Michelle Martin

You’ve got mail

Thursday, December 7, 2017

I’ve always loved the readings for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, especially the Gospel, the scene from Luke where Gabriel tells Mary that she is going to bear the Son of God.

The church must like it too, since we get to hear it twice this year. It will make a return appearance on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which also falls on Christmas Eve.

God is keeping his angels busy in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, sending one to Zechariah to announce the impending birth of John the Baptist, and sending Gabriel to Mary.

The evangelist doesn’t say precisely what these messengers from God looked like, but we can surmise that they were, at the very least, disquieting, as they had to tell both Zechariah and Mary not to be afraid. Not like, say, a vulnerable little baby laying in a manger.

Maybe their appearance was so awe-inspiring that it made it easier for the recipients to accept the awesomeness, in the original sense of the word, of their messsage.

Or maybe that was just the way things were in Palestine 2,000 years ago. How else would the Lord have communicated, in a time when a letter could be sent no faster than it could travel on horseback, and that only for the most privileged few?

Now there are all kinds of ways to communicate across vast distances. Radio waves, which travel at the speed of light, can circle the globe seven times in a second. Electric impulses of course are much slower, but still people can text and video chat and talk on the phone and email, 24 hours a day. My children don’t remember a time when it was rare for people to place international calls because it was so expensive; now, if calling costs too much, Skype is free.

The changes in technology have come so fast that it’s easy to forget how different it is now, even for children. Now, when kids’ friends move across the country, or they go to camp with kids from other states, they don’t always disappear. They show up in Instagram likes and comments, as PlayStation or Xbox video game opponents, and yes, on Twitter and even Facebook.

This year, my mother asked what I wanted for Christmas via a “Words with Friends” game message.

So if the Incarnation were to happen today, how would God tell people about it? 

Would Zechariah get a text from an unknown number? Would Mary get an instant message? For that matter, instead of angels in the sky above Bethlehem, would there be a meme? Would it go viral?

The salvation story — the message that God loved us so much that he sent his Son to die to save us — that’s been the greatest viral message of all time, and it’s one that started when getting the word out was something that took years, not seconds.

How God sends the message, though, is only half the story. The other half, the half that falls on us, is how we receive it.