She sat beneath a blossoming almond tree as the wind blew soft, white petals all around her. She loved to do this, she once told her mother, because it felt as if God was giving her kisses. She closed her eyes, pulled an unruly ringlet of hair behind her ear, and laid her head against the tree trunk. The day was fading into the west, and settling into her memory.
Her thoughts were a dance of questions and observances. Though she was young (tomorrow would be her fifteenth birthday), it never seemed any age quite suited her. Her mother had long noticed this, and often called her “Little Grandma.” She seemed to take in the world in a mysterious way, eyes wide as a little girl, thoughts deep as a prophetess. Her mother liked to watch her at her prayers at night, praying for just about every person she’d met that day. “Bless Mom and Dad. Bless Elizabeth. Bless the mean looking man at the market. Bless the lady who sold me flowers…” And on it would go.
Today, though, her thoughts went inward. She had practically been raised in the temple, and, until recently, she thought she knew her calling to serve inside it. She was sure. But being an only child in a culture that favoured male progeny could complicate matters that she thought had been settled. A husband would be good for her, her parents told her. He would care for her, watch over her, guard her.
He seemed a good enough man, a man she knew she could perhaps even love in some way. But from as long as she could remember, she had been told she was the handmaid, the spouse, of the Lord. Part of her could not help but feel she was betraying her First Love.
I know what I am called to. I know it. I feel it. How can I be wed when…. A bird lit upon the ground just a short distance away. It was plain as a sparrow but for a striking blue stripe upon its breast. It nipped lightly at the ground, looked up, and gave a chirrup. It caught her eye, cocked its head in a kind of base thoughtfulness, and fluttered away. And she found herself at peace.
Common, she thought, but not ordinary.
She gazed upon the purpling sky, and her thoughts were carried to the faces she had seen today: the beggar at the city gate with whom she had shared a smile, the little barefoot boy she’d heard singing to himself while he played with a stick in a mud puddle, her mother singing quietly through her work, her father resting from his work for a moment and wiping sweat from his brow. Her mind’s eye drifted through these moments, and secret prayers began to float from silently moving lips as the diminishing sun placed its last warm rays upon her cheeks.
Falling almond petals fell lightly upon her open hands. A june bug droned somewhere in the tree above her. Wheels turned and creaked on a mule-drawn cart across the road. She closed her eyes and felt as though she were in the presence of Love Itself, and that each of her prayers, and her questions, would be answered in time.
When she opened her eyes to see an angel, standing before the setting sun, she was surprised, but somehow not alarmed.
"Hello, Mary, Graceful One.”
He was no less tangible than the tree against her back, but of no more weight than the almond blossom on her cheek. His robes were white, but seemed to swirl with light, as if what her eyes perceived as white was actually the thriving, vital presence of all colour. His skin was tan and vibrant, and like his robes, it seemed to be alive with light. His eyes were a kind and verdant green, and when he spoke, his voice was like a song.
“The Lord is with you, Mary. He is proud of you. You are,” he smiled, “highly favoured.”
She drew a breath. Her cheeks reddened. She was a simple girl, and humility accepts praise with caution. Her thoughts began to race with half-formed questions and unknown meanings. A greeting like this would either come with a great task or a foreboding announcement.
"Don't be afraid,” he said, and his eyes smiled. “I have good news for you, Little Grandma. You are going to have a son. And you will name him ‘Jesus’.”
She took a breath.
"He will be great,” he continued. He took a knee and placed a weightless, comforting hand upon her shoulder. “And he will be called Son of the Most High God. Yahweh God will give him the throne of David, his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Mary took another breath.
The angel smiled. “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?”
Mary nodded. Hesitated.
“I believe you,” she whispered. “but… how will this be? I am consecrated. I’m a virgin. I can’t break that promise.”
The angel seemed to revel in her question. "This will not be the son of any man, Mary. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and God's power will overshadow you. So the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. This may seem impossible, but just look at your cousin Elizabeth. She has conceived a son as well, old as she is. The one they called barren is in her sixth month of pregnancy, because nothing…” his smile widened with joy, “Nothing is impossible for God.”
He was became silent, like an advisor to a monarch waiting for a reply.
Streams ran down her face. Her life, her heart, her calling, seemed to coalesce in this moment. The angel’s words seemed to pierce through to her heart like a sword, and nothing had ever felt so right. She wiped the tears away with a smile and a sniffle, took another deep breath, and spoke.
"I am the Lord's servant,” she said. “May it be done as you have said."
The angel bowed, and was gone.
The petal of an almond blossom fell upon her lips.