8 December [Immaculate Conception]
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "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. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
On the face of it, today’s reading might seem quite like the angel’s visit to Zechariah announcing the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-20). But when you look more closely you see that they are set in clear contrast to each other. Zechariah was standing right at the centre of the nation’s place of worship, and “the whole assembly of the people was praying outside,” but Mary was a tiny unknown figure, remote from all centres of power. Mary’s demeanour is also contrasted with Zechariah’s: she hears God’s word with great simplicity, unlike the argumentative Zechariah. She is seen as the model believer. It is a subtle contrast: she too had a question, similar to Zechariah’s question, but there are many different kinds of ‘why’ (or ‘how’). Zechariah’s question was literally, “by what shall I know this?” (kata ti;), as if asking for independent verification; while Mary’s was simply “how” (pos;). Meister Eckhart said in one of his sermons that we should not ask ‘why’. At first sight this is surprising; he was an academic theologian whose business it was to ask many whys. But he was also clear about the differences. There is the ‘why’ that is like locking a door (“I will admit only what I can understand”), and there is the why that is like opening a door, wanting to enter more deeply. Mary’s ‘why’, I imagine, was of the second kind.
Though Mary appears in a perfect light, it is clear that it is not her virtue that has earned her the great honour that is to come. The angel’s greeting makes it clear. “Favoured one,” kecharitomene; what is coming to her is God's gift, not reward for virtue. In the biblical passage the favour being offered was, of course, the conception of Jesus in her womb. There is nothing in the Scriptures about the beginnings of Mary’s own life, and no mention of course of her conception (which is what today’s feast is about), so the Liturgy uses Luke's account of the conception of Jesus instead.
Mary is the model of Christian discipleship. When her story is presented only as the story of her special privileges, that role is being taken from her. When we only stress her differences from us we are subtly pushing her away. There have been many aberrations of Marian piety, and we need to stay close to the authentic tradition. St Ambrose gave it luminous expression in his comment on this passage. "Every soul who has believed both conceives and generates the Word of God and recognises his works. Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you to magnify the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one to exult in Christ."
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