Annunciation of the Lord – March 25, 2020
God who had given so many proofs of love,
but he held in reserve the most unheard-of wonders.
This ancient festival is connected with the spring equinox. It was celebrated in Palestine possibly as early as the fourth century and introduced in the West in the seventh century.
Originally, it was not a feast of the Madonna, but of the Lord. It was instituted to commemorate the announcement of the coming of the Son of God in the world.
It was in the Middle Ages—when the sobriety of the Marian cult that had characterized the first centuries gave way to devotional emphases—that today’s feast became that of Mary, the Annunciation. After the Second Vatican Council, it regained its original meaning and is back to being the Solemnity of the Annunciation.
We are in spring, the vegetation awakens and life resumes after the rigors of winter. To the believer, the appearance of new shoots can only recall, in a spontaneous and immediate way, the true spring, the blessed day when, with the incarnation of the Son of God, the new world began.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have used this bond between the spring of nature and that of faith to revive in their hearts the memory of the event from which their story had its beginning. For this, in the Middle Ages many communities—and in Florence even until 1750—they started the year on March 25. From the fifth century, the Annunciation was one of the subjects most represented in art history until the Renaissance. There was no church in which it was not shown. Then, from the eighteenth century onwards, the sweet and serene scene of the angel’s encounter with the Virgin almost disappeared from the painterly themes.
The rise of a more secular society, the spread of Enlightenment ideas had led to look at the Gospel story with certain disenchantment. The masterpieces by great artists such as Simone Martini and the Blessed Angelico—who had drawn entire generations to the sublime mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God—continued to fascinate and excite. However, they were no longer sufficient to nourish the faith of those who wanted to find out which good news of Heaven was behind the apparent simplicity of Luke’s pages.
Bible studies allow us to give an answer to this spiritual instance. The angel and the Virgin are not placed at the center stage but the Lord, that God who so often we feel distant or absent and that today—with the announcement of his coming into the world—he reminds us instead he cannot be in heaven and be happy without us.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“God cannot stay in heaven without us.”
First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-14
The historical context in which this oracle was uttered is well known. King Ahaz—in his twenties—is called to face a coalition of enemies who intend to dethrone him. He is a descendant of David, belonging to the noble family of which Nathan, in the name of God, has promised an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam 7:14-16), therefore, he should not be afraid. But in his mind, doubts that the Lord will not keep his word starts to creep in. He has a weak army, unable to withstand the onslaught of enemies, how will God deliver him from so aggressive opponents? Faced with danger, his faith wavers and he makes the decision to form an alliance with the powers that be, the Assyrians who, in the bleak political horizon of the Middle East of the eighth century B.C., are devastating empires, imposing heavy taxes and corrupting religious purity and morale of peoples they conquer.
Isaiah is a character appreciated at court for the wise counsel that he usually gives. He closely follows the political events and immediately realizes that the choice the king made is reckless and dangerous. He goes to the upper pool in Jerusalem where Ahaz is studying ways to supply water to the city in view of the siege. In the name of God, he reassures him: “What you fear shall not be so, it shall not come to pass” (Is 7:8). Then he returns to his house and waits a few days, hoping for the sovereign to rethink, but he is adamant. He decides to visit him again, this time in his palace.
Our reading begins at this point. The prophet makes him an offer: “Ask for a sign from Yahweh, your God!” (vv. 10-11). Ahaz is not willing to recede, then, he does not even care to have a sign. Isaiah gives it to him just the same: “The virgin is with child and bear a son and calls his name Immanuel” (v. 14).
What did he mean? Someone thought that Isaiah foretold, with seven centuries in advance, the virginal conception of Mary, but such a sign would have made no sense for Ahaz.
The “virgin” that Isaiah was referring to was the young wife of the ruler. This girl—assured the prophet—will have a son whose name would be “Immanuel” which means “God is with us.” In simple words, he said: You fear that without the help of the powerful of this world, your kingdom will be destroyed; you’re wrong and the proof that God will be faithful to the promise to maintain eternally steadfast your dynasty is the fact that your wife gets pregnant, will bear you a son who will succeed you on the throne. He will be a great king, a new David and nobody will dispossess either you or him.
The prophecy came true: the “virgin” conceived a child who was born and was named Hezekiah. He was a good king, gave continuity to the Davidic dynasty, but he was not the exceptional king that Isaiah had announced (Is 9:5-6; 11:1-9) and in whom he had placed so many hopes. The same prophet had seen him grow up at court. After the death of Ahaz, for twenty years the prophet had been at his side, and was aware of it. However, he did not forsake the oracle he had spoken.
