Nazareth was a small village. With a population of no more than 400 at the time of Jesus and an area of about 10 acres, the entire village could fit comfortably inside St. Peter’s Square in Rome and still have plenty of land left over. It lay only about three miles from Sepphoris, one of Galilee’s wealthiest and most cultured cities, but Nazareth itself was mainly a quiet farming community. It was considered so inconsequential that when Nathanael heard that Jesus had come from there, he asked, almost mockingly, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
Yet it was here in Nazareth that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and invited her to become the mother of the Messiah. So if we were to ask Mary, she would probably tell us that something very special did come from Nazareth. That’s because of what she saw: not only an angel, but the Son of God himself.
Let’s imagine Mary asking us, “Do you see what I see?” She knows very well that not too many of us have angelic visitors. She also knows that we can’t physically see Jesus the way that she and Joseph did. But we can come to see him in our hearts if we take up her habit of pondering and treasuring the Lord and all that he has already done for us (Luke 2:19). So, let’s give it a try and see what we can discover.
Hail, Favored One! Most scholars believe that Mary was somewhere between fourteen and sixteen years old when the angel Gabriel visited her. Like any young adult, Mary was relatively inexperienced in life. She didn’t know much about being a wife or mother, except for what she learned from her own mother and the women of the village. She was, in some ways, an unlikely candidate to bear the Son of God. But God chose her and entrusted his Son to her care.
So what did Mary see at the Annunciation? She saw an angel who offered her a strange greeting: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). The angel tried to comfort her by saying, “Do not be afraid” (1:30). It’s hard to believe that his words helped all that much, because everything he said after that was so extraordinary that it must have left her still confused and worried. There was one part of the angel’s announcement, however, that Mary completely understood: she would become pregnant, even though she was a virgin. “How can this be?” she asked (1:34).
Can you imagine how Mary’s mind must have raced during that conversation? What will people think of me if I become pregnant? Will Joseph leave me now? Is anyone actually going to believe this baby is from God? How am I going to handle the weight of this responsibility?
New Plans, New Challenges. Of course, we believe that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. Surely that helped her to say yes to God. But at the same time, Mary had free will. She faced temptations just as we do. She knew what fear feels like, and she could have refused the angel’s offer because of fear. What are people in the town going to say about me? And what about Joseph? Our plans are set. We’re getting married, and we don’t want anything to upset these plans.
It’s clear that the angel was asking a lot. He was asking Mary to give up her own plans for her life and to entrust herself to God—all without a whole lot of detail. No wonder she was troubled! Still, in faith, Mary stepped out and embraced God and his purposes.
The Lord is with us as well. He is asking us similar questions to the ones that he asked Mary: Are you willing to help build my Church? Are you willing to be my light to the poor and the sick and the lost? Will you give your life to me?
Questions like these can make us nervous. But if we try to imitate Mary’s yes, we will see new things. Our eyes will be opened to the needs all around us. We will see ways that we can help. Most important, we will see, just as Mary did, that “nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).
Words of Comfort. Scripture tells us precious little about what happened during Mary’s pregnancy. We hear about her visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist, and about the miracles surrounding John’s birth. Surely these stories helped to comfort Mary. Surely they bolstered her faith.
But the most significant event that helped Mary during this time had to do with Joseph, her betrothed. Can you imagine the expression on Mary’s face when Joseph came to her and said, “I know what is going on. I know what God is doing. An angel appeared and explained it all to me. Don’t worry; I am with you. I won’t leave you.” Joseph’s commitment must have filled her with a tremendous amount of peace and joy. That was probably one of the happiest days of Mary’s life!
After Jesus was born, Mary received even more gifts from God that bolstered her faith and trust. Imagine how she felt when the shepherds came to the manger and told her about their vision of angels singing God’s praises. Imagine the smile on her face as she heard them relate the angel’s words about her newborn child. All of these events helped Mary to see the goodness, the promise, the hope, and the glory in God’s plan for her life.
Mary is asking us, “Do you see what I see? Can you see your heavenly Father’s hand at work when he sends people to you who can lift your spirits? Can you see God’s face in the people who strengthen your faith and who remind you of his goodness and love? Let him open your eyes, as he did for me, to show you that he is with you.”
Pondering and Treasuring. Scripture tells us that Mary pondered and treasured “all these things” surrounding the birth of her son (Luke 2:51). She practiced the art of thinking prayerfully about these events. She pondered the angel’s appearance. She treasured Joseph’s faithfulness and strength. She pondered her cousin Elizabeth’s surprise late-in-life pregnancy. She dwelt on the shepherds’ words and pondered why God would send an angel to them and not to Herod. She reflected on the Magi’s visit and the meaning of their gifts to her. She contemplated the words that Simeon and Anna spoke when she brought her son to the Temple in Jerusalem. All that interior work opened Mary’s eyes so that she could see God’s hand at work in her life and in the world.
In every situation, Mary prayed, “Heavenly Father, help me to see what you see. Show me what you are doing here. I don’t want to let anything that is happening slip away from me. Show me how these events can help us become the Holy Family you have called us to be.”
If she were with us right now, Mary would ask us to take up the same attitude: “If you want to see what I see, then take the time to ponder the things that God has done and what he continues to do. Ponder the many ways he has acted in the world, but also ponder how he has worked in your life and in the lives of your loved ones. Don’t let your vision be limited; open your eyes, and open your hearts. Remember that God always rewards those who seek him and his kingdom. He has so much he wants to show you!”
A good way to start is by taking a little time each day to read the stories about Jesus’ birth in the Bible (Matthew 1:18–2:23; Luke 1:5–2:52). Read just a few verses each day and ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes. Ask him to speak to you in the quiet of your heart. The next article can help you pray through, ponder, and treasure these stories.
Say Yes. On December 8, 2016, while saying the Angelus for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis spoke about the first reading from that day’s Mass, which talked about the way Adam and Eve’s no to God “closed the passage between man and God” (Genesis 3:9-15, 20). He then spoke about how Mary’s yes to God “opened the path to God among us” (Luke 1:26-38).
According to the Holy Father, Mary’s response is “the most important ‘yes’ in history.” Advent is an opportunity to renew our own yes to God, telling him, “I believe in you; I hope in you. I love you; be it done to me according to your good will.” A simple prayer of dedication like this will help us see what Mary saw. And what we see will fill us with joy.