Dec. 8, 2015
Luke 1: 26-38
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
“She was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1: 29).
|Bas relief, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington|
A lot of Catholics confuse the immaculate conception of Mary with the virginal conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. I’m sure that reading this gospel today doesn’t do much to dispel that confusion. But I trust this congregation isn’t confused.
In the gospel reading we discern some qualities of Mary that flowed from her fullness of grace, her unique intimacy with God—an intimacy unlike any other creature’s. Yet these qualities we may strive to imitate.
The angel’s appearance and his greeting trouble her. Angelic appearances in the Scriptures always trouble the one who sees them. But Gabriel greets Mary in a way no one else is greeted, “full of grace” or more literally, “favored.” As for the angel, who expects God’s direct intervention in his life? It would be presumptuous, no? So Mary, a humble girl, is very surprised, shocked even. Her humility is taken aback further still by the greeting. She can’t imagine how close she is to God—by his grace, by his special favor. We all hope we’re close to God, on intimate terms with him—at least that’s supposed to be our goal as Jesus’ disciples. That closeness is called holiness! But if we’re humble, we don’t presume to be the Lord’s closest friend, to be a favorite. Rather, we know that we’re sinners, completely dependent on his mercy. We can imitate Mary’s humility by awareness of our unworthiness of God’s special care, and that awareness can stir us to gratitude for his grace.
Mary’s next words to Gabriel question him—not from doubt or reluctance to hear what God’s messenger has to say, but from her prudence. “How can this be?” she asks, meaning, apparently, “What is God planning to do with me? What is he expecting of me?”
In his presentation of St. Andrew in a Wednesday audience instruction, Pope Benedict counted it a good quality that Andrew asked questions of Jesus; the Holy Father added, “But at the same time we must be ready to accept even the surprising and difficult teachings that he offers us.” Asking God questions about his intentions, his plans, his desires for us and for the world around us is a good thing, provided only that we’re ready to listen to what he says. In prayer we dialog with the Lord. We might even recall how Abraham bargained with him (Gen 18:22-32). Mary of course isn’t bargaining, but she is seeking clarity, seeking understanding. This is prudent. This is wise. We can imitate her in this.
Mary’s final word in this episode is one we all know. “Behold, I’m the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38). She submits completely to what God is asking of her—scarcely sure of how it will come about and certainly not knowing all that will come of it. It’s enuf that she understands now what God is asking of her now. That models obedience for us—discerning God’s immediate will and submitting to it, even when it surprises us, stuns us, puzzles us, runs against our expectations, as so often it seems to do. There’s no other way to imitate her—or her Son.