Word meanings change over time. There is a great story that, nearing the end of the construction of the Cathedral of St Paul, the queen was taken on a tour of the nearly-finished cathedral by the chief architect, Sir Christopher Wren. When the visit was complete, the queen told Wren in no uncertain terms that the new building was amusing, awful, and artificial. I would have been devastated, but remarkably, Wren was quite pleased. Why? Because in the 1600’s, “amusing” meant “amazing,” “awful” meant “awe-inspiring,” and “artificial” meant “artistic.” See, word meanings change over time. In fact, until the beginning of the 19th century, weddings were still described as “awful ceremonies” (maybe many should still be described that way today!).
I wonder if that is what is going on in Luke 1, that the words we understand to mean “good” and “wonderful” meant something else to Mary. When the angel visits Mary to tell her she is with child, the angel says (Luke 1:28): “Greetings, you who are highly favored.” And when Mary sings in the Magnificat, she says (Luke 1:48): “From now on all generations will call me blessed.” Here’s where I am struggling. When I read the Christmas story, I don’t see Mary as highly favored or blessed, at least not in the way that I understand “highly favored” and “blessed.” For me, being highly favored means you get to ride on easy street, and being blessed means everything you touch turns to gold. But in the Christmas story (as told in Matthew and Luke), the two main couples, Zechariah and Elizabeth and Joseph and Mary, are both highly favored and blessed, but they never get close to easy street and nothing turns to gold. In fact, it seems that at every turn God “blesses” them with hardship and difficulties and awkward situations. Think about it.
Zechariah is struck mute. Granted, it was because of his doubt, but who wouldn’t have doubted the angel? Zechariah and Elizabeth were well past the age of childbearing. And no matter how you read the story, you have to acknowledge that for decades God had “blessed” Zechariah and Elizabeth by not answering their prayers for a child and by letting Elizabeth, in particular, endure “disgrace among her people” (Luke 1:25). In that culture, women were to give their husbands children (and, hopefully, sons); and to fail to do so was socially embarrassing and even disgraceful. And Zechariah endured being mute for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy. I would have thought that perhaps a month of being mute would have been sufficient to fit the crime of questioning the angel, but those who are highly favored, apparently, get to endure nine whole months of being taught a lesson. And being mute for so long would not only be frustrating, but rather humiliating as Zechariah would have to write things down for another priest to read so that priest could then explain to Elizabeth what had happened and what the angel said and what they needed to do every night. We could write it down so that our spouse could read our words, but back then, Elizabeth was most assuredly illiterate (because if you weren’t royalty, a scribe or a priest, chances were, you were illiterate). You say these are more embarrassing frustrations than real hardships; but if I had to go through such things for nine whole months, I would not see the humor in them at all, nor would I call them a “blessing.” At best, I would call it a dark cloud with a silver lining.
And Joseph is “blessed” by enduring all sorts of shame because his fiancée is pregnant, which means the death of someone’s reputation (either his or Mary’s). And then, he is further “blessed” when the angel delays in telling him that Mary’s pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit. In my opinion, if Joseph was “highly favored,” the angel would have come to him in a dream long before Mary began to show. But God’s plan was to have Joseph endure a ruined reputation and suffer the shame of having a pregnant fiancée. He was blessed.
And Mary is blessed by being (dirt) poor, by appearing guilty of adultery, by looking like a horrific hypocrite, by being ostracized from her friends, and by having to walk the 90 grueling miles to Bethlehem while pregnant. And this is a woman who is “highly favored.”
If being highly favored and blessed means you’ll have an easy and rich life, then we are at an impasse in these passages because these dear folks had neither. And yet, God calls them and blesses them with two extremely glorious tasks: to parent John the Baptizer and the Messiah; and to do that, you have to be “highly, highly favored.”
It seems God’s definition of “blessed” is different from mine. We may be left scratching our heads after reading the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel and trying to figure out the meaning of “blessed”; but as soon as we turn a couple of pages, the issue is resolved. In Matthew 5 (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus says the one who is blessed is poor in spirit. He says, to be blessed, one must mourn, one must be meek and one must hunger and thirst for righteousness. He says, if you really want to be blessed by God, you will be merciful and pure in heart and seek the way of peace. And he says that even those who are persecuted because of righteousness are blessed. Ask Jesus and he will tell you that being blessed has little do having an easy and rich life, but has everything to do with embodying God’s character and doing God’s will in a world that rarely values such things.
Remove Jesus from the equation, and then name three people in the Bible who truly demonstrated being poor in Spirit. I would think Mary would have to be in that list. Name three people who truly hungered for righteousness, and I am sure Joseph would have to be included in those three names. Elizabeth mourned for most of her life. She was an object of gossip and looked down upon because she could not give her husband a child. Worse, she felt discarded by God because he refused to answer her prayers, but she was comforted in her old age. And while Zechariah may not be the meekest of all men, he would certainly be included in my top ten list. And all four were persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and all four demonstrated that theirs was the kingdom of heaven.
God’s Kingdom has always been an upside-down kingdom (at least, from our perspective). “Blessed” has always meant, “approved by God” (both now and at the last judgment). It never promised good luck. Being highly favored by God has always referred to those who are recipients of God’s grace. It never spoke of those who would be given the “Midas touch.” And that upside-down kingdom was pictured even before Jesus was born. The story of Jesus’ kingdom begins with the upside-down lives of Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah.
But here’s the point: Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah invite us to follow them so that we too can be blessed by God and highly favored. Now, on one hand, that sounds awful; and if you lived in the 1600’s, you would be absolutely right!