In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Luke 1:26-38 (ESV)
We know this story; we’ve read it many times. You might see it reenacted by a couple of kids in bathrobes at your church this weekend. But if we pay attention, something sticks out as odd.
“In the sixth month….” The sixth month of what? The sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. If we go back and read the account of Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah, we see that he also asks a question.
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
Luke 1:18 (ESV)
Because of Zechariah’s unbelief, Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute until the baby is born and named John. So how does Mary get off unscathed when she asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” On the surface, it seems like she should incur a bit of Gabriel’s wrath as well. After all, their questions are very similar, though I grant that Zechariah seems to want proof while Mary seems to only wonder how it will happen.
But that still doesn’t help explain why Mary asks how. As a young woman of age, betrothed to be married in an agrarian community, she surely understands how things work. The birds and the bees aren’t some shadowy mystery to her. What woman approaching marriage would ask how she is going to have a baby? Is Mary that dense? Would she not have assumed that Gabriel meant once she was wed?
Perhaps it hinges on “since I am a virgin.” If Mary had taken a vow of chastity, then this interchange makes sense. Her question moves beyond either doubt or not understanding where babies come from to understanding that she was under a vow before the Lord. To have a child in the normal way of things would violate that oath.
There is a very old tradition in the church that says this is the reason for Mary’s question. The Protoevangelion of James dates to the mid-second century and while it is considered apocryphal, that does not mean there is no truth in it, only that it is not canonical.
Something to ponder this Advent season.