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As familiar as we are with this story [of the Annunciation], the Gospel of Luke goes to some lengths to show us that the events that take place are anything but predictable.
First, an angel appears to Mary (hardly an everyday occurrence) and greets her. Yet all Luke tells us is that Mary is “much perplexed” by Gabriel’s words to her, when all he has said so far is “Greetings, favored one [kecharitōmenē / gratia plena / full of grace]! The Lord is with you.” Still, it’s clear that Gabriel’s words give young Mary pause. At first she says nothing in response to the angel and bides her time, pondering “what sort of greeting this might be.”
So Gabriel speaks again, reassuring Mary, “Do not be afraid,” and explaining why there is no need to be anxious or fearful. Nothing we have been told so far tells us that Mary was afraid, but apparently, that’s how the angel interpreted her silence. The reason Mary shouldn’t be afraid, Gabriel continues, is that she has “found favor with God,” but once again, Mary remains silent.
Gabriel keeps right on delivering his message all the same, informing young Mary that “now” she “will conceive in [her] womb and bear a son.” And if that isn’t enough, Gabriel forges ahead—still no pause for a reaction—and informs Mary that she “will name him Jesus.” And still no response from Mary!
Then comes the second part of Gabriel’s verbal one-two punch. He instructs Mary, telling her that the infant she will give birth to “will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” These words are loaded. The Old Testament refers to God as “the Most High” a total of 109 times, so there is no question of who Gabriel is talking about here. He tells Mary, point-blank, that the baby she is going to conceive and give birth to is God’s own Son.
By this time in the narrative, you would think that Mary would be at least stammering, “But . . . but . . . but. . . .” Not so, however; still, she says nothing. But if she was “pondering” on Gabriel’s words when all he did was to greet her, by now she must have been doing some major pondering. Things just keep getting “curiouser and curiouser.”
The angel finishes dropping his verbal bomb with remarks about how God will give the son Mary will bear “the throne of his ancestor David,” how this son will “reign over the house of Jacob forever,” and how his “kingdom” will have “no end.” Luke doesn’t tell us whether Mary was standing or sitting when Gabriel arrived, but if she was standing in the beginning, you’d think that she would definitely be sitting down by now.
Regardless, Mary finally speaks. Given all the talking Gabriel has done, it’s almost as if this is the first time Mary can get a word in edgewise, and her question is a perfectly sensible one. She bypasses all the talk of thrones and kingdoms and gets right down to practicalities. Mary knows a thing or two about where babies come from, and so she asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
This question makes sense, but remember the situation. An angel, for crying out loud, shows up and lays a rather long, impressive message on young Mary, but it’s as if she’s not all that impressed! She doesn’t let loose with the first-century Palestinian equivalent of “No way!” or “Yeah, right!” She doesn’t ask, “Who the heck are you, anyway?” No, she seems to take the angel at his word. But she also has her question. Even from an angel, she wants an answer, thank you very much—no disrespect intended.
For his part, Gabriel doesn’t stand on formalities. He doesn’t fall back on his credentials and say, “Hey, I’m an angel—I know what I’m talking about, okay? Don’t you worry your little head about how this is going to happen. Just keep quiet and do as you’re told.” No, Mary asks a sensible, understandable question, and Gabriel is happy to give a straightforward reply: “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.”
Again, Mary remains silent! Scripture scholars tell us that it’s indisputable that the theological point Luke wants to make here is that Mary became pregnant as a virgin. Theologically, Luke means this to say more about Jesus than about Mary. The main reason for making this point isn’t to glorify virginity or denigrate sex, especially sexual intimacy in marriage. The main reason for emphasizing that Jesus had no biological human father is to make it clear that he is the Son of God.
At the same time, this point makes clear the completely human nature of Jesus’ entrance into space and time. He gets his humanity from a fully human mother. He is, in other words, fully divine and fully human, and neither fact may be downplayed at the expense of the other.
But Gabriel isn’t done yet. Here comes bombshell number two. Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth, whom everyone thought was unable to have a baby, is already six months pregnant. “For nothing,” Gabriel explains, “will be impossible with God”—the implication being that if God can do this for Elizabeth, then he can darn well do what Gabriel has just told Mary is going to happen to her.
Mary’s final response to the angel is to express complete openness to God’s will for her life: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She might as well have said, “If God wants me to be of service to him in some way, I’m fine with that, no matter what it is.” Luke concludes his narrative by telling us that the angel took his leave.
Reflecting on this narrative—this first joyful mystery—in the context of the Rosary, we can learn much about the nature of Christian faith, and it all comes down to a single idea: ultimately, faith means openness to God’s will and trusting acceptance of his call, no matter what demands it makes upon us, no matter what risks it brings with it.
We can look at it this way. We will never experience anything even remotely as dramatic as what happened to Mary, it’s true. But all the same, angels bearing God’s will for us come into our lives each and every day, if only we are prepared to recognize them. They speak to us in the everyday events of our ordinary lives. They whisper to us words like “Be patient with that child” or “that teenager” or “your spouse” or “your fellow employee.” Angels also whisper words such as “Love your young adult offspring by telling him that it’s time to get a job and move out.”
Angels beckon us in all kinds of ordinary ways every day to act on God’s will, so that we, too, may become instruments of God’s loving presence in our little corner of the world. Young Mary also sets an example of what authentic adult faith looks like. She listens closely to the angel, but she also shows no signs of “blind faith.” She does show signs of doubt, however. She doubts that it’s possible for her to conceive a child except by the usual method. Therefore, she asks her question. This is because faith and doubt are by no means mutually exclusive. Having doubts and asking questions go hand in hand with adult faith.
The angel’s response to Mary’s question does nothing to clear things up, however—especially as far as a modern, scientific mind-set is concerned but even for Mary, in her time and place. The angel’s reply is simply that God will take care of it, which is good enough for Mary. From this we can learn that even when we don’t get clear, scientific answers to our questions, and when we still have our doubts, we can trust in God’s wisdom and love. The bottom line is that we need to believe, with Mary as our model of faith, that “nothing will be impossible with God.”
No matter what happens to us and no matter what happens in our lives, we can always make Mary’s final words to the angel our words too: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Let us not, however, miss the importance of Luke’s final sentence in his annunciation narrative, namely, “Then the angel departed from her” (1:38). It would be easy as can be to disregard these words; in fact, that’s what we usually and automatically do. But as best-selling author Fr. James Martin, SJ, points out, “This is the part about faith. This is where we live.”
In other words, we live in the era that began after the angel “departed” and left Mary with the consequences of her choice. Now as never before, faith—an ongoing commitment to, loving intimacy with, and complete trust in the triune God—is “where it’s at” for us.
Excerpted from the Revised and Updated Edition of The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between by Mitch Finley (The Word Among Us Press, 2017). Available at wau.org/books