The Scandal of Hope

The Scandal of Hope

James Enns

[Gabriel said], “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord;

let it be done to me according to your word.”

Luke 1: 37–38

Today is the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the angel Gabriel’s announcement that Mary would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. His name would be Jesus – Yeshua – meaning deliverer, Savior. He would be called the Son of the Most High. Mary wondered how she could become pregnant without losing her virginity. However, her initial questioning turns to faithful, humble acceptance when Gabriel assures her that with God the “impossible” is never an obstacle. Mary believes Gabriel’s pronouncement and thus embraces the “glorious impossible.”

This feast day is a jarring note of celebration in the midst of the somber, penitential season of Lent. On my 2021 calendar marking the seasons of the church year by colour, March 25th is a tiny island of white – the colour of celebration – surrounded by a sea of purple and red, which denote Lent and then Holy Week. It is a brief flickering beacon of hope among the lengthening dark shadows of Lent, like a firefly that sparks briefly in the darkness on a moonless summer night.

The Annunciation, falling as it does in the middle of Lent, is a reminder to me that even in seasons where brokenness, penitence and lament dominate the musical score of our reflections, hope enters as a brief, intermittent counterpoint. But the annunciation in the middle of Lent also reminds us that hope comes with a price. Like Mary we can humbly declare our faith in the God of the impossible, but we must also be willing to live with the scandal of the impossible. The Gospel writers only drop a hint or two as to what that looked like. John 8:41 implies that the Pharisees thought Jesus was a bastard, hastily adopted by Joseph to salvage his wife’s reputation with the legal veneer of respectability. If so, then it is easily plausible that similar village gossip would have dogged Mary right from the time her pregnancy became common knowledge in her home town of Nazareth.

Another kind of scandal was prophesied by Simeon when he says of the infant Jesus that he will be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to…Israel.” Right after this lofty pronouncement he blesses Mary by telling that her child is “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed…and a sword will pierce your own soul as well” (Lk. 2:32-35). Hope of salvation for the many will feel like a piercing sword for Mary. Long before the adult Jesus would tell his disciples, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” Mary had been walking that path since Gabriel’s visit.

In Luke’s Gospel Mary breaks out of her otherworldly iconographic glass case and becomes a real historical figure: a vulnerable young Hebrew girl, wavering between doubt and trust, but ultimately embracing the scandal of hope because she trusts that for God nothing is impossible.

For me the Annunciation is a fitting feast for Lent because it holds in tension Mary’s faithful embrace of hope in God’s promised salvation, knowing that on the journey to its realization we will walk through seasons of scandal and sorrow.

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by the angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada, p. 402)

James Enns (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of history at Prairie College, and Priest-in-Charge at St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Three Hills, Alberta. He is the author of Saving Germany: North American Protestant and Christian Mission to West Germany, 1945 – 1974.