Since the beginning, God has spoken with the men and women whom he created. First, he revealed himself to Adam and Eve so that they might know him and enjoy fellowship with him—a relationship so movingly described as “God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” amid his creation (Genesis 3:8).
Thus, the story of Adam and Eve’s fall is a wrenching illustration of the sin that separates the human race from its creator. Yet, when our first parents were disobedient, God did not stop speaking to them, nor did he let his plan for his creation be thwarted. Even as Adam and Eve tried to excuse their fault (3:12-13), God spoke his first words of promise to reverse the consequences of sin and to triumph over Satan, giving a hint of hope of the redemption to come: Eve’s offspring would crush the serpent (3:15).
After the fall, humankind began its long wait for a savior. Through the centuries, God continued his conversation with his chosen people as he spoke to the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, repeatedly renewing his promise. Finally the long-awaited time is at hand: God enters into conversation once again, this time with Mary of Nazareth. Out of this unique conversation, God’s Word becomes flesh.
The angel Gabriel’s words to Mary, “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28), announce a radical new turn in God’s dialogue with humankind. God singles out a young Jewish woman and, through Gabriel, makes a momentous request of her: to bear the “Son of the Most High” (1:31-32). Mary’s question, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (1:34), is not a skeptic’s demand for proof that ends any further discussion; rather, with her inquiry, she enters more deeply into the conversation, expressing a willingness to grasp something holy and mysterious.
In answer, Gabriel offers Mary no physiological explanation because Jesus is to be conceived in a way that surpasses nature. Instead, he assures her that nothing is impossible for God (Luke 1:37): It is the Holy Spirit who will overshadow and empower her (1:35). Thus, in conceiving and bearing the Son of God, Mary will remain a virgin. This “overshadowing” is the same presence and glory of God that rested on the “Dwelling” or “Tabernacle”—the portable tent-sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them to house the Ark of the Covenant as they journeyed through the wilderness (Exodus 40:34-35).
Mary must have been in awe as she heard Gabriel describe the child to be so wondrously conceived in her. He is to be named Jesus (Luke 1:31), meaning “The Lord saves.” This child whom Mary is asked to bear would be the promised heir of Israel’s greatest king, David: “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32-33).
In these few moments Mary’s future has been unveiled for her. God has, amazingly, asked her to be the mother of Israel’s Messiah! St. Bernard of Clairvaux eloquently captures the sense of anticipation as Gabriel awaited Mary’s response in his Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Say the word and receive the Word: give yours and conceive God’s. Breathe one fleeting word and embrace the everlasting Word. . . . Blessed Virgin, open your heart to faith, your lips to consent and your womb to your Creator. Behold, the long-desired of all nations is standing at the door and knocking” (Homily IV, 8). Although she understands little of what this would mean for her, Mary gives her wholehearted and unreserved assent: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Mary’s consent is not cheap or ill-considered. She was a young woman of Israel, steeped in a knowledge of the prophetic promises God had made to his people and full of eager longing to see them fulfilled. She held God’s word and his promises in reverence and based her life on them. So, though she is bewildered and unsure of all the implications of the angel’s message, her yes to God rises out of faith in him and in his wisdom and goodness. She takes God at his word and trusts him totally to fulfill it in her and to care for her as she gives herself over to it. She has an unerring conviction that God will honor and meet her consent with grace, help, and protection, supplying her with all she needs to carry it out.
Nor is Mary’s fiat a “one-time only” consent—it will be repeated over and over in the days and years ahead. It initially opens her to be the recipient of the Word making its home in her. Mary will literally bear the Word of God in the flesh; then she will be borne up by it. Her steady pondering of the word and her constant affirmation of it, repeatedly assenting to God’s purposes, will carry her forward in unwavering faith and obedience.
Two thousand years after Mary said yes to God in Nazareth, her example still offers us strength to follow God’s will in our own lives. As we stood on the threshold of this new millennium, Pope John Paul II wrote of her: “Mary, who conceived the Incarnate Word by the power of the Holy Spirit and then in the whole of her life allowed herself to be guided by his interior activity, will be contemplated and imitated . . . above all as the woman who was docile to the voice of the Spirit, a woman of silence and attentiveness, a woman of hope” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente , 48).
Excerpted from My Soul Magnifies the Lord: A Scriptural Journey with Mary by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2003). Available at wau.org/books