Commentary to the 4th Sunday of Advent - Year B
THE TEXT BELOW IS THE TRANSCRIPTION OF THE VIDEO COMMENTARY BY FR. FERNANDO ARMELLINI
A good Sunday to everyone.
The scene of the Annunciation is one of the most represented in the history of art; entire generations have been fascinated by the masterpieces of Simone Martini or Fra Angelico and for centuries Christians have continued to be fond of this sweet and moving scene of the angel who talks to Mary. It was in the 18th century when religious sensibilities changed with the arrival of the Enlightenment and everything became subdued to the critique of reason; what was not rational had to be put aside. Thus, society became more secular and the historical and literary criticism of the evangelical stories that, interpreted as chronicle, presented difficulties and inconsistencies.
Due to these objections raised by the Enlightenment, the encounter between the angel and Mary, which had fascinated entire generations, almost completely disappeared from pictorial themes. But the questions raised by the Enlightenment were providential because they led to deepening the authentic meaning of these texts and specifically, in our case, of the page from Luke. Critics immediately stressed that it was not a report, a material fact, rather, it was a page with which Luke wanted to present us a theological message.
We would all like to know how the events unfolded; this is our legitimate curiosity but it wasn't the interest of Luke. Luke was interested in telling us who that son of Mary is and what he represented for the history of humanity at the moment in which the human life of the Son of God germinated in the womb of Mary. People had imagined many images of God. They had imagined him as the boss, the dominator, as the one who had created people to serve him, and was also described as the one who unleashed wars, punished his enemies with pestilences, with droughts; surely God was not very pleased with what was said about Him. He had only one way to refute what was said about Him.
Only one way to tell us how much was He interested in our love. And this only way was to become one of us and show us his face. In the fullness of time, as Paul tells us in the letter to the Galatians, this design of his love was realized in the womb of a woman, Mary. This is the only truth that everyone knew and all professed in the first Christian community. The rest did not interest them; therefore, we will never know when and how did Mary become aware of the mission to which she was called, we will never know if the annunciation was a material and verifiable fact, or, much more likely, an inner revelation that took place in Mary.
We will approach this page of Luke not to seek answers to our curiosities, but to grasp what he wants to tell us and this is what interests us for our faith. He will tell us through biblical references that we will try to explain.
“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.”
We would like to know the month, the day when Mary's annunciation took place ... At least the year we can find out with a few data. It had to be the year 746 of the founding of Rome, the year of the 192 Olympiad, the year 20 since Caesar Augustus was emperor, the year 29 of the reign of Herod the Great; the year before, 9 BC. the famous “Ara Pacis” had been inaugurated in Rome, that had marked the beginning of the ‘Pax Romana’ for the entire Mediterranean basin.
These dates do not interest Luke. He tells us about the ‘sixth month’ which from a chronological point of view says nothing, but from the point of view of the message is very important because it is the sixth month after the annunciation to Zacharias, In other words, it is the sixth month since God's plan to come and become one of us began to take place. It is the sixth month of the new time, of the fulfillment of God's promises. It's a different way of evaluating the dates of history. One is the history of people that will be erased; the history of God will remain and also those who entered this history of God. It is the sixth month.
The place: in Galilee, which was a region despised because it was considered an unfaithful, semi-pagan place, wrapped in the darkness of sin, of error. It is the image of humanity where the Son of God now appears. And the place where Mary lives, Nazareth, a small town so insignificant that it is never mentioned in the Old Testament. We remember that when Philip enthusiastically says to Nathanael: Jesus of Nazareth ... Nathanael responds 'Forget it ... how can something good come out of Nazareth?' It was a town that had been inhabited since 2000 BC but then in the 6th century, at the time of the invasion of Babylon, it had been abandoned, there only bushes and nettles grew, but 200 years before Christ had begun to be inhabited again, but always in an insignificant way. It was not Nazareth where the gazes of people were directed; they looked at Rome, to Olympia, who had the bidding of the games, they looked to Jerusalem. The eyes of God have different evaluations from those of people.
