This Thursday, 25th March, the Church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation. A few years ago, I travelled to the holy land and while there, we celebrated Mass in the Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth (see photo). The basilica is built on the site where tradition tells us that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and asked to become mother of the Saviour. Here I include a reflection shared that day and in that sacred place.
Fr Billy Swan
The story of the Annunciation to Mary is one of the best known stories of the Bible, being told and re-told countless times in Churches around the world during Advent and for Marian feasts throughout the year. It has also been represented many times in Christian art down the centuries including this famous work by the Italian Dominican artist Fra Angelico. Here I offer a few thoughts on this wonderful story and how it speaks to every baptized Christian.
The opening sentence of the text tells us that the angel Gabriel is sent by God to a specific place (Nazareth) and to a specific person (Mary) and at a specific time (in the sixth month). God approaches a woman whom he created and loved. He makes the first move and brings his love near to her. Mary is the one who has been chosen by God but whose choice of her is made known only now at the right place and time. For St Luke who tells the story, the historical dimension of the Jesus event and the circumstances leading up to it, are critically important. What this means is that when the Lord intervenes in our lives and approaches us, he does so at the right time, place and in the circumstances of his choosing. Specifics matter to God for the gift of salvation that Jesus will bring is real, historical and concrete – not only a spiritual or disembodied salvation but real and visible.
The first words of the angel to Mary deserve our attention. First, he tells her to ‘Rejoice!’ Mary does exactly that in her great prayer of the Magnificat when her spirit ‘rejoices in God my Saviour’ in the presence of Elizabeth. This is what God also asks of us – that despite ongoing trials, worries and imperfections, we are to rejoice and be glad for when our lives are united with Him then joy is still possible. That is why the angel asks her to rejoice, because the reason for her joy is that ‘the Lord is with you’. Another reason why Mary is asked to rejoice is that God favours her. It is interesting to note in the Bible how equality is important but is trumped by the concept of election. People are chosen – not because they are loved more than others but because God has plans for them that involve the salvation and inclusion of others. This is certainly true of Mary but it is also true of us. Because of our baptism when we became beloved sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus, we too were granted God’s favour as people He loves. It is that love for us that claims us as its own and calls us not over and above others but for others. Our vocation is always directed outwards from ourselves as we are sent on mission and called to serve.
Luke then reveals that the angel’s words terrified Mary. Why was she terrified? Most of us would also be terrified by the sight of an angel but note how Luke tells us that it was the words of the angel that scared her, not his appearance. So what was so frightening about what he said? The formula of words used by Gabriel would have been known to Mary. As a Jewish girl she would have recognized them as similar words spoken by God to Abraham and Moses as they were being asked to respond to a major calling that would be life-changing. This was why she was afraid as she knew something big was about to be asked of her.
Then the angel revealed to Mary who her child would be. Note that Gabriel’s description of Jesus was not about what he was going to accomplish. Rather it was about who he was. His name disclosed who he was as Saviour – Yeshua, the one who saves. He was from the line of David and would be son of God. And as Saviour, his victory would not be overturned – it would be for all time and places.
Then comes Mary’s question back to the angel: ‘But how can this come about since I am a virgin?’ It was one question of a host of questions that she could have asked. For us too when we are approached by God and sense a calling and a demand of us, we also can have feelings of fear, disorientation and understandably seek reassurance before we say yes. There seems so many obstacles to overcome, so many unknowns and uncertainties. But the truth is that there can never be cast iron assurances when it comes to the future that can only be know by God alone. And so, in the face of many uncertainties, especially in these times, we are asked to give our ‘Yes’ to God like Mary and with her because ‘nothing is impossible to God’.
Then comes Mary response. St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote beautifully that as the world waited for Mary’s response, it held its breath – such was the high stakes that were involved whether she would say ‘Yes’ or ‘No. And then it comes: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done on to me according to your Word’. With these words, Mary reveals what is in her heart. Even though she does not fully understand the implications of her ‘Yes’, she will still give it because she is God’s handmaid and servant. Although she does not see how things will turn out, she trusts God totally and lovingly submits herself to God’s Word and God’s will.
Here is the spirituality and faith of every Christian. We enjoy God’s love as a free gift but such is that love that it makes demands of us because of love itself. Are we prepared and willing to make that sacrifice? Are we willing to trust God enough and believe that He will be with us and provide for what we need? Are we able to trust that God’s call of each of us is part of a bigger plan that we don’t fully see now but will in the future? Lord, we believe, help our unbelief and give us the gift of faith like Mary who placed her life in your hands!
Finally, the Gospel passage ends rather abruptly with the words: ‘And the angel left her’. This is far more than a description of how the conversation ends between Mary and Gabriel. The moment the angel left her was the beginning of the rest of her life that was radically altered by the ‘Yes’ that she had just given. All of the uncertainties were still there to be faced including the implications of her future husband finding out that his bride-to-be was a carrying a child that he did not physically father. Yet at those painful moments, Mary stuck to her ‘Yes’ even under the shadow of the cross as she watched her Son die a brutal death. In that darkness, the light of the angel’s visit would have seemed far away. But despite that, Mary remaining in that place of pain was an expression of her ‘Yes’ that she never took back.
For us too, there are moments when it is easier to believe than others. There are times when we are tempted to take back the ‘Yes’ we have given before. But Mary teaches us how to be faithful in the darkness, to love through the tears and to hope that the sun will break through the dark clouds. May Mary our Mother pray for us and be near to us as we contemplate her story, how God changed her life and how her Son changed the world and continues to do so.
‘Mary, who offered an immaculate space for God to take on human flesh, wants to offer us also a space where we can be reborn as Jesus was born. With the same heart that she loved Jesus, she wants to love us. Jesus has given her to us so that she could guide us in our search for a second childhood, assist us as we try to shake off our sadness and open the way to true inner peace’.