Mary, the First Christian: A Commentary on the Annunciation, Luke 1:26-38

Nativity scene
Photo by JINU JOSEPH on

When I found out I was pregnant in mid-November, my very first thoughts were of terror. It wore off, but not nearly as fast as I would have expected. I have always been excited about becoming a parent, but the reality of it was far more terrifying than I had ever imagined. While my soon-to-be baby was still barely the size of a mustard seed, the realization that my body was no longer only my own hit hard. 

So when Advent rolled around this year, I connected to Mary in a new way. I admit I have some safeguards in place that Mary did not have. I am married, and I live in a culture where if my husband decides to bounce, I can expect to recover and support myself and my child through a reasonably rewarding career. Mary, a young woman just getting ready to start a marriage, did not have those safeguards. But ultimately, there’s no talking yourself out of the terror of pregnancy. One constant across all human cultures is that when you become a parent, your life changes in ways that shake you, no matter how intellectually prepared you think you are. So I think she must have felt even more like I did—like her life had been pulled out from under her, and her self would have to make way for a new person and that new person’s new reality. Nothing has ever scared me as much as the destabilization that crashed onto me when I realized I was sharing my body with a being of whom I had no real knowledge.

Though only some of us become parents, and perhaps not all of us react with terror (though I suspect we do), I think all of us can relate to the terror of realizing we are not the main character in our lives, because that is what it is like to be in relationship with God. God invites us into relationship, into the new world that God is building, with our help and with our sacrifice. And we are continually warned that it is going to cost us. But it’s also going to be worth it, we are promised, because we will spend our lives willing into existence a better, more whole, and more holy future. Sometimes we resist because we miss being the main character in our own lives. But the promise that is made is that it’s going to be worth it, because the new reality has a life of its own, and that life is of God.

The angel Gabriel’s opening line to Mary is, futilely, “Do not be afraid!” Though this seems to be the standard angelic greeting to mortals, I imagine that Mary laughed about this line to herself when she remembered this moment, years later in a small room in Egypt, to which she had fled out of fear for this child. It is easy for the angel to say.

But, through the angel, God gives Mary everything she needs to say yes to this pregnancy. “You are being honored!” says the angel, “because you will conceive a child!” Helpfully, Gabriel takes a bit of the guesswork out. It’s going to be a boy, and his name is going to be Jesus. The-one-who-heals, the-one-who-saves. And he will be a great leader, he will be greatly honored, and his life will be of great and obvious significance to the world. By saying yes to this child, you will make the world a better place.

Mary, the first person to say yes to this new way of intimacy with God, modeled for us what it would look like. She sees the promise being offered to her and understands that she will have to co-create this new future with God. But that’s precisely the beauty of it: God comes to us as a baby, meaning God comes to us as someone whose identity is bound up with ours. And meaning that God’s work takes on its own form and meaning because it is a continuation of our work and our love for God. God asks us to allow our identities to be destabilized for the sake of God’s new work in the world, like a parent is destabilized for the sake of their child.

Like God does for Mary, God gives us everything we need to say yes to the new reality of God’s kingdom, where we are vitally important but not, ultimately, the main character. God tells us that participating in that new reality will show us richer and deeper love than we could have ever imagined. God gives us witnesses to attest that this way does, indeed, lead to God. And God gives us a vision of a bright future in which we see the fruits of our labor. In this way, God comes to us like a child.

I am still terrified, and I wonder if I’ll ever stop, but I am also excited and proud. Now that I know what I’m dealing with, I’ve started to hone my skill of managing this project that is my body, my new life. I know what I can’t eat, and how much I have to sleep. Christianity is like that, too. Once we really understand what is being asked of us—allowing God to be the main character in our lives—the mundane realities of taking on this project start to come into focus. We have to stretch ourselves to be a bit kinder, to imagine a bit further outside of the lines about justice. But alongside the destabilization of being asked to reorient our lives, there comes to be a growing intimacy with that which is yet to come. Our relationship with the yet-to-come kingdom starts to grow and starts to be a source of pride and joy. And this is how God gives us our new identity through Jesus Christ, the newborn king. 

Cat Clyburn

Cat is a student at Duke Divinity School, working on an MDiv with a concentration in Food and Faith. They are from rural North Carolina and have an abiding passion for growing a connection to land, as a way to anchor an understanding of racial justice as we work towards reckoning with history.

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