The Annunciation of the Lord – Readings

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-14, 8:10; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38

In the entrance antiphon for today’s Mass, we say:

Behold! I have come to do your will, O God!

In a way, today’s 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 an 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 into being.

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 became flesh and lived among us… (John 1:14)

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 non-believers either denied, or ignored, or were ignorant of the conception and birth of Jesus which established the occasion.

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. As Nathanael asked:

Can anything good come from Nazareth? (John 1:46)

This is 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. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel, That is, ‘God is with us’.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew Testament, known as the Septuagint, reads ‘virgin’ whereas in 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 (see Judges chap 13).

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 intimate 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:

Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.

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:

…much perplexed by [the angel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

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 will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…

This is a title which can mean the ‘divine Son of God’ or the Messiah. That her Son is to be the Messiah is indicated by the angel saying that:

…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 is even more puzzled and disturbed. How can she conceive a son when she is a virgin and has not yet had intimate 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 overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be 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!).

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:

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

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 a 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 obey it! (Luke 11:28)

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.

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. Jesus says:

See, I have come to do your will, O God.

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. (Luke 22:42)

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 pivotal 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.

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