It's really crazy, isn't it? Here we are listening to the same story, again. Who doesn't know how it is going to come out? The plot doesn't change from year to year. Every shepherd is in place; the star is shining on cue. No matter how predictable, we do keep listening. We lean forward with anticipation, for somehow, despite the too familiar details, we believe that this story is about us. What if God does invade a world of "business as usual," do what you have to do to survive? What if the angel's message to Mary (the Lord is with you) is God's message to us?
If we want to find ourselves in this ancient but life giving tale, we need to look at the one who received this word of assurance: Mary. For in her we see the one Karl Barth called, "the figure that is raised above all the figures of Advent." In John, we may see our need to prepare the way of the Lord, but in Mary we see the even greater need to prepare Him room. In her, we see the response of faith.
There is a problem of long-standing that faces us as we seek to focus on Mary, who is called blessed. For Mary has been either highly venerated or, reacting against that veneration, she has been ignored. In either case, a beautifully human witness to the coming of God in Christ has been missed. For if you want to render someone ineffective and powerless, place her (or him) on a pedestal. Long before I had heard anything of such truth, I observed some strange things through the eyes of childhood and the window of a '48 Plymouth.
Every time we journeyed to see my grandparents, we passed an A & P store in a town that was largely Catholic. In the very top of that wood frame store, there was a stone niche with a statue of Mary carved out of it. She seemed so silent, pure and flawless. Every Sunday on the way home from church, I would see a string of small signs shaped like the then familiar Burma Shave signs. Instead of the punch line on the last sign it said something like, "Mary, pray for us now and in the hour of our death." When I asked about such things, I was told simply, "Catholic superstition."
But for all our Protestant rejection of such notions, we are indebted to the Roman Catholic Church for keeping alive the singular place of Mary in the "gospel," the good story. For she has much to say to us now as we are poised between belief and unbelief.
Mary gives us a picture of faith that is a response to God's grace. As P. T. Forsyth reminds us, "Faith is not something we possess, but something that possesses us." Faith is an obedient response to God showing Himself in our lives. In Jesus Christ, we have experienced God as loving and giving; that is grace. Grace is God's love and care in action. This love is not superficial and sentimental. Mary learns that this is tough love that shows itself in a cry of pure pain in a birth and later the jagged pain of a piercing loss. "You shall call his name Jesus."
It is a virgin birth, just as faith is always a virgin birth. Trusting in God to deliver you from ultimate despair, discouragement and defeat does not come from the faith of your parents, or from a friend. They may prepare the way for faith but they cannot create faith in us. Faith comes only as we discover for ourselves that we have been favored, chosen, and blessed. We begin haltingly, trusting in One who loved, created, accepted us before the foundation of the world. That is an aspect of the doctrine of the virgin birth that I have missed before.