Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-14; 8:10d; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38
Behold! I have come to do your will, O God! (Entrance antiphon)
1.In a way, this feast should be on a par with Christmas. From one point of view, it is a greater occasion than Christmas. The Child would not have been born if he had not first been conceived. However, even today when the actual moment of conception is not known with accuracy, it is the visible experience of the birth, the coming into the outside world, which makes much greater impact. We all celebrate our birth-day but not our conception-day, even though the latter is the moment when we came to be. Together with the Trinity, an acceptance of the Incarnation is one of the pedestals which defines our Christian faith. It was at the Annunciation that the Incarnation began to become a reality. It was at this moment that “the Word was made flesh and lived among us”. Today should be a special day of praise and thanksgiving for all of us.
This event, in many ways – even for those who do not believe in the Christian message – is one of the major turning points, if not the major turning point, in the history of our planet. It was not only Christians who celebrated our entry into the Third Millennium even though they either denied or ignored or were ignorant of the conception and birth of Jesus which established the occasion.
2. The Gospel account of this momentous event in one sense owes a great deal to the imagery and prophecies of the Hebrew Testament as well as having a charming simplicity which belies the awesomeness of the occasion. It takes place in the home of a young girl in an obscure town looked down on by many. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” – surely one of the most ironic questions ever asked.
It is seen as the fulfilment of a prophecy which is found in Isaiah and which forms the First Reading for today. King Ahaz is offered a sign by God which he refuses. God gives him one anyway. This sign will be the birth of a child whose name will be Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’. Even though Isaiah primarily seems to be speaking of a son for King Ahaz, the solemn name given to the child seems to indicate something more significant, a decisive intervention by God and the sending of a Messiah. So the text has been traditionally taken in the Church as a prophecy for the birth of Christ. The particular words of the prophecy are clearly linked with the Annunciation event. “The Lord himself will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son, whom she will call Immanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us”. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Testament, known as the Septuagint, reads ‘virgin’ whereas the Hebrew original, almah, can mean a young girl or a recently married woman. The Gospel has adopted the Septuagint meaning and sees in this text a prophecy of the virginal conception of Jesus, which is affirmed in today’s Gospel reading.
The Gospel scene is also reminiscent of the announcement by God’s angel of the birth of Samson (Judges 7:1ff).
3. Mary, we are told, is already betrothed to a man called Joseph. This means that she is committed to be his wife but they have not come together or had conjugal relations. She is still, as the Gospel states, a virgin.
God’s emissary, the angel Gabriel, enters the house and greets her in words that alarm the young girl: “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour!” The traditional greeting is “Hail, full of grace!” but the Greek chaire implies joy, the joy that the coming of the Messiah brings. And ‘grace’ (charis) is the gratuitous love of God extended to and experienced by the receiver. Mary “was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean”.
But the angel goes on to reassure Mary, although in language that must have mystified her even more. Basically she is being told that she is going to be the mother of a son, whom she is to call Jesus, which means ‘Yahweh saves’. But this is no ordinary son. The angel describes him in extraordinary language which, in fact, recalls many passages from the Hebrew Testament referring to the Messiah. He is to be called Son of the Most High, a title which can mean the divine Son of God or the Messiah. The indications that this Son is the Messiah are indicated by the angel saying that he will be “given the throne of his father David”, that he will “reign forever” and that “his reign will have no end”.
Mary is even more puzzled and disturbed. How can she conceive a son when she has “no knowledge of man”, that is to say, when she has not yet had conjugal relations with her husband-to-be? She clearly understands that the conception is to take place very soon. The angel replies by explaining that “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 called Son of God”. The shadow or cloud is the creative and protective presence of the Lord. The conceiving of this child is clearly to be the direct work of the Holy Spirit. The Father is God himself and the child is the divine Son of God, who, while remaining God, will “be made flesh”. From the moment of conception the child is fully God and fully a human person. And the child is called ‘holy’ because, though like us in all things, there was no taint of sin in him. (How could or why would God sin against himself!)
4. It is doubtful if, even after these explanations, Mary really understood the implications of what she had been told. But she recognised the messenger as coming from God and, in deep faith and trust, accepted what she was being asked to do and be. “You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said.” This is Mary’s fiat (‘let it be’, from the Latin version of her words) by which she said an unconditional ‘Yes’ to what God had asked of her.
Later on, when Mary is praised by woman in a crowd for having produced such a wonderful son as Jesus, Jesus had replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it”. And here is Mary’s true greatness, not so much that she was chosen to be the Mother of God but that she responded with such generosity. And, right up to the very end, she stood by her Son.
And in that she resembles Jesus himself, whose relationship to his Father is described in the Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. The passage speaks of the ineffectiveness of offerings of animals for bringing reconciliation with God. It is the offering by Jesus of his own self totally to his Father which alone is effective. “God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will.” This was the essence of Jesus’ life. There was a struggle at the end as the horrors of the Passion drew near. But, after prayer made in blood and sweat, he surrendered totally: “Not my will but yours be done.” And his last words on the cross were, “It is finished.” He had emptied himself totally and given all to the Father. In this is our salvation.
Mary, too, said that ‘Yes’ in the little house in Nazareth. It was, as was said above, a historic moment in the world’s history. Things would never be the same again.
Let us thank Mary today for her unconditional ‘Yes’ and let us ask her to help us to say our ‘Yes’ to God, today and for the rest of our lives.