Anyone in Mary’s shoes at the Annunciation would have some questions. But we learn a lot about Mary and her rare spiritual depth by what she doesn’t ask.
Mary asks, “How?”
But Mary does not ask, “What?” or “Why?” or “When?”
After greeting Mary, who unsurprisingly is rendered “much perplexed” by an angel showing up out of nowhere, Gabriel gives a little speech.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
I don’t know about you, but the first question out of my mouth would be, “What?” Or more, like, “WHAT?!?!”
“What?” in the sense of, “I understand that you’re speaking English (or Hebrew) but what you’re saying is so crazy that I’m really not following you right now,” and “What?” in the sense of, “What hallucination am I having right now?”
Even, “What?” in the sense of “What does all this mean and what are you talking about?”
But not Mary.
By not asking, “what?”, Mary reveals a quality that will no doubt stand her in good stead in the coming years. She shows that she is adaptable.
She is thinking on her feet here.
She is greeted by a member of the heavenly host, told she will have a child who is the heir to the throne of David, and she manages to take it in stride enough to ask her own, extremely coherent question.
She does not doubt the basic content of Gabriel’s proclamation.
She’s able to take it in and accept that it must be true and that it is good, right in the moment.
That shows a woman whose prayer life and study of the stories of faith has prepared her for the reality that God can break into everyday life in really big ways at any moment, and God can do things we could never ask or imagine.
Mary doesn’t ask, “What?” and she doesn’t ask, “Why?”
Most people in the Bible, when God appears to them with a task or a mission, spend some time groveling in abject insistence of their unworthiness.
Isaiah says, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips!”
Moses says, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
Jeremiah says, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
They’re all consumed with how they’re not good enough, they don’t know how to do what they’re being asked to do, and God honestly should probably pick someone else.
Mary isn’t concerned at all with her own worthiness or capability—and her task is arguably far greater than speaking prophecy or even leading Israel out of slavery!
But she doesn’t ask, “Why?” or more specifically, “Why me?”
This reveals that Mary already has unshakable trust that what God promises to do, God will do.
Her abilities or lack thereof have nothing to do with it. She knows that all she has to do is offer herself, and God will do the rest.
We think of Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah as humble in their protestations of weakness and incapacity, but they’re actually still thinking and talking about themselves.
Mary’s humility is so great that she knows her own characteristics are completely irrelevant.
She neither abases herself nor exalts herself.
She simply trusts herself completely to God, and trusts that God’s work in her and through her are all she needs to accomplish what God asks of her.
The third question Mary does not ask is, “When?”
We tend to ask God “when?” a lot.
“When will you bring me healing?”
“When will you soften my partner’s heart toward me?”
“When will you end this barren and dry season in my soul?”
Not Mary. This is a woman who does not need great big spiritual events in her life to make her trust or love God, and so when a great big spiritual event is promised by God, she does not need to know when it will happen.
Be it 2 months or 20 years hence, Mary will be ready.
And whether the wait is long and she feels no further consolation or encouragement, or so short that she feels completely unprepared, Mary is saying yes to God’s timeline, however it unfolds.
Nor does she ask “when?” as a leading question, with all kinds of implied hints about when this would be convenient for her.
“After I get married,” would be a number one choice for her.
Even “never, thanks” would be a reasonable response.
But Mary doesn’t ask “when?” because her trust in God is simply that great.
Every question Mary refrains from asking reveals to us even more how deep the soul of this Nazarene girl is.
She knows God, and she knows God knows her, and she places the entirety of her personhood on that foundation. That is why she was chosen.
Mary asks only one question, and it is as self-revealing as the questions she doesn’t ask.
She asks, “How?”
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
What I love about this question is that is goes way past any of the philosophical meanings of what is happening or even the insecure questions of identity.
She gets right down to brass tacks.
It’s as if she’s saying, “Well, okay, it looks like God has big plans here and I’m going to be a part of it, so let’s get things moving. How are we going to make this happen?”
The implication is that Mary is totally on board, and she’s already gone on to the practical execution of God’s work, asking how it can move forward.
This question of “how?” is as true to Mary’s character as anything she says or does, and marks her as the faithful partner to Jesus’ ministry she will remain throughout her life, always ready to help move things forward.
From this question at Jesus’ conception to her intervention to get him started at the Wedding at Cana to her presence with the disciples in the Upper Room after the Ascension, praying for the descent of the Holy Spirit, Mary is ready.
She is totally on board with whatever action God is taking, and finding ways to help it move forward.
Can we say the same for ourselves?
What questions are we asking in this Advent season?
Have we gotten trapped in “what?” and “why?” and “when?”
Are we fumbling in confusion, caught off guard by the enormity of God’s work in the world and how we’re going to be a part of it, until all we can ask is, “what?”
Are we burdened by insecurity or arrogance or a wild veering back and forth between the two, demanding that God explain how we could ever be vessels of the birth of Christ, until all we can ask is, “why?”
Or perhaps we can’t move forward without more certainty, without more clarity, without things fitting into our schedule and our plan, and so our stingy question is, “when?”
The spiritual discipline of dismissing “what?” and “why?” and “when?” and entering into the radiant trust and expectant joy of Mary’s “how?” is the work of a lifetime.
But it begins with one humble prayer at a time, one act of giving at a time, one deliberately sacrificed false and limiting expectation at a time.
We are called to say yes to God’s work in us and God’s work in the world by asking, “How?”
“How, God, may I be made use of? How can I make myself available to you? How can I see you in everyone I meet? How can I welcome the Christ child within me?”
We say yes by asking a question of God, just as God says yes by asking a question of us—and the world is changed forever.
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