In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1: 26-38.
So, we pretty much all know this story. In fact, most of us have heard the Annunciation story so often that it’s lost some of its impact. If we’re not careful, we can forget just how remarkable and surprising this story is.
In the first place, let’s look at the context. After centuries of war, occupation and exile, the Jewish people were mired in hopelessness. Mary, or Miriam as she would have been called, lived on a dead-end street in a long-forgotten town at the far corner of the Roman empire. More importantly, she was a woman. In that culture at that time, being a woman means nothing much that’s important would happen to her. So, the angel Gabriel’s announcement that “The Lord is with you” would have startled Luke’s audience.
This passage clearly echoes Gabriel’s earlier announcement to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. So, St. Luke reminds us that God is up to something astonishing here, involving both Mary and Elizabeth. God’s action in this regard actually begins much earlier, in the creation story. In the birth narratives of both John the Baptist and Jesus we find God engaged in the same sort of thing we encountered in Genesis: creation ex nihilo (from nothing). The angel even tells Mary that God is doing precisely that with her cousin Elizabeth. The notion of the virgin birth therefore raises the idea of the Lord resuming the work begun in creation: re-creating the world.
But let’s return our focus to Miriam, the Theotokos. Gabriel announces that she will bear a son and name him Jesus. (The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Thus, his very name involves the notion of God keeping his promises, fulfilling the covenant.) As was the case with the John, God seems terribly interested in Jesus’ name, as though the words themselves would act as icons of God’s power working in the world.
Now, while the coming of the Messiah might have constituted very good news for the people of Israel, it might not have sounded like such good news for Miriam. An unwed mother, at best, would provide the people of Nazareth with a fine scandal. It’s the sort of thing that could get a girl killed. I think the Holy Mother understood perfectly well the cost that she might have to pay for bringing God into the world.
Jesus’ conception through the Holy Spirit will resonate later in the story of his baptism in the Jordan, as a dove descends and the voice of God announces that Jesus is God’s beloved son. So, these two birth narratives (Jesus and John) will reconnect years later as Jesus begins his public ministry and God claims him as his own son. All these things happen through Mary’s “fiat”: “Let it be done with me according to your word.” Mary thus serves as the real gateway of the Incarnation.
I wonder how many of us are able to hear God’s message in our own lives: “The Lord is with you.” Can we come to think of ourselves as “favored ones”? Can we bear the Christ child, and are we willing to bring him into the world? Are we willing to respond, “Let it be with me”? I ask these things because those same questions that the Holy Mother faced, well, I think the Gospel asks them of you and of me. While it’s certainly true that God intended to draw Mary into his plan to re-create and redeem the world, I believe He has exactly the same intent for us.
The Advent message centers on hope and promise, and setting aside our despair and our terror. The season of Advent recognizes, as it’s so desperately difficult for us to see sometimes, that nothing will be impossible for God. And while Gabriel says that as a matter of fact, I think for most of us it’s a kind of a prayer: a prayer we might say more often.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis