How Do You Handle Surprising News?

"Annunciation" by Fra Angelico. Altarpiece in the Prado Museum

“Annunciation” by Fra Angelico. Altarpiece in the Prado Museum

The angel Gabriel plays the combo messenger/home pregnancy test role twice in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke. First he visits the aged priest Zechariah when he’s serving in the temple and tells him he and his barren wife, Elizabeth, will have a son. A little more than six months later he finds an engaged virgin in Nazareth, Mary, and tells her she will have a son, the Son of God.[1]

Without cellphones and Facebook status updates, it’s unlikely word had spread from Jerusalem to Nazareth that God had broken his four-hundred year silence. So Zechariah and Mary each had a fresh crack at writing a script for the scene, “How to Respond to a Silent God’s Message Sent via Angel.”

When Gabriel appears to Zechariah, he is troubled by the angel’s mere presence. Mary is troubled by his words, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” The angel tells both not to be afraid, and gives details for each child’s conception, their name and what role they will play in God’s plan for redemption. Gabriel tells Zechariah this gift of a son is in response to prayer, while Mary has found favor with God though what that favor consists of is unknown.[2]  Zechariah is concerned with how long this will take as he’s no spring chicken. Mary is concerned with how quickly this will happen as she is a virgin.

It’s highly unlikely an elderly couple could conceive, but a married man and woman getting pregnant is a common occurrence. A virgin conceiving is impossible which adds another layer of complexity to Mary’s response. Zechariah asks “how” in doubt and demands a sign so he can be sure. Mary asks “how” this could be with bewilderment, and awaits an explanation. Gabriel gives Mary a sign–her previously barren relative, Elizabeth, is now six months pregnant. Zechariah is rendered speechless, a sign he hadn’t considered, for not trusting the angel’s words; Mary is told God’s word will never fail. Zechariah physically can’t reply, while Mary humbly declares, “I am the Lord’s servant… May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Same angel, same God, two sons promised, two different parents-to-be, two different responses. On paper, Mary has the most right to doubt, ask questions and require a sign. Zechariah’s family will celebrate his hand-signed news, Mary’s family will question her story and possibly her sanity. Elizabeth will rejoice and know God has answered her prayers (Luke 1:25). Joseph will wonder about his betrothed’s integrity and consider a divorce which was required to end an engagement (Matthew 1:19.) Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus, will come after his son’s birth when he regains his voice. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, will come when she visits Elizabeth to share her recent news. Zechariah’s song will burst forth after more than nine months of silence, Mary’s after her four-day journey[3] to Elizabeth’s home.

Zechariah and Mary stepped into roles no one in history will have again, but the opportunity to respond to surprising news is a part we play repeatedly Unfortunately I wear Zechariah’s sandals  more often than Mary’s. Her humble trust in God’s word and surrender to his plan still astonishes me. I’d like to chalk her attitude up to youthful naiveté as she might have been about 14 when Gabriel appeared. (We aren’t told, but it would fit with first-century practices.) But her joyous praises for God reveal a depth of understanding and relationship I yearn to mimic at quadruple her years.

She knew this long-silent God to be faithful and powerful, and that was sufficient for her. May it be so for us, too.


[1] The actual site of the annunciation is unknown, but since the fourth century a church has stood at the site established by tradition. Today a Roman Catholic basilica is the fifth church to stand at the location. In Greek Orthodox tradition, Mary was drawing water when the angel came, and the Orthodox Church was built at a nearby spring.

[2] Leon Morris, Luke, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, v. 3 (Nottingham, England?; Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 89.

[3] Ibid., 92.

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