Although not understanding the deeper meaning of this mysterious prophecy, Israel continued to keep it jealously and welcomed it in the holy book, certain that one day it would be fulfilled.
In Isaiah’s mind the “son of the virgin” was Hezekiah, but in God’s heart the “Emmanuel,” the “God-with-us” was another. Israel was able to wait until an angel announced the conception to a virgin of Nazareth. That was the day when the spring began in the world.
Second Reading: Hebrews 10:4-10
“Here I am” is the answer that all God’s men of the Old Testament—Abraham, the patriarchs, Moses, Samuel, the prophet Isaiah—give to the Lord who calls them. It is not equivalent to the simple “yes”. It is a declaration of total willingness to accept the designs of the Lord. It is the sign of the unconditional adhesion to his will.
“Here I am”—the author of Psalm 40 also exclaims. It is mentioned in the first part of today’s reading (vv. 5-7). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes up the words that this pious man, arriving at the temple, turned to his God to thank him for the favors granted to him.
We might well paraphrase his prayer: the dramatic vicissitudes through which I passed have made me understand that you, Lord, do not feel any pleasure in the scents of incense. You do not take pleasure of the music of harpists, of flute players and the chants of the Levites. You do not feed yourself with the meat of the sacrificed lamb on the altar. There is one sacrifice pleasing to you: that of those who do your will, share your projects and work with you to achieve them. This is the sacrifice that I want to offer you!
“Here I am”—a phrase that recurs most frequently in the Bible, and appears a thousand times. It’s not employed only by man to show his willingness to accept the will of God, God also uses it to respond to man. “Then you will call—assures Isaiah—and the Lord will answer. You cry and he will say, ‘I am here’ (Is 58:9).” God even uses this phrase to define his own identity: “They will know on that day it is I—when he is invoked—who says: Here I am!” (Is 52:6).
“Here I am”—is explained in the second part of the reading (vv. 8-10). It sums up the interior attitude of Christ towards the Father’s will. It is the “unconditional yes” that he, entering the world, has pronounced: “Here I come to do your will.” It is the “yes” of love said to the Father and, at the same time, it is the revelation of the “Here I am” of God. To man, he says: “Here I am”, I came to deliver myself into your hands.
Proposed in the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, this passage from the Letter to the Hebrews sheds light on the meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God. With his coming he declared closed the time of tenders, of burnt offering of atonement, flawless execution of rituals and outward ceremonies. A new liturgy was inaugurated: the adhesion to the Father’s will.
Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
Many painters have depicted this scene using their imagination. Some tried to complete it even resorting—as did many artists—to legendary traits handed down by the apocryphal gospels.
The emotions evoked by this passage from Luke can help to approach the mystery, on condition that one goes just beyond, understands the literary genre used by the evangelist and manages to grasp the message it wants to communicate.
If one interprets it in a superficial way, the spell ends soon because questions arise of which no answer is found or they do not make sense. One wonders why nothing is told where Mary was, what she was doing, what were the reasons for her trouble (if she was married to have children, why did she wonder about the announced maternity?), what was the angel’s appearance, how was he introduced in the Virgin’s house, where was Joseph, why was he not immediately informed and above all, why did God want so much to complicate the story, to the point of jeopardizing the integrity of Mary.
Whoever poses these questions did not understand that we are not facing a faithful account in every detail, but a written page of theology by a very prepared biblical scholar, with deep knowledge of the Old Testament, the oracles of the prophets, the images and the literary forms used in the Bible.
We will never know if the Annunciation was a verifiable material event or an inner revelation that happened to Mary. We will never know how and when Mary became aware of her mission as mother of the Messiah. We are interested in this but not the evangelist whose pursuit instead is to make the readers understand who is Mary’s son and what has, the moment when the human life of God’s Son blossomed in Mary’s womb, meant for the history of humanity.
Having done this premise we come to the Gospel text. The setting (vv. 26-27), of the mysterious event of the incarnation, is very realistic. The place is mentioned; it is Nazareth, a tiny village of Galilee, so insignificant that it was not even being named in the Old Testament. It was inhabited by simple people with little education. To Philip who excitedly declared his admiration for Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael answered mockingly: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). The entire Galilee was considered an unfaithful region, semi-pagan, far from the pure religious practice of Judea.
After the reference to the site, a virgin married to Joseph of the dynasty of David is presented on the scene. Finally, the girl’s name is indicated, the one with which she is known to all: at Nazareth, she is called Mary, which means “the exalted one, the one who is high up.” Again the evangelist, in remembering her name, designates her as “virgin.” Why such insistence?
