Advent devotional 2: A divine passive

Photo: Waiting on the Word, God the Father, Flickr

Photo: Waiting on the Word, God the Father, Flickr

…Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. (Matthew 1:15b–17, NIV)

What a difference a bit of grammar can make (so says Michael J. Wilkins in The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew [Zondervan, 2004]). Throughout the genealogy we looked at last week, Matthew used the Greek verb gennao in the active voice, such as “Abraham fathered Isaac.” After forty instances of the active verb, he turns to the passive when describing Mary and Jesus – in the NIV, Joseph was the husband of Mary, “of whom was born Jesus…” Matthew’s readers would have noticed this shift, for it implies what many grammarians “call a divine passive, where God is the assumed agent of the action” (p. 63).

When I trained to be an editor, my teachers drummed into me always to use the active voice. But sometimes, as we see here, the passive is quite simply divine. In a simple shift of language, Matthew points to God at work. Watch out, he says, for what comes next is something new and completely different.

When it comes to his people, God is always the divine initiator. Mary responded to him, saying yes to God working literally in her body – “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (v.20). Luke’s gospel records her humble and willing response when the angel announces that she will conceive a child through the “power of the Most High” (Luke 1:35): “I am the Lord’s servant… may it be to me according to your word” (v.38). Mary’s receptivity changed the world.

How does God want to break through to us? He may not want us to change the world, but rather parts of our world. Perhaps he is opening a new opportunity for service, or inviting us to mentor someone, or prompting us to extinguish anger and repair a broken relationship. Whatever it is, as we are still and listen for his voice, we will hear his words of love and guidance. May we be as Mary, responding with open hands and a receptive heart.

For reflection: The angel Gabriel to Mary: “For no word from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37).

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