Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation.
We find it in Luke 1:26-38 (Luke’s Christmas story is from Mary’s point of view; Matthew is from Joseph’s).
As we read the story, there are some points especially worth noting. When the greeting first comes, Mary is troubled and confused. How many times does God’s call first announce itself in a way that makes us troubled and confused?
Mary’s response is precious beyond gold, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
This took tremendous courage. She knew she was not yet living with Joseph, and everyone was going to think bad things about her and her life would be in danger. Also, she knew the stories of the Old Testament. Being called by God often leads to hardship. Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and many others had some very difficult paths. Mary responded in faith, and put herself at God’s service. By the second century, Mary was being referred to as the new Eve by fathers of the Church. They would say things like as the first Eve listened to a fallen anger and wrought our destruction, so the second Eve listened to a holy angel and opened the door for our salvation. We will also see contrasts between the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the Fruit of Mary’s womb. This points to how our saying yes to God can have much more significance in the big picture than it appears. Mary was a peasant girl from a family of no prominence in a tiny town that was not well thought of (“But Nathaniel said to him, ‘Could anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46).’” There was not a person in the world that looked at Mary and thought she would be remembered and celebrated for thousands of years.
Mary is always about Jesus, always, always, always. Whenever we are talking about Mary, we are pointing to Jesus. When the council of Ephesus in 431 defined Mary as the Mother of God, this was because a Heretic named Nestorius was attacking Catholic belief about Jesus. He taught that Jesus Christ was two people: the human Jesus and the divine Christ, and the Christ came into Jesus at the baptism, and skipped out just before the agony in the garden.
From the second to about the seventh centuries (or so) the big arguments in the Church were about the nature of the Trinity and about who and what is Jesus Christ. There were various heresies that tried to substitute Catholic belief about our Savior for inferior ideas. Arius said that Jesus was not God, but like a super angel. The Docetists said the He is God, but not actually human, just appearing to be human. Each of these ideas is trying to get away from the central point of Christianity, the point that makes it so powerful, so frightening, so beautiful, so amazing, so unique.
Remember how Mary put herself at risk saying yes to the Gospel delivered by the angel? This points to a much greater truth: The Lord Himself, with nothing to gain for Himself (already perfect and infinitely great) became a human being like us in all things but sin. He made Himself vulnerable to hunger, thirst, pain, loneliness, exhaustion, heat, cold, illness, rejection, ridicule, confusion, doubt, temptation, and all the other things that come from being human. He made himself vulnerable for us. He gave Himself completely as gift, paying the most terrible price, out of perfectly pure, unselfish love.
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another (John 13:34).” He calls it a new commandment even though the command to love our neighbor as ourselves goes back to Leviticus: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18).” What is new is to love as Jesus loves, which is beyond anything that has happened before or since. Like the command to be perfect (Matthew 5: 48) it is a goal to which we are called to keep growing for the rest of our earthly lives. Let us never think that we have it mastered; let us never think we completely understand it. St. Paul compares discipleship with the training of an Olympic athlete (I Corinthians 9). Such athletes never say, “I’m good enough now; I can just coast.” Neither does a disciple of Jesus. Is there a more daunting challenge? We can consider that as we reflect on an obscure peasant girl in Nazareth getting the surprise of her life.