In today’s Gospel we step back nine months to March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, an event all but hidden, but which changed the world.
God whose focal presence had departed the Temple, just prior to the Babylonian invasion (cf Ez 10:18) and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, now returns to the Ark of Mary’s womb. The Glorious presence of God returns now to his people in an obscure town of less than three hundred, a town so small that no road went to it.
We are reading here of a pivotal moment in the history of mankind. God not only returns to his people but becomes one with them in the incarnation.
And at this moment we do well to consider four aspects of this pivotal moment. As we do so, we consider, not only Mary’s glories, but also ours in a subordinate but real way. For Mary is the perfect disciple and typifies in a most excellent way the glories that God also wishes to bestow on us, in perhaps a different but still substantial way. Lets look at for aspects of this Gospel.
I. The RESPECT of God – the text says, The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth. To virgin betrothed to a man name Joseph and the virgin’s name was Mary…Mary said “Behold I am the Handmaid of the Lord, May it be done to me according to your word.”
Note that God asks of Mary her cooperation. Although the Angel Gabriel’s words are not in the form of a question, that Mary considers this to be a request from God is clear from Mary’s response. She says yes, and thus understands it as a request, not merely a statement of what shall be.
In this regard we see an important indicator of the respect of God for her freedom. Surely he has prepared her and equipped her with every good grace to say, yes, but in the end, her free “yes” is significant, and something that God looks for and respects. Otherwise, why send an angel at all? Why come through Mary at all? Why not simply appear suddenly as a full grown man and start to work? As it is, God wills to come through Mary (cf Gen 3:15) and seeks her “yes” in the place of Eve’s “no.”
And this respect for her free “yes” is also a respect God extends to us. Indeed we can see here how God’s respect is in contrast to the devil, who shouts, is invasive, provocative and intrusive. Through cultural noise etc., he tempts and provokes. But God whispers and respectfully invites. He does not force our decision but summons us in love and awaits our answer.
In scripture we read of Jesus, Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20). Hence, though all powerful and able to coerce, God does not do so, he does not act violently or impose his will. He repsects the freedom He Himself gave us, and invites us to cooperate in his plan for us.
Mary (and we) are thus respected by God in terms of our freedom.
II. The REGARD of God – Note in the text the great love of God, appreciation and regard extended to Mary through the Angel. The text says, Hail, Full of grace! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid Mary. You have found favor with God...
As the great and glorious Angel, Gabriel comes to Mary, (and every angel is glorious) he must still, in an astonishing way acknowledge Mary’s beauty, holiness, and perfection, by God’s grace. Imagine an all glorious Archangel rendering a kind of debt of praise to a mere human being! And in so speaking this way He is speaking for God, of the deep love, appreciation and regard that God has for Mary, his greatest human work.
Indeed, we should never forget the Love and deep regard God has for Mary and also for us. Mary is surely God’s masterpiece. But she is also the result of His grace and work.
In a less perfect way, but a still true manner, God also loves us and loves in us the perfection we will one day attain by his grace and mercy. A couple of texts come to mind:
I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. (Jer 31:3)
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious and honored in my sight, and..I love you. (Isaiah 43:1-3)
We are not good, and therefore God loves us. God loves us and therefore we are good, if we accept his love. Mary was, by a singular grace wholly open to God’s love and perfection. But, if we are faithful, we too will one day become the man or woman God has always intended us to be.
God thus shows great regard for Mary (though Gabriel) and he also knows the glory we will one day share.
III. The RIDDLE in the middle – There remains the mysterious question of Mary: “How will this be since I do not know man?” Had she been thinking in merely biological terms she would would have known the obvious answer to the question: she and Joseph would conceive. But her question seems to suppose she had other notions about her future than regular marital relations.
Some hold that the question here is not really her question, but is rhetorically placed here by Luke so that the angel can inform us, the readers, that God alone is the true Father of this Son. But such a notion seems more made up by nervous moderns in an attempt to solve the mystery. Reducing a pivotal question like this to a mere literary device seems unbecoming.
Catholic tradition surely sees evidence here of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. To be sure many other questions are are raised by this resolution of the question: Why would two people get married and live as virgins?….Were such arrangements common at that time? (it would seem not). And so forth.
In the end Mary’s question would surely seem to point to some expectation of Mary that she would “not know man” in some sense, going forward. But at any level we are not going to wholly satisfy our curiosity, and maybe it is none of our business.
One thing is sure, the Church teaches, without ambiguity that Mary remained ever virgin. That this question of hers indicates she was clear on this here, seems a reasonable conclusion, but there remains also a mystery that we must respect and understand, that it is none of our business, ultimately.
In this case, Protestants have some thinking to do. For Mary’s question is not meaningless or naive, it is a true question, with a true context that ought to be respected as at least pointing to her virginity, even if it alone does not alone prove it. For more on this topic read here: New Theological Movement.
IV. The REASSURANCE of God – Mary is in the presence of an Archangel. This alone is frightening enough. But it is also true that her world is shifting quite dramatically. Hence her natural fear and anxiety is understandable. Thus Archangel Gabriel gives a number of reassurances to Mary: Do not be afraid Mary, For you have found favor with God…Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the most high, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end…”
In effect St Gabriel is saying to her that, however the details unfold, in the end there will be total victory, for she is to bear a Son who is the Son of the most High God and who will have a kingdom that will never end or be conquered. Hence, whatever her concerns, this all leads to victory.
Mary will need this reassurance for, to be clear, there ARE some difficult days ahead: the crisis of homelessness at birth, the flight to Egypt, Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart, and the actual thrusting of that sword at the foot of the cross. This knowledge of ultimate victory is an important reassurance for her to hold close, and not forget.
So too for us. For we too have some difficult valleys to cross, some hills to climb. We must constantly keep in mind the end of the story, that Jesus is already the victor and that however our eyes my think that we are losing, in the end, total victory belongs to Jesus, and to us, if we stay with him. The end of the story is already declared: Jesus wins, overwhelmingly, and all his enemies are placed under his feet (e.g. Rev 20-22; 1 Cor 15:25-26; John 16:33 inter al.).
Consider this magnificent passage from Isaiah:
I am God there is no other. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it and I will do it. Listen to me you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give my glory to Israel (Isaiah 46:12ff).
If we were to memorize and internalize this passage so many of our fears and anxieties would flee, our trust would build and we would live victorious lives. It may at times seem that evil has the upper hand. Evil has its day, But God has the victory. No matter how dark it can seem, God has already won, only the news has not yet leaked out.
But in our hearts this truth and reassurance must be emblazoned. For, like Mary, we have difficult days in our future. All the more reason God’s reassurance is essential for us. It got Mary through the Cross and it will get us through ours.
Hence, we have here a pivotal moment in History. God’s presence returns to the human family. And it all happens so quietly, in a town of 300, so small that there was not even a road that went to Nazareth. Quietly, but clearly and powerfully, God has thrust the first blow at Satan’s realm. Victory is sure.
Painting above: Annunication by H. Tanner
I have it on the best authority that Mary sang this song after the Angel left: Done made my vow to the Lord and I never will turn back, I will go, I shall go to see the end shall be.
It occurs to me that Mary, at this time was not much older than the young ladies in this choir.