Hail Mary

" '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 Him the throne of His Father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.' And Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?' " And the angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.' " Luke 1:31-35

I played my high school football in New York, and went up against several powerful parochial school teams. I remember St. Anthony's, St. John's and my personal favorite Mercy High. They never took any mercy on us. Before the game, they would take a knee and pray 'Hail Mary!' as a final warm up before they took the field. Competing against them was like being hit by a hail storm in an open field. Nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. Their game plan of placing "Hail Mary!" at the beginning of the game proved very effective. Our strategy on the other hand was to play the entire game and save our "Hail Mary!" for the end. Why? Because football with its time honored tradition has christened this prayer to Mary, and attached it to a play designed as a last second fling of the ball, high into the air as a desperate gamble to pull out a win at the end of a game with a long pass into the end zone.

"Hail Mary!" usually triggers my memory cells to recall Clint Longley, "The Mad Bomber" from Abilene Christian. Longely was a Dallas Cowboy quarterback for a day. He replaced an injured Roger Staubach in a memorable game in 1974. He is remembered for pulling out a last second 24-23 win against the Washington Red Skins on Thanksgiving Day with a 50 yard pass to Drew Pearson. Ten years later, Doug Flutie, the small man's hero and quarterback for Boston College, threw a 48 yard pass into the end zone to pull out a last second win against Miami on November 23, 1984. This is the kind of 'Hail Mary!" even a Southern Baptist boy can pray. I admit I have always had an uneasy relationship with the concept of praying to Mary, but I get serious about a "Hail Mary!" when Baylor is behind in a football game. My religious convictions can't be bought, but they can be rented when an all or nothing pass into the end zone is needed to salvage a win. Over the years, I have prayed for this play a lot, but without the happy endings. Still, "I Believe!" Wait 'til next year. Sic 'Em Bears!

During the Christmas season, I always advocate saying and repeating "Merry Christmas" as a way of honoring Christ on His birthday. However, I do not think it is poor protocol to suggest we avoid the dual danger of making too much or saying too little about Mary. The Word of God provides some amazing descriptions of this young lady who was chosen out of all the women of the world to be the earthly mother of Jesus. There is nothing wrong with honoring the character and the conduct of this unique individual. Throwing her under the Bible bus may reflect more on our personal prejudices than it does on our personal devotion to private prayer. God is probably not pleased with any depreciation of the lady He chose to carry, and cradle His Son.

"Gabriel was sent from God." (Luke 1:26) He was assigned an awesome mission to an unlikely destination. The proverbial burn of that day was, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" The question was rhetorical, but the answer was categorical. NO! Regional rivalries were not invented by Texas and Oklahoma. (Hook 'Em Horns!) Gabriel was sent by God on a "divine appointment" to interrupt the plans of Mary and Joseph. They were engaged to be married. One of the reasons for a betrothal was the year long waiting period. Between the announcement of the marriage to the day of the wedding, both families wanted to be assured of the bride's clear reputation for purity. If she became pregnant before the wedding day, she would be in violation of the betrothal agreement, and the marriage contract would be voided. Mary knew this very well. Shame was a powerful weapon against infidelity and immorality in those days. The Bible refers to her as a virgin, meaning she had never had sexual relations with her soul-mate or any other man outside of marriage. Her reputation was beyond reproach.

The first words from Gabriel's lips to Mary's ears were, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." (Luke 1:28) Literally, he was stating her position before God as a "woman richly blessed." Her first reaction to this startling salutation was natural. She was greatly troubled or in fear (v. 29-30), but the angel assured her that she had found favor with God. She had not been trying to gain favor from God, but God was looking for a way to pour His favor out on her. She lived in a way that caught God's attention. What a great way to live!

When she was told that she would bear a son, her response was understandable consternation. She defended her character with a clear statement that she had never known a man in a way that would enable her to have a child. The angel's response to Mary should be a lesson to us all. God looks for availability, not ability. The birth of Jesus was not going to be about Mary's love for a man. It was going to be about God's love for man. Mary and Joseph had made a plan for their lives. They were in love with one another, but God was about to expand their plans in order to share His love with the whole world. The lesson deepens with the understanding that God's best for our lives will often bring a disruption of our agenda in order for us to get in on His.

God is not interested in what is good for us. He is interested in what is best for us. The remarkable transition from a good idea to God's idea would take place in Mary's life when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. This is the difference between man made plans and those with God's hand prints all over them. The 'holy offspring" God was going to birth through Mary was going to reveal a love so great that it would cause her love for Joseph to pale in comparison. His name was going to be called Jesus. (v. 35)

Anticipating the loneliness that would come to her as a result of her public rejection, God commissioned Gabriel to let Mary in on another secret. Her close relative, Elizabeth was with child from her union with her husband, Zacharias. The obstacles of her advanced age and subsequent barrenness had been overcome by God. In this context, Mary was given a shoulder to lean on, and one of the greatest prayer promises of all, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (v. 37) Mary was joining a long list of people who have discovered throughout the centuries that God wants them to give the "impossible" to Him. In His capable hands, the "impossible" is transformed into the "HIMPOSSIBLE." Still does. Still will. Nuff said.

The death of a vision initiates a powerful, internal struggle to let go of a personal preference to be freed up to take hold of a God-sized purpose. Anyone holding on with a white-knuckled, tight-fisted grip to a good idea will miss God's best every time. Mary responded to this most unusual interruption of her wedding plans with great grace and humility that is not known in a culture full of "Bridezillas."

"Behold, the bond slave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38)

Mary was not focused on making a name for herself, even before she met Gabriel. When he left, her goal in life became lifting up the name of Jesus..."The Lord is salvation." Her name is sometimes translated in Hebrew, "bitter or disobedient." What a great paradox, that someone who carries a name like that could be used by God to show us how to be better rather than bitter. God often disrupts our plans with a "divine appointment" camouflaged as a disappointment. Mary was not in danger of having to stay after school to learn the lesson. She grasped what Gabriel's message meant. She yielded her good idea, attaching herself to God's Lordship as the only way to get in on what God was up to in her life. Rather than stiff arming God's new direction, she began preparing her arms to receive God's greatest gift of love, Jesus.

"And the angel of the Lord departed from her." (v. 38)

Mission accomplished! I am still tempted to flinch at someone who is driving down the religious road, crossing over the line, and heading towards me making more of Mary than God did. I try to make sure I don't over correct my steering and end up in a ditch on the other side of the road. OK. I get it. Mary is not a junior partner in the Trinity. I do not have to pray to her to get the ear of Jesus. She was faithful to deliver Jesus, and His name is sufficient to deliver me. Still, she was an amazing lady who caught God's attention with her character and conduct when no one else was watching. She responded with amazing grace to an even more amazing commission. In spite of the consequences she knew had to be coming her way, she made herself available to the Holy Spirit. She embraced the will of God, and the overshadowing of her plans. She became a part of something only God could do. By birthing through her body the life of a child, she made it possible for God to deliver the kind of life He had in mind for His children. I hope some of my more chauvinistic brothers don't choke on this, but God has a lot to teach us from the life of this woman. Hail Mary!