The angel said to 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 holy; he will be called Son of God. [Luke 1.35]
How would you have felt if you were Mary, hearing the angel’s words: the power of the Most High will overshadow you? Daunted? weighed down? terrified? overwhelmed? or, just plain confused?
In the Lord of the Rings, you may remember how the Ring-Wraiths overshadowed Frodo, and struck terror into him. Tolkien says of them that at length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.
But Mary’s response is calm, if a little awed; measured, even though she recognizes that this overshadowing bears the hallmarks of the hand of God: Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
Mary was nobody’s fool, and she will have been brought up as a devout observant Jew. She will have known her scriptures, and would have interpreted Gabriel’s words about being overshadowed in the light of those scriptures. So think for a moment about what’s in the background:
- A creation story in which the same Holy Spirit is said to have hovered over - overshadowed - the face of the deep and brought light and life out of chaos. God’s powerful overshadowing is the source of all light - God overshadows: and creation happens.
- A story of revelation in which Moses comes face to face with a burning bush, and is introduced to God by name. I am who I am, says God. Moses is overshadowed, overawed by the bush, and discovers that God cares for the people he has created. God overshadows, and his people learn his name.
- A story of salvation, with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, both overshadowing the people of Israel and leading them out of slavery into the Promised Land: The cloud was seen overshadowing the camp, and dry land emerging where water had stood before, an unhindered way out of the Red Sea, and a grassy plain out of the raging waves… [Wisdom 19.7] God overshadows his people with an embrace, and his people are brought across the Red Sea.
Over time, this image of an overshadowing cloud came to be understood by the Jews as the powerful, sometimes terrifying but also reassuring presence of God, watching, guiding, challenging, judging, making things happen.
And it is this image that helps Mary to understand the angel’s message. God will make the impossible happen through this climactic overshadowing – all he needs is her Yes – and out of her obedience this overshadowing will bring healing to the world.
Fast forward to the first night after the birth of Mary’s son – another overshadowing, and a moment of consternation too: Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. An overshadowing, a reassurance, and a message, just as with Mary.
Which brings me to your place, and mine, in this story:
You may think it would be so much easier for you if you’d had Mary’s, or the shepherds’, experience. And you have. Mary was overshadowed by the power of the most High, the shepherds by the glory of God and the angels song, we by the story of heaven breaking in on earth. The problem lies not with a God who has gone quiet, but with a world which has lost its ability to listen to the things that really matter. Stop, and listen, and wonder.
And of course, rehearse the message: the one whose birth we celebrate is Son of God, Messiah, Saviour, Lord. This is the most important news the world has ever heard, will ever hear: it’s God himself coming to us to inaugurate his Kingdom on earth, in us. Go, and speak, and amaze the world.