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 fewer than three hundred, a town so small that no road led 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 ours as well (in a subordinate yet 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. Let’s look at four 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 a 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, it is clear from Mary’s response that she considers this to be a request from God. 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 freely offered yes is significant, and something that God looks for and respects. Otherwise, why bother to 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 Mary’s freely offered yes is also a respect God extends to us. Indeed we can see here how God’s respect is in direct contrast to the behavior of the devil, who provokes, shouts, and intrudes. Through cultural noise, etc., he tempts and provokes us. In contrast, God whispers and respectfully invites. He does not force a decision on us, but rather summons us in love and patiently 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 respects 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, and God “needs” us to open the door for Him to go to work.
II. The REGARD of God – Note in the text the great love, appreciation, and regard God 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 (and every angel is glorious) comes to Mary, 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 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. She is sinless, “full of grace,” for, being filled with grace, there is no room in her for sin.
The Angel Gabriel speaks to her dignity and perfection in the greeting Χαιρε κεχαριτωμενη (Chaire, Kecharitomene – Hail, full of grace). Kecharitomene (full of grace) is a perfect, passive participle indicating an action completed (perfected) in the past but operative now as well. Thus Gabriel salutes her not by her name, “Mary,” but by a sort of new name: “Hail, she who was perfectly graced and is so now!” Thus she had been freed of all sin in the past for she is perfectly, fully graced, and she is so now as Gabriel greets her and regards respectfully the work of God in her.
In a less perfect (but still true) way, 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. And if we are faithful, each of us, too, will one day become the man or woman God has always intended us to be.
God thus shows great regard for Mary (through 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 strictly biological terms she would have known the obvious answer to the question: she and Joseph would conceive. But her question seems to imply she had other notions about her future than regular marital relations.
Some hold that the question is not really Mary’s question, but rather is rhetorically placed here by Luke so that the angel can inform us, the readers, that God alone is the true Father of the Son. But such a notion seems more likely concocted 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 raised by this resolution. Why would two people get married and then live as virgins? Were such arrangements common at that time? (It would seem not.) And so forth.
In the end, Mary’s question seems to point to some expectation on her part that she would “not know man” in some sense, going forward. But at any level, we are not going to be able to completely satisfy our curiosity in this matter, and ultimately it is none of our business.
One thing is sure: the Church teaches, without ambiguity, that Mary remained ever-virgin. It seems a reasonable conclusion that Mary’s question indicates that she was clear on this. But there remains also a mystery that we must respect.
In this case, Protestants and others who deny her lasting virginity have some thinking to do. For Mary’s question is not meaningless or naïve. 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.
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 the 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 there ARE some difficult days ahead: the crisis of homelessness at Jesus’ 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 arduous hills to climb. We must constantly keep in mind the end of the story: Jesus is already the victor. Even if we might think 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 may have its day, but God has the ultimate victory. No matter how dark it may seem, God has already won, only the news has not yet leaked out.
But on 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 our trials.
Hence, we have here a pivotal moment in history. God’s presence returns to the human family. And it all happens so quietly in Nazareth, a town of 300, a town so small that there was not even a road that went to it. Quietly, but clearly and powerfully, God has thrust the first blow at Satan’s realm. Victory is sure.
Painting above: Annunciation, 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 what the end shall be.”
It occurs to me that Mary, at this time, was not much older than the young ladies in this choir.