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The Spirit of Mary

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The Christmas story begins with a visitation. I cannot imagine a more dramatic interview in all of history. The angel Gabriel appeared to a young Galilean virgin and said in effect, “You are going to be the mother of the Messiah. Even though you are a virgin and have never known a man, you are going to give birth to a miracle child, conceived by the Holy Spirit. He will be the Son of God and will reign forever.”

There was no precedent for this sort of thing. There had been other miracle children, but they were born to barren wives; they had human fathers. For Mary, there was no warning, no run-up, no preparation.

It must be quite a feeling to be anointed king or elected president or crowned Miss America. But in all of these instances, the people have the expectation that something special is coming. Mary had no prior warning. Suddenly the angel was there, and Mary heard words that no other human being has ever heard.

When the same angel appeared to Zechariah the priest, the news was much less astonishing: His barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son. He would be a prophet. Wonderful? Yes. Startling? Of course. Unprecedented? Not at all.

It had happened before. Abram and Sarai immediately come to mind. Samson’s parents also had a visit from an angel, who told them of his miraculous birth. No law of nature was violated. But Zechariah could not believe it. He was a priest, a sacred historian, a learned theologian—he simply couldn’t believe Gabriel’s words.

By contrast, Mary accepted a much “harder” message, if not calmly, then at least with dignity. ‘“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said”’ (Luke 1:38). That response captures me every time I read the story. It seems to be the key to her personality, indeed to everything we know about this mysterious woman who gave birth to the man who was also God.

Her response can also provide us with a standard against which we can measure our own potential to be useful to our Master. “I am the Lord’s servant,” we say regularly and with some sincerity. Yet, as I examine my own responses to the stress and demands of ministry, I’m not certain I always act that way.

American culture in the twenty-first century doesn’t favor the spirit of a servant. We are more impressed with people who “get things done.” My bookshelves contain works on leadership by such driven personalities as Rudy Giuliani, Lee Iacocca and Coach “K,” as well as a score of books about “take-charge” types like Robert E. Lee, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. One of my favorites is The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. He was definitely a leader—and so were the others. But Attila didn’t know much about servanthood.

Christians believe it is possible to be both a servant and a leader. Scripture furnishes us with many good examples of men and women who were both, but the story of Mary reminds us that godly leaders are servants first. Her response to Gabriel was, “May it be to me as you have said.”

I probably would have said, “I’ll accept this just as soon as I can understand it.” (That is the essential difference between Mary’s response and Zechariah’s.) “And I’ll obey if it doesn’t cost too much,” I might have added.

Those are not the words of a servant. Servants do not need to understand. Deciding whether the cost is too high is not their job either. Mary was a servant. Sometimes I am too, but a lot of the time—well, you know how it is.

Pretty soon my family is going to start asking me what I want for Christmas. I usually have a hard time answering that question. Not this year. I know exactly what I want. I want the spirit of Mary.

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