Virginity for us is a sign of dignity and a great honor, but in Israel, it was appreciated before marriage, not after. For a girl, it was a disgrace to remain a virgin for life. It was the sign of her inability to draw to herself the looks of a man. The childless woman was a dry tree that bore no fruit. A derogatory connotation was tied to the term virgin; it meant: no life, no future, no posterity. In the most dramatic moments in her history, Jerusalem was a defeated and humiliated virgin named Zion (Jer 31:4; 14:13), because in her life had stopped; it was unable to generate.
Mary’s virginity should not be understood only in the biological sense—as the church teaches—but above all in the biblical sense. Luke wants to present her as the virgin Zion, which becomes fruitful because her husband, the Lord, filled her with love.
n her song Mary will be well aware of her “virginity” when she declares: “He has looked upon the lowliness (ταπε?νωσιν—says the Greek text) of his servant” (Lk 1:48). It is not the admiration for her moral integrity that the evangelist wants to inspire in the Christians of his community, but to let them contemplate the “great things” that in her—poor and devoid of any merit—one who is “Powerful” and “holy is his name” has operated (Lk 1:49).
Anyone who considers the wonders done by the Lord in “his servant” can no longer fall for his own unworthiness, in fact, all are called to become, in the hands of God, masterpieces of his grace.
Luke opened his gospel with a diptych, with two announcements. In the first panel, he presented the old and sterile Elizabeth (image of the bride-Israel incapable of generating and of the condition of humanity devoid of life’s perspectives). In the second panel he introduced a young “virgin” barren personification of Zion, but a womb ready to welcome life.
Making fruitful the barren Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary, the Lord has shown that there is no condition of death that cannot be filled with life. Like the desert, he decided to transform even the arid hearts into lush gardens, irrigated by the water of his Spirit; the gardens will become forests (Is 32:15).
After examining the two introductory verses, we analyze the central part of the passage.
Rejoice, full of grace, the Lord is with you (v. 28).
This is the heavenly messenger’s greeting to Mary. This is not a formal and polite expression that people who meet for the first time usually address each other. It is not the same as “Hello, I salute you Mary” and is not even the usual “Shalom.” It is a solemn expression, composed with care. To any Israelite, it immediately recalls some texts of the Old Testament.
Rejoice is the well-known invitation to joy and jubilation that the prophets have addressed to the virgin Zion or to the Daughter of Zion—the poorest district of Jerusalem, the most dilapidated area where migrants and displaced persons resided.
In this desperate city, Zephaniah and Zechariah announced a message of consolation: “Cry out with joy, O daughter of Zion; rejoice greatly, daughter of Jerusalem…. The Lord is in your midst, you will not see misfortune … Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for I am about to come” (Zep 3:14-18; Zec 9:9-10; 2:14).
Resuming these oracles, the heavenly messenger shows to address his greeting not only to Mary as a person but to all Israel, indeed, the whole of humanity, inviting her to rejoice, not to agonize for her own misery and unworthiness. The Lord is going to come to her.
O beloved by God.
If we run through the Bible, we see that when God speaks to someone, usually he calls the person by name. In our story, Mary’s name is replaced by an epithet: Beloved by God. It is the second name given to the Virgin in our story.
Mary was the name by which she was known in Nazareth. Beloved by God is that with which she is known in heaven; it is her true identity. Her mission in the world is contained in this name: through her, God will manifest all his love for people. Beloved by God is not only Mary’s heavenly name; it is that of all humanity.
The Lord is with you.
When God gives someone an important and difficult mission, the person is seized with fear and tries to escape. Moses must free the people; he feels inadequate and parries; the Lord reassures him: “I will be with you” (Ex 3:12); Joshua is commissioned to introduce Israel into the promised land and God encourages him: “I will be with you as I was with Moses” (Jos 1:5); Gideon must save his people from their oppressors and the angel says: “The Lord will be with you” (Jdg 6:12).
The task of Mary—and the virgin-Israel that she depicts—is more extraordinary than all those that have been entrusted to the servants of God that preceded her. Gabriel encourages her with words well known to her: “The Lord is with you.”
Mary’s trouble allows the angel to clarify the mystery that is about to be realized in her: in her womb, the Almighty is about to take on human form; the eternal is about to enter into our time; the Creator of the universe is going to be a creature.
