How can this be? Those four short words make up one of the most famous questions in all of Scripture – and it’s also a question that I find myself thinking a lot about this Advent.
You might have been asking this question too. A virgin giving birth to a baby? How can this be? I mean, really, how can this be? For some of you the answer is simple. It’s in the scripture: “Nothing is impossible with God.” For others it’s not simple at all. We all know the biology of this. We all know that this is not how babies are made. But there’s more than just one miracle in this text. We tend to focus on the one that is more spectacular. But the miracle isn’t just that a virgin gave birth to a baby. The miracle is also that Mary said yes.
Just think about it. Mary could have said no. Most of us walk around all day long saying no – no to opportunities, ideas, or offerings that might be divinely inspired. We say no because we’re scared, or we’re tired, or lazy or apathetic. We say no because what is being offered just doesn’t feel right, or we’re not the right person, or we’d really like to but we just can’t fit it in right now. Let’s be honest: we say no to the Divine all the time.
Mary could have said no, too. She could have politely referred the angel to her friend Beatrice who lived down the street. Beatrice would make a wonderful mother for God, she could have said. Then the angel would have left and her life would have gone back to normal. No scandal of having a baby out of wedlock. No fleeing Bethlehem for fear of Herod and her newborn’s life. No grief over watching her prophetic son put himself in harm’s way. If Mary would had said no, she would have married Joseph, had a few kids, and lived out the kind of life that was expected of a first century carpenter’s wife.
But Mary didn’t say no. How can this be? I’m drawn to Mary because it seems like she could be any one of us. She was not uncommon. She was not extraordinary. She probably looked at herself in the mirror before bed, in that unforgiving bathroom light, and condemned herself, like we all do, for not being smart enough, or pretty enough, or talented enough, or good enough.
So then how did Mary say yes to God? And how did she keep saying yes as Jesus grew up and became who he became and did what he did?
As a father of three sons this blows me away—because while being a parent is the greatest of joys, it’s also the greatest of challenges. Nothing in my life has been as physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging as being a father to my boys. I remember a particular moment after our twins were born when I was running on only a few hours of sleep and the weight of my boys in my arms felt like the weight of the world. So I cried out to my wife, Stephanie, “My life is over! How can I do this? What have we done?” Because that’s how hard it was – and is. I can only imagine how much harder it was for Mary.
Still, Mary said yes. How can this be? How can this be that a common woman was chosen to be the mother of Jesus? How can this be that God would entrust such a woman with such a responsibility?
The only answer is the exact same answer given to Mary by the angel Gabriel when he said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you…”
That’s our answer. The seemingly impossible becomes possible because we are not facing these things alone. Our loving God is not at some distance watching and waiting. He’s not expecting us to figure everything out on our own, or act on our own, or go through life on our own.
Nor would Mary give birth to Jesus – to the Savior – on her own. God was with her. God was within her. And God never abandoned her. And that’s the same message for us. Advent and Christmas can help us realize that.
What seems impossible to you? What makes you think, “How can this be?” Now imagine it. Now go live it. And don’t worry – you don’t have to do it by yourself. God is with you. God is within you. And God will never abandon you.