And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
The “Nativity Story” is amazing for many reasons. The first and most obvious is that it is the Incarnation of the Son of God in the flesh, that the Creator became part of His own creation. The second, and perhaps less obvious is that the story involves a “cast” of unlikely characters who would welcome the Lord into the world. The Magi were astrologers, not conquering kings as they are often portrayed. The shepherds were so low on the social scale that they weren’t even being counted in the census in Bethlehem. Joseph was an older man, who had been widowed and now was betrothed to Mary. And Mary was a teenager, probably 14-15 years old, and an orphan. And yet, these were the people who God chose to help bring His Son into the world.
Each of us has had the experience of asking ourselves “Why me?” and usually it involves something bad. All the people in the Nativity story probably asked themselves the same thing, “Why me?” but for good reasons.
God’s motivation in creating the world and the human beings who inhabit it is love. God is love, so God’s motivation in everything ultimately leads back to love. God’s purpose in creating us is to share in His love. We often speak of how the purpose of life is to glorify God, which, if you think about it, might make us think that we are slaves or servants of God. The purpose of life is actually to share in God’s love, and while we are to serve God, we are not His slaves, nor is He our cruel master. We are His children, and He is our Father. The purpose of this life is to share in God’s love on a “trial basis”, if you will. God gives each of us a span of life on earth, and offers us an opportunity to share in His love. We share it in two ways—by sharing it directly with Him (loving God) and by sharing it with others (loving our neighbor, which means both serving our neighbor and sharing the Gospel with our neighbor). At the end of life, God will judge the totality of our lives at His awesome judgment seat, and decide whether we are worthy to share in His love forever.
Before the Fall, humanity shared Paradise with God, the human beings lived in a permanent and blissful state of love. The Fall severed that state of bliss and perfection. Sin entered the world because of a choice that we made, not a choice that God made. Yes, it was a choice that He allowed, because He gave us the gift of free will. When sin entered into the world, the state of perfect love with God was distorted. And Paradise was destroyed because it was now tainted with sin, with action that didn’t reflect the perfect love of God. So, God expelled man from Paradise, and we now live a life in a fallen and imperfect world where we can still experience God’s love, but it is experienced in a state of constant tension and temptation. Hopefully, we’ve all each had a moment where we’ve experienced God’s perfect love. I know I have. But I also have moments where I turn my back on God and His love—that’s when we sin and fall prey to temptation.
God does not want us to live like this. He wants to restore that relationship that we once had with Him, in Paradise. He wants us to live in that permanent and blissful state of perfection that humanity once enjoyed. But how to bridge that gap?
Remember that before Christ, there was no expectation of heaven. To the contrary, there was an understanding that when life on earth ended, everyone went to Hades, a place where God was absent. This was confirmed, and actually commanded by God, in Genesis 3, where God speaks to Adam and Eve saying “In the seat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
God didn’t immediately provide a path back after the Fall. Humanity was too new to its state of sin to fully comprehend repentance and return. We read in the New Testament about how the Incarnation happened in the “fulness of time.” In Ephesians 1:9-10, St. Paul writes “For He has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The only way to right the Fall was for God to send His Son into the world as a “new Adam,” to show humanity how to live in the face of temptation and how to stay loyal to God and abide in God’s love in a world filled with sinful enticements. This is why Christ experienced all kinds of temptations, even the temptation to make a deal to avoid death, so that He could pay our debt of sin, which is death, and could show us that it is possible to stay faithful to God, which is the path one needs to follow in order to get back to Paradise.
Galatians 4:4-5 reads: “But when the time had fully come, God sent for His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” God chose a time at which the Incarnation would happen. But He also made a logical plan for how this would happen. Jesus didn’t suddenly appear, no one does that. Everyone has a mother, a hometown, a family. In God’s plan, Jesus would have all of these things. First, God needed a woman to entrust to carry Christ and to be His mother. He chose a virgin named Mary, who was visited by an angel who made the biggest and grandest request ever, for Mary to carry in her womb, the Son of God, and that her conception would be by the Holy Spirit. The Archangel Gabriel, who delivered the message, prefaced it with the words “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30) We’ll examine Mary’s response in the next reflection.
O my soul, magnify her who is greater in honor and in glory than the armies of heaven. I see here a strange and paradoxical mystery. For, behold, the grotto is heaven; cherubic throne is the Virgin; the manger a grand space in which Christ our God the uncontainable reclined as a babe; Whom in extolling do we magnify. (Katavasias of Christmas, ode nine, appears in Orthros from November 21-December 25, and on December 26 and 31, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: If an angel spoke to you, would you be afraid?