Overshadowed

NOVEMBER 2008: INSIDE OUT

by Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power
of the Most High will overshadow you.
Luke 1:35

In The Gospel According to Steve, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to ask her permission, to give her a choice. Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell it that way. Gabriel only makes announcements. He asks no questions.

He tells Mary she is favored by God. He tells Mary not to be afraid. He tells Mary she will conceive in her womb a son. He tells Mary this son will be named Jesus. He tells her nothing is impossible with God.

Never, not once, does Gabriel say to Mary, “So what do you think? Will you do it?” Never, not once, do we hear Mary negotiating terms with Gabriel. “Will Joseph stick around? Will my parents still love me? Will it be an easy labor?”

I like to think of myself as an independent, reasonable person. I have choices. I am free to do this or that. I suspect you think the same about yourself. This is one of our most cherished assumptions about ourselves. What is the alternative? To be trapped, a passive victim?

Yet most of the important things in life are announced, not asked.

  • Mom, I think I’m in love with this great guy. You’ve got to meet him!
  • In a pre-dawn raid, Japanese forces attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
  • Mrs. Walker, the results of the procedure are back from the lab.
  • Ed, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but we won’t be needing your services any longer.

In these situations, no one asks. They just tell. Our best laid plans, our decisions and choices are pushed aside by terrible things and wonderful things.

Gabriel tells Mary that the power of the Most High will overshadow her. To modern ears, flush with notions of our decision-making powers and independence, this does not sound good. As Whitney Houston once wailed, “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow.”

But perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps “overshadowed” does not mean Mary was steamrolled or cut out of the loop. At the end of the encounter Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” The power of the Most High and human choice are not opposites, pitted against each other. Instead, they complement and fit one another. True freedom, really the only freedom, comes when, like Mary, we say “yes” to God. “Yes, God, I’ll go with you on this one.”

That “yes” of ours is not trifling or inconsequential. Choices matter. Decisions do have consequences. Our saying “yes” allows us to come together with and be caught up in the great ways of God. God’s people need opportunities to express our “yes.” Affirming our faith with the great creeds. Going forward at summer camp to light a candle.

But perhaps God loves us so much that, on some most essential decisions, God elects for us. Some things are not a result of careful decision. They happen not because we make wise choices. It is sheer gift, God’s doing. God loves us so much as to choose for us. Call that controlling, patronizing, belittling, if you must. Or receive it as loving and devoted. Most of the important things in life are announced, not asked.

  • Do not be afraid.
  • The Holy Spirit will come upon you.
  • Nothing is impossible with God.
Stephen Mathonnet-VanderWell is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, and co-editor of Perspectives.