By Rev. J.C. Austin
I spent a year in Australia following my wife Tammy around the country; she had won a fellowship to spend a year studying issues of inequality in access to education there. It was a pretty sweet deal for me, because I got to do all the fun stuff of living and traveling in Australia but was literally prohibited from work or formal study by visa restrictions.
But it was not a huge fellowship, so we lived very frugally because we really wanted to splurge on scuba-diving on the Great Barrier Reef at the end of the year, which we were able to do. We spent three days on a live-aboard boat out on the reef, and it was more amazing and beautiful than I can possibly describe to you.
One of the most thrilling experiences, though, was not thrilling in the sense of awe-inspiring beauty. It was thrilling more in the sense of…well, primal fear. We were in the early part of our dive, swimming along at about 40 feet below the surface over a labyrinth of coral to a part of the reef known to be a haunt of particularly beautiful fish. So we were surprised when we saw two of our fellow divers swimming towards us, away from the reef and back in the direction of the boat.
One of them saw us and waved to get our attention; I waved back. He then put his hand up to his forehead like he was karate-chopping it, but he just held it there for a few seconds. This was not a signal covered in the open-water diving certification course, so I was confused. He then bounced his hand on his head for a few times for emphasis, then turned and pointed up behind him.
At first I still didn’t understand, but finally I saw it: the silhouette of a large fish cruising about thirty feet above us and maybe 20-30 yards away, but coming closer. I recognized the body type immediately, and suddenly I understood the signal of the hand on the forehead: he was trying to show me the familiar dorsal fin of a shark, because that’s what was swimming towards us. As I made the connection, the other diver waved again and took off quickly for the boat. Now, what’s funny about that is that he was an infantry officer for the Singaporean Army, but I suppose this was why he wasn’t in the navy instead.
As for us, we simply changed our route and put more distance between us and the shark as we continued to the reef, but I can tell you that I was not nearly as nonchalant as that makes it sound. I had watched a lot of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel at that point, and I was confident at least that it was not a Great White shark; those can be found at the Reef, but this one didn’t have the right coloring.
But aside from that, I couldn’t really tell what it was, because size and distance are hard to judge underwater unless you’re very experienced. But I’m here to tell you that, when you see a shark in open water that is between you and the surface, it’s pretty intimidating no matter what type it is. I swear, when I saw the shark the first time, I all but heard the ominous first two notes of the theme from Jaws as a rush of adrenaline went through me, because that’s immediately where your gut goes.
Even though my mind was tapping me gently on the shoulder to tell me that it clearly didn’t match the coloring or dimensions of a Great White and probably was just a mid-sized reef shark that would see me as far too big to be prey, my primal instincts had grabbed me by the shoulder straps of my scuba tank and were screaming directly into my face: “I THINK HE MIGHT EAT US!”
The thing is, human beings are terrible at threat assessment; what we are most afraid of often does not correspond to what is most dangerous, and vice versa. There in Australia, before getting on the boat, we had been warned that what we really needed to watch out for there was the blue-ringed octopus. A blue-ringed octopus is very small, only a few inches of a body with comparable-sized arms.
They are not aggressive, but they are among the most venomous creatures on earth, so if you go poking or playing with one and it bites you, you’re pretty much dead within the hour. But they have to warn tourists about them because they are so dangerous but also so small and interesting that people don’t feel any fear about picking them up, despite the fact that it’s considerably more dangerous to do so than to ride a Great White shark like a horse, but very few people would try that.
And as for that, there is an animal right here in the United States that is far more common and far more deadly than sharks, yet nobody panics when they see them. On the contrary, people assume they are completely harmless; in fact, they even have them in zoos and encourage children to pet them. Yet five times as many people are killed by it each year than are by sharks. And this secret, deadly menace is known as: the cow.
That’s right: cows kill five times as many people as sharks on an annual basis. But nobody’s afraid of cows, because they seem so safe and docile, whereas you look at a shark, pretty much any shark, and your reaction is, “I think he might eat me,” even if the shark is smaller than you are.
In this famous scene from Luke’s gospel, God sends the angel Gabriel with a message to Mary, and he just sort of shows up and proclaims this rather flowery announcement: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” Now, it would be very reasonable and typical for Mary to respond to this with fear. Basically, anytime an angel shows up in the stories of Scripture, the first reaction of those they appear to is one of fear.
Because even though cows kill considerably more people each year than angels, an angel coming to you would be a terrifying experience. We forget that sometimes with the sentimentalization of angels in popular culture, where we associate angels with kindness and protectiveness and singing on harps. But angels in Scripture have two main functions. The first is as a herald. A herald is a high-ranking spokesperson who carries important messages on behalf of a sovereign ruler.
In this case, angels are supernatural messengers (the word “angel” literally means “messenger”) for the most sovereign of all rulers, the Lord God Almighty. So yeah, one of those shows up and says they have a message for you, then fear is a pretty reasonable response. Particularly when you consider that their second function is as warriors; when we talk about the “heavenly host,” that’s a military term; a host is a great army, and the heavenly host is an army of angels. No wonder people in Scripture always react with fear when angels appear to them.
