“I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die…”
In the English language the verb “to wonder” can have either a positive or negative connotation, evident from its second and third definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary:
– the 2nd definition: “feel doubt”
– the 3rd definition: “feel admiration and amazement; marvel”
That’s quite a contrast. (In case you’re wondering, the 1st definition is to “desire or be curious to know something”!)
For some of us, when we ponder the mystery of the Incarnation, we “feel admiration and amazement”; we revel in the mystery. Somehow we are unbothered by its unfathomability. But isn’t that naïve?
For others of us, the mystery of the Incarnation–indeed, the “mystery,” or inexplicability, of any aspect of Christianity–is troubling: we “feel doubt.” We wonder: is “mystery” just code for “make believe”?
Looking to Luke’s narration of the “Christmas story,” we read of two main characters who, upon hearing angelic announcements of the marvelous things to come, respond with…wonder:
First, when the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that his infertile (and aged) wife Elizabeth will conceive, he responds, “How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.”
Second, when the same angel announces to the young virgin Mary that she will conceive, she responds, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel’s responses to Zechariah and Mary differ considerably in both tone and content suggesting different kinds of “wondering”:
To Zechariah: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you…. And now you will be silent…, because you did not believe my words….”
To Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you….”
In both cases the angel’s responses are instructive for us who want to know more, who want to be sure.
In response to Zechariah, the angel Gabriel feels no sense of obligation to offer an explanation. Intriguingly, Gabriel provides Zechariah not with a reason but with a résumé:
“Zach, you can be sure of all I’ve just said, because this is who I am….”
Confronted with an extraordinary incident, Zechariah counters with a claim of inadequate information. But Gabriel’s counterclaim is that, if one desires to be “sure” about something, one must consider the origin, not the amount, of knowledge.
In short, knowing something “for sure” comes from wrestling with the character of its source, not the quantity of its supply.
Imagine a renowned oncologist telling you that you have cancer, and you respond, “But how I can be sure of this?” Or, imagine an undefeated defense attorney, after reviewing your case, telling you that you have no case and that you should opt for plea bargaining, and you respond, “But how can I be sure of this?”
Such questioning would be tantamount to casting doubt on these experts’ character and competence, while elevating one’s own.
Zechariah held his own character and competence in higher regard than the angel’s, holding out for more “intel,” apparently so he could conduct his own “independent” assessment. He judged himself capable to decide what was (and wasn’t) true, of what was (and wasn’t) possible. Really?
That’s more than a little arrogant. It’s like saying, “I’m the expert here.”
Zechariah had to choose between trusting the self and trusting the sacred.
(One could add that Zechariah also had–like we have–the option of trusting the scholar–i.e., of trusting another’s self–what we might call the specialist’s, or scientist’s, self. But perhaps unlike Zechariah, we have the privilege of two millennia of watching the learned science and scholarship of one era become the laughable superstition of the next.)
Further, as a priest, whose role was to teach Israel her Scriptures, one thing Zechariah did know for sure was that, as extraordinary as his elderly and infertile wife’s conception would be, it wasn’t without precedent: he did in fact have categories for this kind of thing: Israel’s ancient texts told of God enabling infertile women to conceive as a sign that He was about to act in game-changing ways for His people–ways that would give life and a future to those who had no hope of either.
So Zechariah actually had categories for an infertile and elderly woman conceiving a child.
Not so with a virgin birth.
Who had ever heard of that?
Well, actually, Isaiah, one of Israel’s ancient prophets, had.
And, apparently–or so Matthew’s gospel tells us–Isaiah’s mention of it was still in need of fulfillment.
And so, yes, a virgin birth would be something entirely new–de novo, as the theologians like to say. It signaled not the extraordinary but the unprecedented, the utterly revolutionary.
The virgin birth signaled Adam/humanity 2.0.
And so, not too surprisingly, the angel Gabriel gives Mary a response, speaking of the Holy Spirit “coming upon” her and the power of the Most High “overshadowing” her.
Technically, this is an explanation. But it’s hardly an elucidation: it doesn’t exactly clarify things. If anything, it only further piques one’s curiosity: “Okay, but how…? when…? and what about…?”
But the angel moves on, first describing Mary’s future son as one possessing utterly unique divine authority (as “holy…the Son of God”) and then informing Mary of infertile and aged Elizabeth’s extraordinary pregnancy, concluding:
“…for nothing is impossible with God.”
This last statement challenges the plausibility structures of everyone–whether the most saintly or the most secular. In fact, it even challenges (what we might call) our possibility structures.
For ancient Israel it was a theological “given” that, far from being a local, tribal god, Israel’s God Yahweh was the one God–i.e., the only God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh, our God, Yahweh is one,” declared the Shema (Deut. 6.4). Implicit in this “given” is the limitless power–and, thus, possibility–of Israel’s God: as the lone Uncreated and Unconstrained One, he could do whatsoever he pleases.
In short, imbedded in the ability to make all things is the ability to re-make all things.
Therefore, the theological “givenness” of Yahweh as the Creator gave rise to two deeply Jewish virtues–hope and humility:
Hope, because, as the angel says, “nothing is impossible with God.”
Humility, because what humans cannot begin to imagine, much less engineer, can be (and has been) effortlessly orchestrated by Israel’s God.
From this it only makes sense–it is only rational–that humans will not be able (indeed, were not created to be able) to comprehend all that God has created–or re-created: His acts of creation and new creation rightly awaken in us an overwhelming and abiding sense of…wonder.
In the previous paragraph I used the word “rational” (italicized), because I want to highlight that, when followers of Jesus wonder, they are being rational.
They are being neither irrationalist or rationalist, but rational. Let’s contrast these three:
1. irrationalist: the irrationalist expects that life will be incomprehensible; s/he expects (and expresses) the absurd; for the irrationalist, life will be all question marks: “Who can really be sure?” they ask (but how, one might ask, can they be so sure of their agnosticism? where does their confidence in their doubt come from?);
2. rationalist: the rationalist demands that life be completely comprehensible; if we can’t comprehend it, it must be incomprehensible; if we can’t reconcile it, it must be irreconcilable. For the rationalist, question marks are anathema; only periods (and exclamation points) are acceptable. There are two flavors of rationalism–religious (called fundamentalism) and secular (called scientism): both claim (or, at least, act as though) they have access to all the answers;
3. rational: the rational person lives life expecting–but not demanding–that much in life will be comprehensible but much in life won’t be as well; life will have periods, and it will have question marks (as well as exclamation points); there are too many periods to be irrationalist, yet too many question marks to be rationalistic.
For rational persons, these question marks at times cause them to weep, and at other times they cause them to wonder. Sometimes these question marks lead them to do both.
True to life, true to Scripture, the rational person bears the twin virtues of hope and humility.
But what do these twin virtues actually look like? Well, Mary shows us exactly what it looks like:
In response to the angel’s declaration that “nothing is impossible with God,” she says:
“I am the Lord’s servant.”
This is faith. This is freedom. A faith and freedom revealing a hope and humility rooted in a promise-making God, for whom nothing is impossible.
In sum, Mary realized that there was much that she did not–and probably could not–understand, but there was much that, wonderfully, she did not need to understand.
She was sure of it.