[The angel Gabriel came to the young woman Mary] and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
December 22, 2023, Words By: Scott Dewey, Image By: Unknown
“I was trying to absorb what the oncologist was telling me. Yesterday’s tests clearly show, he said, that I have a very rare condition. Turns out—this is the unbelievable part—it only mimics aggressive cancer.”
“I’m simply overwhelmed with this news.”
Gary* and I share a very long silence. Finally he says, “I… I don’t know, honestly, all what it means. All I can do is be grateful, and try to take it in.” For Gary this second diagnosis comes with as much utter shock as the first, and is equally unfathomable. He initially was given a death notice by this very same doctor, ushering family anguish. But with this new news, he will live. Likely, Gary will see many more Christmases with his wife and growing children.
Our scripture this week introduces us to a young woman named Mary. Unlike her messenger Gabriel, who is famous from Hebrew scriptures and apocryphal cosmology, Mary is nobody of note in this time. Our very first glimpse of her is—how to express it? Stunned, flummoxed, troubled, perplexed. The word seems as hard to capture in translation as it is to experience.
What stuns Mary is not about the conception of a royal son. That part comes later. Rather it’s the greeting itself. She is favored. The Lord is with her. Her!
This alone sends Mary’s heart and mind reeling. In reflecting on this story, Debie Thomas writes of Mary’s “holy bewilderment”:
“Mary already has a vibrant relationship with God before Gabriel shows up. It is not that the Annunciation leads her out of doubt and into faith; it is that her encounter with the angel leads her out of certainty and into holy bewilderment. Out of familiar spiritual territory and into a lifetime of pondering, wondering, questioning, and wrestling. She was much perplexed.”
Reading this chapter in Thomas’s thoughtful little book Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories: Reflections on the Life of Christ, I likewise was prompted to ponder my own spiritual bewilderments. I got curious, incidentally, about the English word bewilderment. Turns out it’s from an archaic verb “to wilder,” which means to lead someone astray or off the path. Into the wild unknown, we might say. Away from the familiar and the safe.
I was born into a faith tradition that valued standing on solid rock, to name just one metaphor. Others outside our circle were “lost,” but thankfully we weren’t. This was reassuring to me. It’s a preference I carry to this day, for stability in here over the chaos out there. I want my bearings.
Well then. It’s an ordinary summer evening as a teenager, when I walk by my sister’s bedroom and her face is blue. My entire cosmos lurches off axis. After a time unhinged from time—an eon, an era, lifetimes—air squeaks past my finger down her throat and into her lungs. She lives. For a hundred nights afterward I sit by her bedroom door, listening for her breath. Each night I am pondering the unfathomable mystery that is our lives, for an hour or more before nodding off. Actually I made that sentence up just now, some fifty years later, and am not sure that’s what I was doing at all. At the time, could I possibly know what I was doing? I could only sit, listen, and attend.
My own child is seconds old, still tethered to my beloved, and appears that strange familiar wrong blue. Time unhinges again. The skilled attendants are calmly discussing, while my heart spirals sideways. They jostle our guy more forcefully now. A squeak. Then a full-throated cry, and everyone exclaims.
Oh such very good news! And I’m shook. I’m untethered. I’m off the map now, and don’t know the way back.
In hindsight I recognize these bewilderments, and a dozen more, to be gateways. (Including even greater bewilderments of breaths that turned out to be final.) They were narrow gateways to be sure, off the broad path of the known and familiar. They have opened to wider landscapes than I ever would have conjured on my own but oh, the struggle of soul on the way.
I’m not simply referring to happy endings or silver linings to console dark stories. I’m referring to what mother Mary would come to know at the foot of her son’s gallows and beyond, and what I have come these many years to trust. I’m referring to the archetype of birth throughout all creation and within ourselves: Life, warm and safe. And a great undoing of life, sometimes to dismay. In the fullness of time, an emergence of life that could not have been foreseen.
I now recognize this very unfolding to be the divine with us, just as this angel announced. Realizing I have more undoings ahead, I’m grateful for my accumulated trust—I’ll need it. In our scripture story, young Mary cannot yet look back with her future wisdom. She is utterly now, and utterly bewildered. It is an opening.
*Gary’s name is changed.
Dwelling Among Us
What are your bewilderments? Your gateways?
What are the collective bewilderments of our age? Of the communities you love? How might you attend, even in perplexed solidarity, with a posture and presence of openness?