The annunciation is addressed to a virgin. In the social context of the Ancient East it was not virginity that gave importance to a woman, but motherhood. In Israel, virginity was prized—just like now—before marriage, not after. The fact that a woman always remained a virgin was a disgrace because it meant that she had no value, she did not attract anyone's gaze.
That is why the term ‘virgin’ in the Bible has a derogatory connotation attached to it. In fact, this image of ‘virgin’ is taken to indicate the condition of Jerusalem when it was destroyed, humiliated, insignificant, lifeless. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, quotes the Lord's words that he says: "I will build you up again and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt" (Jer 31:4). And again Jeremiah when he cries for the situation of his destroyed city: “The virgin, daughter of my people, has been wounded by a mortal wound. If I walk out into the field, look! those slain by the sword; if I enter the city: look! victims of famine” (Jer 14:18). Jeremiah again: "Horrible things did the virgin Israel." And also the prophet Amos says: "She is fallen, to rise no more, virgin Israel; She lies abandoned on her land, with no one to raise her up” (Am 5:2).
The virginity of Mary, therefore, should not be understood only in a biological sense, but above all in a biblical sense. Luke presents her as the Virgin of Zion who becomes fruitful through the intervention of the Lord. It is from the image of humanity that is incapable of giving life, authentic life, human life, if there is no intervention of the Lord. And Mary, as a good biblical scholar, when she sings her Magnificat will say: "He who is great has seen the humiliation of her handmaid." Mary, image of Israel, who is insignificant and worthless in the eyes of people but whom God makes great; He who is Powerful makes her fruitful and full of life.
And now, the name of this virgin: Mary, Miriam, means ‘the sublime,’ the one who rises on high. I'd say it is a name that suits Mary. Why this name? We find it many times in the gospels; we remember Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Mary of James ... why so many Marys? Probably because King Herod's favorite was called Miriam, and therefore it is a name that was in fashion.
Let us now listen to the angel's announcement to this virgin:
“And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’”
The greeting that the Evangelist Luke puts in the mouth of the angel turned towards Mary is: "Favored one". It is not the formal and courteous expression of the people who meet. Nor is it the usual ‘Shalom.’ Therefore, it does not mean "hail ... I greet you, Mary." NO! ‘Favored one’ is a solemn expression that Luke has chosen very carefully. Where did he go to get this greeting? In the books of the prophets; there we find in the mouth of God the greeting ‘favored one’ practically always and only addressed to Israel, to Jerusalem, because when these people were humiliated and defeated God invites them to rejoice because He is among his people. This is what the prophets had said.
We are going to listen to these texts because they are very beautiful and this greeting that God addresses Israel in a difficult and desperate time, He also addresses our humanity because these prophecies have been fulfilled through Mary. In the womb of Mary God really came to become one of us.
In the book of Zephaniah, God says to Israel: “Shout for joy, daughter Zion! cheer, Israel; sing joyfully, Israel! Do not fear, Zion, do not be discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst”- the Hebrew term ‘bekirbej’-, means in your womb; "...a mighty savior, who will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, Who will sing joyfully because of you, as on festival days” (Zep 3:14-18). The prophet Zechariah: "Shout and be glad, Daughter Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you, declares the LORD" (Zech 2:10). Again Zechariah: “Exult greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; He will proclaim peace to the nations, His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech 9:9-10). This is humanity where God enters and begins to inaugurate his kingdom.
Also in the book of Prophet Joel: “Do not fear, O land! delight and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Children of Zion, delight and rejoice in the Lord, your God!” (Joel 2:21.23).
Taking these oracles, the heavenly messenger directs his greeting not only to Mary as a person, but to all humanity and invites her to rejoice, not to be anguished by her own misery, her own unworthiness because the Lord comes to her. It is a call to joy that will then continually resonate in the Gospel of Luke. We already have it in the annunciation to Zacharias: "You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth" (Lk 1:14). Then, in the announcement of the birth of Jesus, the angel will say to the shepherds: "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Lk 2:10).