Except that’s not how Mary reacts. When Gabriel greets her, she’s not terrified like the shepherds are later when the heavenly host appears over the hills outside of Bethlehem singing about Jesus’ birth. Our translation says she’s “much perplexed” by the greeting, which comes off as a little too chill in English; I mean, I’ve been “much perplexed” by the New York Times crossword puzzle.
It’s more like she was “utterly confounded,” “thrown into total confusion;” her mind was blown, in other words. Which makes sense, really: she’s a young peasant girl in a backwater village, not the kind of person who usually receives angelic announcements from the Lord of the universe.
Gabriel responds to her confusion with the standard angelic reassurance, “do not be afraid,” despite the fact that she’s confused, not afraid. But perhaps Gabriel is just skipping ahead, knowing that all too often human beings fear what they do not understand. Part of why sharks are scary is that they are both powerful and mysterious. We rarely see them, and when we do they usually surprise us, seeming to simply appear out of the shadows before we know what is happening.
We don’t know much about them, and much that we “know” about them is wrong, except for the fact that they are powerful and could hurt us badly if they wanted to. And so we are naturally frightened when they show up. The same goes for angels. The difference, of course, is that an angel can explain what they’re actually up to, which Gabriel does when he sees her consternation.
But his explanation is pretty mind-blowing, too: God has chosen her to give birth to God’s Son, the Messiah. Yet even then, Mary doesn’t respond with fear, but with a question about how this could actually happen. Gabriel explains, and she agrees to the plan.
I’m saying “agrees” very intentionally here to describe her final reaction, because what is often celebrated about Mary is her “submission” here. It’s even a category of artistic depictions of the Annunciation, which was one of the most popular subjects in Western art for centuries. Obviously, you can’t depict every stage of the narrative in one painting, so you had to choose one: her initial confusion, her reflection on the meaning of the greeting, her question about how it could happen, or her submission to the will of God.
But submission is both problematic and inaccurate, I think. It’s problematic because submission does not necessarily imply agreement or acceptance: submission can be coerced or imposed; it can be a response of fear just as easily as a response of faith. And it’s inaccurate because Mary does not merely submit: she agrees; she explicitly consents to this plan. She says, “let it be with me according to your word.”
In other words, “may it happen just as you’re describing.” Mary is a subject, not an object, here; God’s will is fulfilled with her, not on her. She is a willing and active co-conspirator in God’s audacious plan to save us all. And if there were any doubts about that, you just need to keep reading to the part where she visits her cousin Elizabeth and responds to Elizabeth’s news about her own miraculous conception with the prophetic words of what is often called the Magnificat.
She begins by describing how God has looked with “favor” on her, just as Gabriel told her, and then goes on to proclaim a radical transformation of the world by God that is so certain it is as if it has already happened: “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
God doesn’t demand that we submit to God’s will; God invites us to agree with it, to join our will with God’s and be part of God’s saving grace and love at work in the world. True, it probably won’t be as dramatic as conceiving and literally giving birth to the Son of God. But part of the problem with how we treat this story is that we act like the whole story is utterly unique.
Obviously, there are parts of it that are almost certainly unique in the story of God’s will for humanity. But there are parts of it that are not unique at all: being overwhelmed by God’s mind-blowing plans for us and for humanity; reflecting on what that all might mean; questioning God when we don’t understand; and agreeing with what God tells us God wants to do, and wants us to do.
One of Mary’s ancient titles in the Christian church is “Theotokos,” which is a Greek word usually translated as “God-bearer,” which of course is what Mary literally does: she bears or gives birth to Jesus, the Son of God, fully human, and fully divine. Mary, of course, is the Theotokos in this sense, completely unique.
But I think we are all invited to be a “theotokos” when we align our wills with God’s, because the “tokos” part of the word means not simply giving birth, but a bringing forth of something: bearing in the sense of carrying and presenting, like a flagbearer; bearing in the sense of a tree that bears fruit, one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors for what we are called to do as disciples, as followers, of him. And that truth is, that is something that we need never be afraid of.
Confused? Sure; what God wants to do is sometimes very different from how we understand things to work, or even how things can work. Questioning? Absolutely; God does not demand blind submission. Apprehensive? I think that’s more than reasonable, given some of the things that God does and promises to do. But we need not be afraid, because while God is both powerful and mysterious, and can do and ask some pretty mind-blowing things, God also promises to bless us and accompany us in anything God wants us to do when we say, “let it be so.”
As we come to the end of Advent, as we move towards Christmas, let us do so by adding our agreement to Mary’s, our commitment to be a theotokos, a “God-bearer” in and through our lives however the opportunities arrive for us, so we too may proclaim as Mary did: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor…on his servant.” Let it be so.