The child that will be born to her—says the angel—“will be great and shall rightly be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the kingdom of David, his ancestor; he will rule over the people of Jacob forever, and his reign will have no end” (vv. 32-33).
Each of these words—which are not a verbatim report, but a post-paschal theological composition, put by Luke on the angel’s mouth—alludes to Old Testament texts. They are a reminder of the prophecy of Isaiah: “For a child is born to us.… Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. To the increase of his powerful rule in peace, there will be no end; he will reign on David’s throne and over all his kingdom” (Is 9:5-6) and especially the oracle of Nathan: “He shall build a house… I will firmly establish his kingship forever. He shall be my son. Your house and your reign shall last forever” (2 Sam 7:12-17).
With these references the evangelist wanted to present to his readers the true identity of the son of Mary. It’s an identity that is difficult to grasp: in fact, it has remained always hidden from the eyes of the powerful, the rich, the wise and intelligent (Mt 11:25) who are used to judge the value of people with the criteria of this world, not with those of God.
Making use of references to the Scriptures, Luke has shown to his readers the discovery that Mary and the disciples had in the light of Easter: although conceived in total anonymity from a village in Galilee of the Gentiles (Mt 4:15), Jesus was not just any child. He was the expected messiah destined to rule forever. In him, all the prophecies were fulfilled.
The story continues with the question of Mary: “How can this be?” She does not ask how it is possible for this to happen nor intend to put obstacles. She just wants to know what will be her task, how will she behave so that the designs of God are realized in her.
Man cannot give up his own intelligence. The adherence to God in faith never demands the renunciation of reasonableness. The “yes” said to God, to be truly human, must be weighted and responsible.
Luke presents Mary as a model of authentic human response—which must be free and informed—to the call of the Lord. The clarification requested is given with a language that Mary and the Israelites understood well, that of the biblical images.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (v. 35). It is first of all drawn to the presence of God’s Spirit, the spirit that at the beginning of the world hovered over the waters is remembered (Gen 1:2). Now the Spirit is again recalled because God is going to do a new creative act in Mary’s womb.
Then the shadow and the cloud: they are signs of the divine presence in the Old Testament. During the Exodus the Lord went before his people in a pillar of cloud (Ex 13:21), a cloud covered the tent where Moses went to meet God (Ex 40:34-35) and, when the Lord came down on Sinai to speak to Moses, the mountain was covered by a thick cloud (Ex 19:16).
Stating that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, Luke declares that the same Lord is made present in her. We are faced with this evangelist’s profession of faith in the divinity of Mary’s son.
The angel concludes his discourse by recalling the effectiveness guaranteed by every word from the mouth of the Lord. He does it with the same words that one of the three angels addressed to Sarah and Abraham, disbelieving the announcement of Isaac’s birth: Nothing is impossible with God (Gen 18:14).
I am the handmaid of the Lord (v. 38a).
In the short Gospel account, we are examining the three names of the Virgin: in Nazareth, they called her Mary; in Heaven, she was known as the Beloved of God. Here is the third name, which the Christian community identified her with: the Servant of the Lord.
In our text, it is Mary who attributed this name to herself, but it is unlikely. This title does not mean—as someone translates—“humble servant,” but it is a title of supreme honor that the Old Testament reserves to the great men faithful to God (never to a woman). Samuel, David, the prophets, the priests in the temple who night and day bless God (Ps 134:1-2) are called “servants of the Lord”. When it mentions the name of Moses, the sacred author often feels the need to add “servant of the Lord.”
It is unlikely that Mary was less modest to attribute to herself such a high title, though no one more than her deserved it certainly. It is more likely that the primitive community—among whom she lived in prayer (Acts 1:14)—having contemplated in her the model of the faithful disciple, chose this biblical title to qualify her and has put it on her lips.
Let it be done to me as you have said (v. 38b)
In many paintings, the surprise and, at times, almost her dismay appears in the Virgin’s face to which the acceptance of God’s will always follow. However, let it be done does not at all mean resigned consent. The Greek verb ‘genoito’ is an optative and expresses a joyful desire. On the lips of Mary, it reveals her anxiety to see the desire of the Lord realized in her.
Where God enters, joy always comes. The story, beginning with the ‘rejoice’, ends with the joyful exclamation of the Virgin ‘let it be done’. No one had understood God’s plan; David, Nathan, Solomon, the kings of Israel had not understood it. All had posed their dreams against it and they expected from him to fulfill them. Mary did not behave like them; she has not put any of her project against God. She only asked him to clearly show the role he intends to entrust her. After having understood, she joyfully welcomed his will.