“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)
Mary was perplexed at the angel’s greeting. Personally, I would have been perplexed to find myself speaking with an angel.
Of course, it’s possible, the angel appeared in human guise. That’s not outside the realm of possibility. A popular television show, “Touched by an Angel,” chose that approach, and God does have a tendency to use themes in his creation. Horse, donkey, zebra — different, but with evident commonalities. Lion, tiger, domestic house cat — different, but with similar characteristics. It’s entirely possible that when angels make their presence known, they look enough like us to be indistinguishable from us.
If that were the case, the greeting would have been perplexing. If, during an ordinary day, when I was about my ordinary business, a stranger greeted me by saying, “The Lord is with you,” I would feel a shimmer of disconnect. I hear a similar phrase when I attend Mass — “The Lord be with you” — but that’s part of the liturgy, and doesn’t set me apart from others who worship. To hear it not as part of a liturgical prayer, but as a statement of fact would be disconcerting.
The Lord is with me? Why? Why me and how do you know? Yet, during this Christmas season, isn’t that the message angels bring each of us? The Lord is with you.
We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born; his birth wasn’t registered at the local courthouse with parents identified and attending physician noted. We celebrate shortly after the winter solstice because, for us, he is the light which shines in the darkness, a light not overcome by that darkness (Cf. John 1:5). It makes sense that we would name clearly what ancients only intuited and celebrated by other names.
However, none of us can fully grasp the mystery of God with us in a newborn child. We can’t even grasp the mystery of wonder we feel when our children are born, when we hold our grandchildren for the first time, when we see a stranger’s child in the grocery store. Something within us — spontaneously, without intent or choice — honors the miracle of that child’s life and inherent dignity. We are drawn to the hope each child signifies; God is not done with us.
Jesus — who would die for us and rise again to show us death is not the end — entered this world in exactly the same way, as a newborn child. We are told there was no room at the inn, but I suspect that was a euphemism rather than the literal truth. Joseph would have had relatives in Bethlehem, but his betrothed — a very pregnant Mary, who would undoubtedly have been condemned by gossip as an adulteress, even if Joseph did not put her aside — would not have been welcome in any “decent” home.
The innkeeper had probably been apprised of the situation and discouraged from taking them in. I wonder if it was the innkeeper who had a heart, or if it was his wife. I wonder which of them said, “Maybe we can’t give them shelter inside, but we can’t turn them away, either. It just isn’t right, especially with that young woman being so close to her time.”
And so it was that Jesus came to be born in a stable, as an outcast. But God was so proud of his plan unfolding, so proud of the son born into the world, so proud of the way generations would be transformed by that pivotal moment in time, he made the announcement to those who would listen — shepherds who kept watch by night. They believed, as do all of us who know the darkness and long for the light.
Not one of us has lived without suffering. We all can name a loss, a disappointment, a closed door, a death, that changed us irrevocably. But, unless we are still in the midst of our grief, we know the suffering, in time, eases. We know that morning follows the darkest of nights. We know a day will come when we are no longer suffocated by pain, and can take a deep breath again. That is God with us. That is the child coming into our hearts as he came into the world.
But his birth was not just a metaphor, it was a reality. His mother felt the crushing pain of contractions and spread her legs so that Jesus could slip from God’s dream for us into the world he created for us, a world in which we are shaped by choice and chance, by his hand working through the natural order of things and our responses to them. We can be like the relatives who did not make the child welcome, like the innkeeper who found a place — not an ideal place, but a place nevertheless — for the child, or we can be like the shepherds who put aside what they were doing and sought him.
When we hear the proclamation, ‘The Lord is with you,’ we have that choice. Which do we chose?