I stare at this morning’s passage in Luke. The angel has just said to Mary, “God has a surprise for you” (MSG, 1:29-33). I’m reading The Message transliteration, and its words sound fresh to my ears.
I’m practicing lectio divina, an ancient form of Scripture-reading long used by Benedictine monks to encounter the Bible anew. It can be translated as “divine reading,” a way of listening for God’s voice in the text of Scripture.
When I’m talking to people about lectio divina, I usually describe an image of the heart as a metal detector hovering above the words. I ask God to help my heart go beep beep beep when I hit the word or phrase that God wants me to see in some new, valuable way. Maybe it’s a message I need to take from the passage. Maybe it’s just a moment to tell me that I’m not forgotten, that I am God’s beloved. Either way, on good days, I come to this time listening.
There it is: God has a surprise for you.
In my experience, God’s surprises are almost always complicated. Last year during Advent, God interrupted my typical pregnancy with news that my life was about to change. It happened about as quickly as with Mary.
My annunciation, though, did not include a blast of light or an angelic being. Instead, my announcement came on my cell phone while I pushed my son Brooks in his stroller to gymnastics class four blocks away.
I’d been waiting for test results from a genetic counselor following my 20-week appointment. A physical marker during the ultrasound led doctors to believe my sweet baby in-utero had a 1 in 476 chance of having Down syndrome.
This was my third baby. I’d walked with enough friends through these sorts of physical markers, through these random statistics. I’d watched them cry and wring their hands and worry until the tests results came back normal. Not me, I decided. I’m not going to worry about this.
I took a new blood test to alleviate any potential anxiety as soon as possible. When the phone rang during that walk, I picked up the call. I wanted to get the news out of the way so we could go into the Christmas season without any fear hanging over our heads.
I said hello. You know how it goes when an angel arrives in glory, marking you as God’s own beloved one? It’s terrifying. In this metaphor, the genetic counselor playing the part of the archangel Gabriel does not tell me, “Do not be afraid.” And she does not say, “I bring you good news of great joy!”
She said, “The results came back positive.” And I stopped breathing.
Did she say positive? Does positive mean he has Down syndrome? Maybe positive is good? Maybe positive means he’s fine. My thoughts swam past my consciousness at the same time, like words on pieces of paper floating in a jar of oil.
Okay, I said.
“That means the blood results show that your baby has an extra 21st chromosome.”
Okay, I said.
“So there’s a 99.75 percent chance that your baby will have Down syndrome.”
The light changed. I crossed the street, pushing the stroller, holding the phone to my ear. Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay. A little less lovely than Mary’s response: “Let it be with me just as you say” (Luke 1:38).
I hung up. No angel escaping heavenward, just my hands shaking all the way to the gym. I took deep breaths, unbuckled my three-year-old and asked him to take his shoes off. I unzipped his hoodie. Folded it. Lay it on the shoes, a pile on the bleacher. Brooks lined up with his instructor. Okay, okay, okay, okay.
Two weeks later my obstetrician would look in my eyes while I asked, “But it’s possible my baby doesn’t have Down syndrome, right? It’s possible because the test isn’t 100 percent certain.” She’d lean closer and say it again, “Micha, it’s very likely he will. Most likely, your baby will have Down syndrome.”
God has a surprise for you. It was complicated for Mary, wasn’t it? God’s surprises are almost always complicated. And beautiful.
As with all annunciations, when the angel disappears, we turn and walk into our changed lives. How do you face the acquaintance at your kid’s school who asks the next day—smile on her face—how the pregnancy is going? How is Mary supposed to answer the giggling young women at the town well who ask how she’s feeling about her future with the super cute Joseph? Uncertain, Mary thinks, holding back her morning sickness.
What do we say? Well, yesterday an angel arrived and called me blessed among women. So that changes everything.
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest will hover over you (Luke 1:35).
I hear the beep of my metal detector heart over that word hover. To have God’s hovering over me: That’s what I had longed for in the days of grief and growing, my baby’s beautiful stretching inside of me. I hoped I would become the woman God already believed I was: capable of receiving this gift, in all its beauty, in all its danger.
Mary sings, “His mercy flows in wave after wave.” Surely she believed that, even later, as her contractions pulled her under the current, in wave after suffocating wave of labor.
Wave after wave the mercy flowed for me. Each morning after the angel’s visit I opened my eyes and prayed with Mary, “I receive my child.” Let it be done to me as you have said.
One year later, I whisper Mary’s story out loud in the dark of early morning. My seven-month-old baby lies on the floor, king of tummy time. He investigates his rubber giraffe with his mouth, intermittingly blowing raspberries. This child is my great joy. And though every fear that shook my body one year ago still remains, that fear has no power when set beside the all-consuming sweetness of my child’s life.
It is Advent, the season of waiting. We wait for the mercy, mercy that sometimes hides in the powerful waves that threaten to pull us under. Blessed woman, the Scripture says, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!
Micha ("MY-cah") Boyett is a writer, blogger, and sometimes poet. A former youth minister, she's passionate about monasticism and ancient Christian spiritual practices and how they inform the contemporary life of faith. She is the author of Found: A Story Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer. Boyett and her husband live in San Francisco with their three boys. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook, and find her blog at michaboyett.com.
Micha wrote about her pregnancy with her third son in a post for Her.meneutics: ‘As Long as the Baby’s Healthy’… But What if He’s Not?