where he helps Daniel to understand his visions and the situation of Israel as God acts in human history. In our gospel reading from Luke, Gabriel appears and tells Mary, “Do not be afraid…”. But that isn’t his first appearance in the Gospel. He first appears to Zechariah in the temple in Luke 1:13, where he says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,” before giving him the news that he and Elizabeth will have a child, long after they had given up hope. The way in which Gabriel assures both Zechariah and Mary in the same manner and with the same words links these two characters together. We might think of Elizabeth and Mary as being in similar circumstances with unexpected pregnancies, but Luke often uses the literary convention of pairing male and female figures who share similar stories.
In the Christmas Eve gospel, before announcing the birth of the Messiah, an unnamed angel of the Lord will tell the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” Each time an angel offers these words of assurance they are followed by an awe-inspiring, unusual moment that would normally cause wonder and even fear. Later in the gospel Jesus himself will offer similar words of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the normal patterns of daily life. In these Christmas stories assurance is offered before a message of celebration. That simple phrase, “do not be afraid,” offers comfort and hope to those without hope, as in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth; miracles to those not even looking for one, as in the case of Mary; and disruption to those going about their daily routines, as in the case of the shepherds.
God’s assurance cuts across social status and identity. Zechariah is a member of the priestly class, serving in the temple and overseeing the ritual life of the Jewish people. He has resources, access to power and influence, and is familiar with local and national authorities. In contrast, Mary is a young woman who lacks all of the power, positioning, and prestige that Zechariah enjoys. According to the original Greek, Mary is a young woman at the age of puberty, which was considered to be 12-14 years old, she is a virgin, and is betrothed to be married. Zechariah is an elder man in the community, head of a household, and powerful, while Mary is a young, inexperienced girl, in between households, and vulnerable. The shepherds, who also receive assurances and then an amazing message of good news from angels, are workers who rank very low on the social scale in their society.
Luke insists that from Zechariah, the older man who is part of the establishment, to Mary, the vulnerable young woman with hopes for a secure future, to the shepherds overseeing livestock – all are worthy of the assurance offered by God followed by reason for celebration.
The words of Gabriel, “do not be afraid” are much more than simple courtesy or a greeting. They offer comfort when the status quo is about to be upended and the rhythms of everyday life are about to be disrupted. They offer an invitation for Mary to do the unusual and the bold for the sake of the entire world because “nothing will be impossible with God”. What is perhaps most amazing is that Mary accepted that invitation. Her response to the news that would upend her entire world was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary models the kind of reaction we should have to God’s plans for our lives. She wonders and ponders. She questions and considers. She answers in awe. And Mary’s reply to God’s call understands that fear is characteristic of our response to God when God disrupts our lives. Mary doesn’t view this angel thing as business as usual. She gets that God is not predictable. She doesn’t attempt to control God for her own gain. She doesn’t say, “Well, that’s interesting, but no thanks. I have other plans.” She doesn’t figure out how to maneuver God for her own benefit.
Mary never presumes to speak for God. She would never suppose that she could regulate the will of God. And she certainly would never imagine that she could determine what God might do next. On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary reminds us of what it looks like and what it sounds like when God shows up in your life — unannounced, unexpected, and unplanned. As Luther said, there would be no Christmas as we know it without Mary’s “yes.” Amen.