In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 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 12:26-35)
Oh dear, it’s been a long time again. Sorry folks! This is my attempt to atone by writing something seasonal. I’m allowed to now it’s Advent…
In the last couple of years I’ve followed the Visual Commentary on Scripture’s Advent Calendar, which provides an artwork, Bible passage and commentary for each day of Advent ( https://thevcs.org/Advent2022 ). This year’s theme is Angels, so today’s Bible reading was the above. Part of innumerable Carol Services and Festivals of Nine Lessons and Carols, surely this is a story so familiar that there is nothing new to be said about it? But today I was brought up short, first by the fact that the VCS had managed to miss out the crucial verse 35 in which Gabriel answers Mary’s perplexed question, with ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’. And second, after I’d emailed them and it was reinstated, by the phrase ‘the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God (echoing his earlier statement ‘He will be… called the Son of the Most High’.
My eye lighted on those few words ‘will be called’, and suddenly it occured to me to ask, what would he have been called if Mary had not had that reassurance? I can think of a few names he might accrue, but none of them would be polite. At the very best, he would be not ‘the son of God’, but ‘the sin of Mary’ (yes, that typo is deliberate).
What we are called is important to us. Yesterday someone pronounced that what I was saying was boring, and I was wounded. I managed to restrict myself to answering sarcastically ‘Thank you for that affirmation’ but I could have been much ruder, and I left shortly after. Whether I am called ‘a senior citizen’, ‘a mature woman’, or just ‘an old dear’ makes a real difference to me (I have given up hope of being called a cougar..). What people are called is equally important to Bible characters and the stories about them. How heartbreaking is it when Hosea is instructed to call his second and third children ‘Not-loved’ and ‘Not-my-people’? (shortly after naming his firstborn after a notorious massacre, a bit like naming your daughter ‘Sandy Hook’)? Hosea, incidentally, is a form of the name Joshua, and also of Jesus – which of course means ‘God saves’.
There’s often a bit of a kerfuffle over what we call this season and its climax. Is it Advent, or just ‘the run-up to Christmas’? Not to mention the culture wars over Christmas, Xmas (in which the X is actually the Greek letter Chi standing for ‘Christ’ ) or Winterval… Personally, now I’m an Austrian citizen (as of a couple of weeks ago) I think I shall start calling it ‘Weihnachten’, which essentially means ‘sacred night’, since the Austrians celebrate on Christmas Eve (‘Weihrauch’ is incense, or sacred smoke…)
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that much what we call it, compared to what we call the one whose birth it celebrates. Gabriel doesn’t elaborate on the theological implications of ‘son of the most high’ or ‘son of God – that’s left to Jesus’ later disciples, and ultimately to us. Anna, in the extraordinary book Mister God, this is Anna called him ‘Jether’, an obscure Old Testament word that means something like ‘rope’ or ‘connection’. She didn’t want to call him Jesus because in her former life she had only encountered this name as a swear word. Many Jewish followers of Jesus call him Yeshua or Y’shua, the Hebrew rather than the Latin form of his name. My Christadelphian in-laws would be happy to use either of the titles Gabriel offers, but not to call him God, as they are non-trinitarian. I honestly think, if they call him Lord and attempt to follow him, it is not going to be any obstacle to entry into the Kingdom for any of them.
I wonder, what difference does it make what we call other people? ‘Illegal migrants’ or ‘asylum seekers’? ‘Terror threat’ or ‘grooming victim’? (I’m thinking of Shamima Begum, who was under age when she was recruited to ISIS, and bore three children, who all died, before she was 18…) And what about what we call ourselves?