Sunday of week 4 of Advent (B)


Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-11,16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

WE ARE COMING very close now to our celebration of Christmas. And today we consider the key role of Mary in the work of our salvation. Mary, we might say, made Christmas possible. Supposing she had said ‘No’ instead of ‘Yes’! History might have been changed although we know that God’s plans would not be frustrated. How many times have we said ‘No’ to God? How different would things might be – for us and for others – if we had said ‘Yes’ to him more often?
Although we normally regard the birth of Jesus as the beginning of God’s presence among us as a human being, it really is only the beginning of his visible presence. For Jesus’ existence begins with the scene in today’s account of the Annunciation. For it is generally understood that the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit took place at the moment that Mary accepted, in all humility, to be the mother of Jesus.
The Incarnation, the assumption of a human nature by God, began at this moment. But it is natural for us to focus rather on the birth of the child some nine months later for it was then that he could be seen, responded to and worshipped. It was at that moment that he began openly to “dwell among us” (John 1:14).

Joseph’s dilemma

Today’s gospel deals with the fact that Mary became pregnant before she had had sexual relations with her future husband, Joseph. Early Christian reflection on this understood Jesus as coming physically into the world descended from David and manifested and installed in his true status as Son of God at his resurrection (Romans 1:3-4).
However, in today’s Gospel, in answer to Mary’s question how she, still a virgin, can be a mother, the angel replies: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God.”
Jesus is the Son of God from the very first moment of conception. And, as this conception is the work of God’s direct power, Mary’s virginity is unaffected as is her integrity before her natural husband.
John the Baptist
Luke makes extended comparisons between the birth of Jesus and that of John the Baptist. While John will be “great before the Lord” (Luke 1:15), Jesus is Son of the Most High, sits on the throne of David and his kingdom will be without end. Luke always sees Jesus as King. Jesus is the embodiment of the Kingdom of God and most of all in his passion, at the moment when he is seemingly at his most powerless.
John’s birth was extraordinary because of his very elderly parents but Jesus’ is even more extraordinary because he is born of a virgin.
In keeping with his Gospel of the poor and the powerless, it is not without meaning that Mary comes not from the holy city of Jerusalem but from a remote village of some 150 people in Galilee. We remember the deliciously ironic taunt of Nathanael in John’s gospel, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Later, in her Magnificat Mary will say, “He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden… He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:48,52).

Mary’s ‘Yes’

There are a further two themes here which interact with each other. On the one hand, all that happens to Mary comes with pure gratuitousness from the hands of God. Mary is described as “full of grace”, filled with God’s favour and graciousness, something which she has in no way earned. On the other hand, Mary exercises her inviolable right to freedom of choice. A request was made of her and she freely responds with a wholehearted ‘Yes’.
“I am the slave of the Lord; let what you have said be done to me.” Mary is thus presented as the perfect disciple and, in Luke’s gospel, is the forerunner of many other apparent nobodies – women, sinners, little people who were hardly to be thought of as likely candidates to respond positively to God’s revelation in Jesus.
Mary’s ‘Yes’ changed the world. Her obedience to God’s call changed the lives of all of us – believers or not – one way or another. Perhaps obedience is not popular today when people want to be independent. One wonders, though, just how independent people really are. The nicotine addict? The gambling addict? The social climber and status-seeker? The consumer addict and ‘shopaholic’? The image-conscious ‘yuppie’? Those who hunger for recognition or attention?

True obedience

Obedience is understood – surely wrongly – as passive subservience. The world associates obedience with weakness and spinelessness. True obedience comes from a free choice made in the light of what is true and good. True obedience can require a great deal of courage because it can involve going against the tide of social expectations. Mary must have had a lot of explaining to do about her early pregnancy!
True obedience aims not at safely conforming to the expectations of those more powerful than ourselves but of putting oneself at the service of something that is greater than oneself. In the Gospel picture, the greatest are not those who have coercive domination over others but those who offer their personal resources to serve and build. True greatness, then, is positively to accept what God clearly wants us to do or what he wants to do through us.
Jesus’ own moment of greatness came, like his Mother, when he said ‘Yes’ to his Father. As, full of fear, he sweated blood in the garden and prayed, he made his decision, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). “In his life on earth, Jesus made his prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God, who could save him from death. Because he was humble and devoted, God heard him. But even though he was God’s Son he learned to be obedient by means of his suffering. When he was made perfect [through his obedience], he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9). Jesus’ own obedience is the model of ours.

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