In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
(Luke 1: 26-29 NRSV)
The story of the birth of Jesus unfolds in layers: jumping forward to the future, backtracking into prophetic history, generally creating confusion and consternation. Perhaps the most confused person in the Bible is Mary: a virgin betrothed to Joseph, who finds herself being visited by the angel Gabriel.
Now an angel showing up suddenly is disconcerting, to put it mildly! We think of angels as beautiful creatures sporting halos, but almost invariably, angels have to begin their conversations with humans by saying, “Fear not!”
Is it their size, their radiance, their voices, their faces? The suddenness of their appearance? The brush of wings?
Luke says Mary was “perplexed.” (Apparently, Luke was given to understatement!) Angels were disconcerting enough, but a woman in that culture who was found to be with child before marriage was subject to death by stoning. “Perplexed” doesn’t begin to describe Mary’s fear, horror and confusion!
Imagine having to tell your parents, let alone your betrothed, “Oh, by the way, even though I’m a virgin, I am going to have a baby, and I know this because an angel told me so.”
Fortunately, God provided a haven for Mary: her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, who lived in a Judean town in the hill country.
Another miracle: Elizabeth, who had been barren all her life, was now pregnant!