The archangel Gabriel is on the move in the beginning of the gospel of Luke. This messenger of God takes the news of the miraculous plan for the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth who is way beyond medically accepted childbearing age. The news of John the Baptist’s birth is tied with the news of the birth of Jesus because John is to play a crucial role in Christ’s messianic mission. Again, it is the angel Gabriel who announces to Mary that she will be the mother of Christ. To make Mary understand the reality of this message, the angel informs her about her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which is a seeming impossibility in the medical sciences. At such an advanced age, the angel announces that the barren Elizabeth has also conceived in her old age and is in her 6th month of pregnancy. It proves that, “for God nothing is impossible.” I will like to explore the specific stages of this encounter and what lessons the annunciation narrative leaves for us in our Christian journeys.
1. The name Gabriel means “God is my strength,” as revealed in the events surrounding both Mary and Elizabeth. Gabriel breaks into time with an emphatic greeting to the Virgin, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” This sets the tone for other things that follow the birth of Christ. At this time in their history, the Jews were anxiously awaiting the coming Messiah who would save them from Roman oppression. There was also excitement and speculation at who the Madonna might be; this highly favored lady who would bear the Son of God. Mary most certainly would have prayed for the coming of the Messiah and wondered about the holy Madonna. Her humility was so great that it never would have occurred to her that she could be the prophesied Madonna. Leading a life of prayerful holiness, in the town of Galilee called Nazareth, she went about her life’s routine in an innocent manner. Gabriel’s greeting was wording reserved for royalty. It was the kind of language used to address queens and kings. Hail was used to address Caesar. Or during the trial of Jesus, they mocked the Lord with royal language, “Hail, King of the Jews.” That is why Mary was “greatly troubled” at Gabriel’s greeting and “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Lesson: Here, Mary teaches us that every encounter with God leaves a lasting impression in our hearts. The message is that God encounters us in real life and that he speaks to our hearts. One great place of encounter for Catholics is at the Blessed Eucharist. At Mass, God speaks to us through his Sacred Word. Always listen to the priest when he delivers the homily. Most times, the priest does not know what we are dealing with in our individual and family lives. But the word of God speaks through him and in ways that relate to the things happening in our lives. A well prepared, Spirit-driven homily leaves us pondering what God is saying to us during those moments. Advent offers us an opportunity to reflect on how God makes his presence known. Do you encounter people who speak to you in ways that move your heart? Do you have time to ponder on what such invitation could mean? Could it be God calling you to do something for him? Let us learn to ponder, like Mary, on what God’s mission is for us.
2. The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” In the encounter with God, Mary is afraid. It is important to recognize that there are two different types of fear. In psychology we can distinguish between negative and positive fear whereas in Christian theology, we identify them as servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear is a kind of unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. A person who follows God’s commands due to fear of punishment exercises servile fear of God but it lacks love. Filial fear is an awesome respect and love for the greatness of God. In the case of Mary, the fear referred to here is the fear of the Lord, a filial fear that reveres God and respects His will. Filial fear only fears offending or hurting God through sin. It is the more perfect fear of the Lord because its source is found in love. Mary deeply loved and respected the glory of God. She was filled with awe for the messenger of God, even though she did not understand his message. Mary recognizes that God is inviting her to a great task, so she is respectfully afraid of how to accomplish such extraordinary task. The angel steps in to encourage her that God who has set up the project will accomplish it in her, “for you have found favor with God.”
Lesson: We must trust God for things that seem unclear to us. Our worries do not solve our problems; they only intensify our fears. Understanding that things happen according to God’s plan would help to maintain healthy physical, spiritual, and emotional balance in our lives. Such will set us on a positive spiritual journey that affirms God’s presence in the most difficult circumstances of our lives.
3. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” This is the earth-shattering news from the angel Gabriel. The announcement is strange for several reasons -Mary is a virgin. The gender of the child to be born is already known and pronounced by the angel. The name is already established. His mission is set forth as the Son of the Most High. His dynasty is traced to David, the great ruler of Israel. And his eternal kingdom is made manifest. Mary understands very well the prophesy about the Messiah but she is perplexed and compelled to ask the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” The Annunciation is the divine plan intended for the salvation of the world.
Lesson: Like Mary, God uses us to accomplish different tasks in life, not just for ourselves but for others. In an article on the importance of listening to God who speaks in the silence, someone wrote, “Sometimes in life we ask for prayers, other times we are called to be the answer to someone else’s prayers” (The Family Apostolate Magazine, Christmas 2020 edition, p.16). Mary was an answer to the prayers for the salvation of the world. Do you consider yourself an answer to someone’s prayer for help in any way? Christmas might be the best time to be the answer to someone’s needs for compassion, for food, for love, or for shelter. Know that God is always calling you to something for the good of others.
4. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” What the archangel does here is to reassure Mary of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in the chosen task. The Holy Spirit is an advocate for God’s mission. In the ministry of Christ, we see how much influence the Holy Spirit had in leading Christ through the most difficult times. In the ministry of John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit accompanied John and was present at the baptisms he performed. At the end of his mission, Christ’s gift to his apostles was the descent of the Holy Spirit which led them to minister and to baptize the nations despite the challenges of discipleship. Mary is a disciple in a profound way and would go into the ministry of divine motherhood led by the power of the Holy Spirit. The angel informs her that the Holy Spirit makes impossible things possible as seen in the case of Elizabeth. The Holy Spirit strengthens Mary and prepares her for the great maternity of the Son who is to be called Emmanuel.
Lesson: We need God’s Holy Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity is the breath of God, giving us access to the Father and the Son. The Spirit breaths in our hearts and moves us to a deeper connection with God. He teaches us the joy and peace that comes from following God’s will. Acknowledging the presence of the Holy Spirit in our souls brings us close to God. We are able to make progress in holiness and steadfastness. We are enlightened by the Holy Spirit in times of trials and temptations. We understand that with the presence of the Holy Spirit that all things are possible. The angel says, “nothing is impossible for God.” Nothing means that no problem: not lack, addiction, sickness, loss, or affliction is beyond God’s solution in our lives. Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to overshadow you, to hover over the problems in your life? Remember what happened at the beginning of creation. Scripture says, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2); “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).
5. “Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Once Mary understands what the angel is asking of her, she gives her fiat or her full consent to God’s will. It wasn’t forced. Mary could have said no. Interestingly, the original Greek translation records Mary’s words as, “Behold, I am the slave of the Lord.” Mary truly regarded herself as the lowliest creature before God. Her humility was only surpassed by Jesus himself. In the encounter with the angel, Mary realizes the depth of God’s love and the magnitude of His presence in the task of being the mother of Christ. Her fears give way to joy. Her expectations give way to hope. Her desires give way to God’s love in her heart.
Lesson: We are all God’s vessel. We are “pencils” in his hands intended for writing beautiful scripts. Pencils cooperate with the writer, not necessarily as the pencil wants. What matters is the desire of the writer and what information he intends to communicate. When the pencil writes wrongly, the writer erases and rewrites. That is why we make mistakes. That is why we have flaws. That is why we even see dirt in our lives. The writer is God who knows what best He intends to communicate. He erases our dirt, sharpens us, and rewrites our stories. All God wants of us is an openness to his holy will. The angel departed from Mary only after she has understood God’s will in her life. In our case, we are unable to fully understand God’s will here on earth, so God stays. He stays with us constantly channeling our wills to his will. God does not depart from us in these moments of trials. During these periods of battle with the pandemic, when life seems to have taken a sharp twist with all the ups and downs, God does not depart because our stories are not over. God stays because He is going to rewrite those stories. The stories will only end when we are done here on earth.