On Thursday we celebrated the annunciation of our Lord Jesus Christ to Mary. Perhaps it seems odd that at this season, as we think of Good Friday approaching, of Jesus dying on the cross, we should celebrate the announcement of his incarnation as a tiny embryo in the womb of a young girl. Conception, birth and death all seem muddled up. However, it is only because of Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God that the story could begin which led to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, his ministry of teaching and healing, his death and his resurrection. In Mary’s ‘Yes’ rests our hope of gaining eternal life through the death of Jesus.
The readings were Isaiah 7:10-14, Psalm 40:5-11, Hebrews 10:4-10, Luke 1:26-38. My reflection is given below.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, when we remember how Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel and told that she had been chosen by God to be the Theotokos, the God-bearer.
It’s very difficult to put ourselves in Mary’s place and understand the enormity of what happened to a teenage girl in first century Israel. In our culture we are more accustomed to expecting teenagers to exert their emerging individuality by saying ‘No’ to any suggestion, however sensible, than to witnessing such an unqualified ‘Yes’ spoken in the most extraordinary circumstances. Mary has a lot to teach all of us, not just teens.
As we read the Bible we can see many instances of God bursting in to people’s lives and often he does not receive a positive response, at least at first. Moses, when he met God at the burning bush asked many questions and made objections: Who am I that I should go? What shall I say your name is? But they will not believe me. I am not eloquent. Finally, after God had answered all his objections, Moses said, ‘Oh my Lord, please send someone else.’ Of course, Moses did go and do God’s will but he was very reluctant at first and did his best to escape the call, provoking God’s anger in the process.
Jeremiah was called to be a prophet and his first response to God was: ‘Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.’ God answered him, touching his mouth and putting his words in Jeremiah’s mouth. Isaiah had a similar experience to Jeremiah. He started his prophetic ministry without demur but when he was given a vision of the Lord in heaven he responded: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips.’ God responded by sending one of the seraphim to touch Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal from the altar to take his guilt away. Then when God asked whom he should send Isaiah responded: ‘Here am I! Send me.’
Mary does not respond to the angel’s message like Moses, putting up objections, asking many questions and finally asking God to choose someone else. She does not claim exemption from her calling because she is young, as Jeremiah did. How easily she could have suggested that someone with experience of motherhood would have been a better choice rather than a young girl who was not even married. Mary didn’t do as Moses and say ‘Who am I?’ or look at her unworthiness as Isaiah did but simply accepted in humility that God had chosen her. She needed no touch on her lips to free her to say, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord’.
Mary has a lot in common with Abraham, the father of her people. God came to Abram, as he was then, and said, ‘Go from your own country to a country I will show you and you will be great.’ We are told simply: ‘So Abram went.’ Abraham was leaving a great civilisation, leaving the comfort of the familiar, the secure and journeying into the unknown, away from safety and totally dependent on God for protection. Similarly the angel told Mary that she had found favour with God, and she simply went into the unknown. She was leaving the comfort of the familiar, the pattern that had been set out for her life as an ordinary young Jewish woman. She was betrothed, would be married, would have children and bring joy to her husband. Instead, in accepting God’s call she was moving from this security into great danger. As a betrothed woman falling pregnant not to the man to whom she was betrothed, she could have been stoned to death for adultery. She was totally dependent on God for her safety from then on.
Abraham did ask a question of God: ‘What will you give me, for I continue childless?’ God answered, as he answered Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. ‘Look towards heavens, and number the stars. So shall your offspring be.’ Though Abraham and Sarah were old, though conceiving was impossible as far as nature was concerned, we’re told Abraham believed the Lord and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Mary’s question to the angel is similar to Abraham’s: ‘How can this be?’ She didn’t question that it could be, just how it was to happen. As with all the others who questioned God, she received an answer: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’. Like Abraham, Mary was asked to believe something that was impossible as far as nature is concerned. She was to have a son through the direct intervention of God just as Abraham did. Through his son, Abraham became the father of a great nation, a chosen people. Through her Son, Mary became the mother of the Messiah who would build a new people of God, the Church.
Mary’s ‘Yes’ to the angel is what set off the train of events which led to the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that God didn’t want the sacrifices of animals for the sin of the people. Instead he prepared a body for his Son to dwell in and in which he could offer the one perfect sacrifice for sin to redeem the world. As Mary said, ‘Let it be to me according to your word’ the Incarnation took place, which led to Christmas, which led to Good Friday and Easter.
God asks extraordinary things of apparently ordinary people but they always have a choice. When we are called by God, if we choose to be like Mary and Abraham, full of faith and courage, and say ‘Yes’ to God, we cannot know what the outcome will be, we cannot know the difficulties we will face, but we can know that God chose us in the full knowledge of what we are like and he will be with us through it all.
I finished my reflection by sharing a poem written by Denise Levertov which is called Annunciation