In today’s Gospel reading, we read how the same angel who had announced to Zechariah the birth of John the Baptist now came and announced to Mary the imminent birth of Jesus. All of this happened in Nazareth of all places, a town in Galilee. Nazareth was considered to be a rural backwater, looked down upon by the Judean elite. We see that in John’s gospel, when we are told about the calling of the 1st disciples: “Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.” (John 1:45-46) To think about this in our context, it would have been like someone saying many years ago “can anything good come out of White Abbey?”
As we reflect on the first 2 verses we’ve heard in today’s reading it is clear that there is intention and purpose – the angel Gabriel was sent by God, and he was sent specifically to Nazareth, to a specific person – Mary, who was a virgin, and pledged to be married to Joseph, a descendant of David. Everything had to be in place – and it speaks to us very clearly about how God has a plan and knows exactly what he’s doing.
The angel Gabriel told Mary very clearly that she was the “favoured one” and that the Lord was with her and that she would conceive a son. The stupendous claims which the angel makes for this unborn baby (1:32–33) would have quite simply staggered Jewish readers of the Gospel, so no surprising to learn that Mary was “much perplexed by his words”, as it says in some translations. It’s likely she would also have been perplexed because at that point she wasn’t even married and it’s not as if you encounter an angel every day! If that had happened to you, I wonder how you would have responded? In Mary’s response to Gabriel, she did not question anything that was said – apart from wondering how she would conceive because she was a virgin!
Mary and Elizabeth of course have very different stories to tell. Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist was something that would take away the shame of her infertility, whereas Mary’s pregnancy potentially brought shame on her since she was out of wedlock.
The angel responded to Mary’s question: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God”. Mary’s subsequent response is one of humility and obedience: ““I am the LORD’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.”” No “ifs”, no “buts”, but complete obedience, complete trust, complete faith. If you continue reading Luke’s gospel, you will see how she then takes everything that has been said and gives all the glory back to God. She praises God because he has “looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.”
For many years, I struggled with the church’s veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary to such an extent that it stopped me finding inspiration in her life and testimony. Today, that struggle is still there but diminished sufficiently for me to say this:
I believe Mary’s life and testimony speaks of Godly humility, grace, faith and faithfulness, obedience, conviction and incredible strength. Mary’s example – her life and testimony – is one that we can all aspire to and it’s good that on this 4th Sunday of Advent we can remember her especially. May we all, like Mary, have the courage and wisdom to acknowledge God’s direction in our lives and be able to say: “I am the LORD’s servant, may it be to me according to your word.”