by Arden C. Autry, Ph.D.
A favorite Advent and Christmas story for many people is the passage known as “The Annunciation” (Luke 1:26-38). Here the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the long-awaited Messiah. The account has been the subject of many meditations and paintings, such as this famous one from about 500 years ago by Leonardo Da Vinci:
Gabriel’s initial words to Mary confused her, yet those words provide the opening for a prayer our Catholic brothers and sisters often repeat: “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Modern translations of the text usually have something like the words of the New International Version: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Other details—such as God’s promise to David a thousand years earlier (Luke 1:32-33; cf. 2 Samuel 7:11-13, 16)—have great historical and spiritual significance. For now, however, let’s focus on Mary’s question in Luke 1:34.
Mary was astonished to hear that she would be mother of the Messiah, but she would have been surprised at any prediction that she was about to give birth. As she put it, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Mary was young, but she knew how children are conceived, and she knew she had not been (as we say today) ‘sexually active.’ So she asks a logical question, “How?” How can she be a mother without having sexual relations with a man?
Gabriel answers in Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (NIV). The answer to the “how?” question is “the Holy Spirit.” That means God, not man, will cause this to happen. That’s why Gabriel’s answer is important to us as well as to Mary.
How can we ever become like Christ (which is God’s will, according to Romans 8:29)? Not by our will-power, cleverness, or discipline. No, the answer to our “how?” question is “the Holy Spirit.” How can I defeat besetting sins and habits? Others can encourage me, but only the Holy Spirit can set me free and transform my character and desires. The “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) are produced by the Holy Spirit at work in me and you, not simply by our trying harder to be good.
How can I love that difficult person? How can I find the courage to do a difficult but necessary thing? How can I obey God’s will when others may not approve and may even oppose me? The answer for “how?” to do God’s will is always “the Holy Spirit.” Although our choices are important (and God won’t force his will on us), we cannot truly do his will without his presence and power in our lives—the Holy Spirit.
Now that we know the answer to the “how?” question, there’s just one thing left to do, and that is to imitate Mary’s response, found in Luke 1:38: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (New Revised Standard Version). Mary asked, “How?” But she also said, “Yes.”