In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail [emphasis mine].” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
–Luke 1.26-38 (NIV)
Today we have a study of contrasts from yesterday’s passage. In yesterday’s reflection, we saw how Zechariah was afraid when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and doubted the wondrous promise of God that he and Elizabeth would have a baby in their old age. Zechariah asked Gabriel for a sign and instead received the gift of imposed silence.
Contrast Zechariah’s reaction to Mary’s in today’s passage. Like Zechariah, Mary was afraid when Gabriel appeared to her and announced she was favored by the Lord. She wondered what that could possibly mean. And as we saw yesterday, the angel’s announcement to her that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and bear a child put Mary in a very precarious position.
Unlike Zechariah, however, Mary heeded Gabriel’s advice. She stopped being afraid and submitted herself to God’s will. She wondered how God could possibly accomplish this but unlike Zechariah, she did not ask the angel for a sign. Instead, she took Gabriel at his word when he told her that, “no word from God will ever fail.” We know this based on what Luke tells us later in verse 45: [Elizabeth said to Mary,] “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Notice the trust and faith this requires. Mary had no assurance or guarantee that she would not end up put out of her community or killed. Yet she trusted God and obeyed, and consequently stopped being afraid. This can only come from great faith and knowledge of God. Why would we expect Mary to trust a God whom she did not know? That just doesn’t make sense. No, surely Mary knew this God about whom Gabriel spoke and thus she stopped being afraid because she trusted God.
And Mary is not the only one who has found peace and assurance by putting her hope and trust in God. Consider the following story of the martyrs of Lyon (177 AD):
But the whole fury of the mob, the governor, and the soldiers particularly fell on Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne; Maturus, a recent convert yet a noble combatant; Attalus, a native of Pergamus, where he had always been a Pillar and foundation of the church; and on Blandina, through whom Christ showed that the things that to men appear vile and deformed and contemptible are with God of great glory, on account of love to Him,—a love which is not a mere boastful appearance, but shows itself in the power which it exercises over the life. We were all afraid, especially her earthly mistress, who was herself one of the combatants among the Witnesses, that she would not be able to make a bold confession on account of the weakness of her body. But, Blandina was filled with such power, that those who tortured her one after the other in every way from morning till evening were wearied and tired. They admitted they were baffled. They had no other torture they could apply to her. They were astonished that she remained alive. Her whole body was torn and opened up. They said that even one of the forms of torture employed was enough to have destroyed her life, not to mention so many excruciating punishments. But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession. Her declaration, “I am a Christian, and there is no evil done amongst us,” brought her refreshment, rest, and insensibility to all the sufferings inflicted on her.
Sanctus also nobly endured all the excessive and superhuman tortures which man could possibly devise. For the wicked hoped, because of the continuance and greatness of the tortures, to hear him confess some of the alleged unlawful practices. But he opposed them with such firmness that he did not tell them even his own name, nor that of his nation or city, nor if he were slave or free. In answer to all these questions, he said in Latin, “I am a Christian.” …He gave this confession to every question placed to him. Therefore the governor and the torturers determined to subdue him. When every other means failed, they at last fixed red-hot plates of brass to the most delicate parts of his body. And these indeed were burned, but he himself remained inflexible, unyielding, and firm in his confession. He was refreshed and strengthened by the heavenly fountain of the water of life which issues from the belly of Christ. But his body bore witness to what had happened. It was all wounds and welts, shrunk and torn up. It had externally lost the human shape. In him Christ suffering worked great wonders, destroying the enemy. He was an example to the others that there is nothing fearful where there is the Father’s love, and nothing painful where there is Christ’s glory. For the wicked after some days again tortured the Witness. They thought that, since his body was swollen and inflamed, if they were to apply the same tortures they would gain the victory over him, especially since the parts of his body could not bear to be touched by the hand. Possibly he would die from the tortures and inspire the rest with fear. Yet not only did no such thing happen to him, but even, contrary to every human expectation, his body unbent itself. It became erect during the subsequent tortures and resumed its former appearance and the use of its limbs. The second torture turned out through the grace of Christ a cure, not an affliction.
Unless we are willing to say that Blandina, Sanctus, and the others were simply crazy and out of their minds, we cannot help but be amazed at the secret of their power to face the most horrendous circumstances that the forces of darkness could throw at them. Their great faith and trust in the Christ who had redeemed them enabled them to rejoice even as their bodies were being tortured to death. They clearly took Jesus at his word to not be afraid of “those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear him who could destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10.28). They were not afraid because they knew the One who had claimed them forever. They understood that life and living is more than biological existence or material comfort.
Real life is having an intimate relationship with the Source and Author of all life. That is real power. That is real life. That is the only real antidote to the fear that besets us.
The same power that Mary, Blandina, Sanctus, and countless other Christians have found is available to you too. If you have not done so already, are you willing to take the leap and put your whole hope and trust in Christ so that you too will find real life and power to overcome all of your fears?