In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her
and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and 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 said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “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. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed
from her. (Luke 1:26-38 – NRSV)
1. Luke’s annunciation scene here echoes Judges 13:2-7. See also the similarities between Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55.
2. There was a strong belief in the early Church that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus and she remained a virgin after that. In Chapter 43 of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, we read: “As, then, circumcision began with Abraham, and the Sabbath and sacrifices and offerings and feasts with Moses, and it has been proved they were enjoined on account of the hardness of your people’s heart, so it was necessary, in accordance with the Father’s will, that they should have an end in Him who was born of a virgin, of the family of Abraham and tribe of Judah, and of David; in Christ the Son of God, who was proclaimed as about to come to all the world, to be the everlasting law and the everlasting covenant, even as the forementioned prophecies show.” Justin had been born in Nablus, in Judaea, of a pagan family, became a Christian as an adult, went to Rome where gained a reputation as a teacher. He was martyred probably about the year 165. His view on the virginity of Mary, expressed in dialogue with the Jewish apologist, Trypho, is indicative of the early Church belief concerning Mary. The focus is not biological but theological – God’s loving action is on display here not human discipline or asceticism.
3. We can get a glimpse of the difficulties facing translators if we pause for a moment with one phrase in this text: “Greetings, favoured one!” One scholar writes: “No translation can capture the alliteration of chaire kecharitomene. Getting the right sense of the perfect passive participle of charitoo is particularly difficult.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Liturgical Press, 1991, 37.) Johnson translates it as “Hail gifted lady!” and explains: “The … translation tries to capture something of the formality of the address, ‘Hail Lady,’ while avoiding the possible theological overloading that is invited by the term ‘grace’. Notice that the Vulgate has gratia plena, ‘full of grace’, which has stimulated a great deal of speculation concerning Mary’s special status among other humans. The plain sense of the greeting (which Luke says confused her too) is given by the angel: Mary has found favour with God.. The evidence and expression of that favour is found in her being ” (Ibid)
4. Luke’s portrayal of Mary here is echoed by his portrayal of Jesus towards the end of the Gospel. Here, when Mary realizes it is God’s loving action at work as the centre of this drama – “‘nothing will be impossible with God'” – her response is to affirm or total availability to the work of God – “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’.” When Jesus is on the Mount of Olives praying
before his passion, he says, “not my will but yours be done.” (22:42) In both instances there is an angel – symbolizing the very Presence of God – to guide and strengthen them for the work they have agreed to.
5. That it is the work of God we must focus on here is further emphasized by the fact that Mary is a “nobody”. “She is among the most powerless people in her society: she is young in a world that values age female in a world ruled by men; poor in a stratified economy. Furthermore she has neither husband nor child to validate her existence. That she should have found ‘favour with God’ and be ‘highly gifted’ shows Luke’s understanding of God’s activity as surprising and often paradoxical, almost always reversing human expectations.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 39.)
The central character in the Bible is God. The central work is God’s work. We are invited to become part of that drama. It is easy to forget that this is the structure of the real world.
Life needs a centre, a primary point of reference. In forgetfulness of the Centre and our relationship with that Centre it is inevitable that we will fabricate a centre. The fact that the fabricated centre is a fiction seems to escape us. A life fashioned around such a fiction can hardly be compared to a life grounded in the mystery of infinite love.
It is particularly difficult to recognize the fiction when it purports to be “religious” and is taught with authority – and perhaps fear – and explained with rational arguments. We Catholics find ourselves in the uncomfortable position these days of awaking to the many fictions that have been passed off as “truth”. Many have simply walked away. For those of us who remain there is a huge challenge before us, a challenge that calls us to be
The Australian poet, Les Murray, wrote more than thirty years ago:
“For many historical and other reasons, some of them Australian and our own fault, Christianity is no longer On Top in Australia. Others … will have gone into the modalities of this more effectively than I could do. All I have to add are some personal impressions. The first of these is that the experience is probably a salutary one for us. The time for ecclesiolatry, the worship of the visible church instead of God, is past. We’re no longer free to indulge our bad habits of boring people, bullying them and backing up respectability; we’re no longer in a position to call on the law to do for us what we should be doing by inspiration and example; we’re no longer in a position to push second-rate thinking and an outworn picture of the cosmos, where God is Up, we are in the middle and Hell is Down; we’re no longer free to indulge the internecine warfare of denominations that has so harmed God’s cause on earth for the past four centuries; finally, we’re not going to be universally accepted as a spiritual elite, so we’d better get on with being what our Founder told us to be which is salt of the earth, the baking-soda in the loaf of mankind. …. We are more widely judged on our own best terms than we think, and more insistently expected to be the keepers of the dimension of depth than we find comfortable. We will be punished if we do try to live up to what we profess, but we will be punished much worse if we don’t, because so many of our enemies are relying on us. If we say God and Christ stand by what we’ve said, we don’t stand alone, but we do have to expect some splinters in our shoulders. We should not, I suggest, be tempted to see ourselves as a team that has to win for God; He is not helpless – and anyway His idea of a win is the Cross.”
(Les A. Murray, “Some Religious Stuff I know About Australia” in D. Harris et al, eds., The Shape of Belief: Christianity in Australia Today, Lancer, 1982, pp. 25-26 of pp. 13-28.)
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