To whom is this greeting addressed? To Mary, but he doesn't say ‘Favored Mary.’ ‘Favored (it is a very important Greek verb) ‘Κεχαριτωμενη’ -- ‘kejaritomene’. We could translate it "Rejoice oh beloved of God" - or, paraphrasing, "Rejoice, you have been filled with all the gifts of the Lord's love." This Greek verb ‘karitogo’ is addressed to Mary and then only once more is this verb used to refer to humanity. In the letter to the Ephesians he addresses all of us: "Rejoice because you have been loved by God."
When we think about the history of humankind, it is enough that we open the history books and we realize what was the situation in the world: wars, violence of all kinds, oppression of the weak, robberies, homicides, massacres, torture ... this had been the entire history of humanity. What can we expect? that God cancel everything and make a new humanity? NO. It is the ‘beloved of God.’ God loves this humanity so much that he came to become one of us.
"The Lord is with you." It is the greeting that we find directed to people who have to carry out important missions ... such as to Gideon who has to free his people; to David who has to build the temple. In the scene of annunciation, "The Lord is with you" is addressed to Mary and through Mary for humanity.
And now let's listen to Mary's reaction to these greetings:
“But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’”
At these words, Mary is deeply confused and disturbed. Zacharias was troubled by the vision. Mary by the word. It's God's word, God's plan, his designs that now enter her life; and, inevitably, when God enters our life with his word there is a disturbance because it disrupts our projects.
The Greek verb used is ‘διεταρ?χθη’ - ‘diatarasumai’; ‘Tarasein’ indicates the agitation of the sea waves and it is what happens in our life when we let the word of God enter our minds and our hearts. The angel says to Mary ... and this angel represents also the voice of the Lord that we also hear when he makes proposals for life that upset our projects.
The angel tells her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” In other words, ‘you have entered into the design of his benevolence. God comes to bring you joy and life; you are going to conceive a child; you will name him Jesus.' This name is important. God had a name that could not be named, but now God tells us what He wants to be called. His name is: ‘God saves’ - Joshua. A God who reveals himself not as an executioner, not as a judge, but as the one who wants to bring you to life.
And then there is the presentation of who this son of Mary will be: "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High." We know that son is the one who looks like, the one who reveals the face of the Most High. This expression referring to God appears 32 times in the Old Testament. It was the God who appeared great and powerful as the Israelites dreamed of. Let us remember Moses, who proclaimed: “Great is our God, greater than all the gods because he is strong and victorious.” Moses assured the Israelites: "The Lord is your God, the God of gods, the Lord of lords, a great, strong, terrible God." In the last centuries before Christ the claims about this greatness, about this height of God had multiplied out of all proportion: "The Lord, great and glorious, admirable in his power, invincible" says the book of Judith.
In the son of Mary we have the authentic face of this God of the heights; he appears in a child; these are the greatness of God, a God who makes himself small to reveal to us how great his love is.
And then the angel continues: "The Lord God will give him the throne of David." Let us notice how Luke, who is composing this page to indicate the identity of the son of Mary, is describing it to us with a series of Old Testament prophecies. It refers to the prophecy that Nathan had made to David, who would have an eternal kingdom, through his great descendant, the messiah. It will be a kingdom very different from what David expected because it will not be the kingdom of those who magnify themselves, but of those who become servants of people. And this kingdom, however, will be eternal, it will last forever, it will be an endless kingdom.
Now let's listen to the question that Mary asks the angel:
“But Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?’ And the angel said to her in reply, ‘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 called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.’ Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”
"How can this be?" Mary asks. Her question is very different compared to Zacharias who had questioned the power of the Lord. "How will that happen, am I old?" Mary has no doubts in the power of God; she just wants to understand how she will have to participate in the Lord's designs. "Since I have no relations with a man.” It means that she was still a virgin. From these words was born the story invented by Saint Augustine of the vow of virginity made by Mary from an early age and therefore, the marriage to Joseph was only a false pretext. ‘Joseph was old, a widower, he already had some children, but God had placed him next to Mary to protect her virginity.’
The one who makes these assumptions means that has not understood the literary genre and thinks that this page of Luke is a dialogue that really happened between Mary and the angel. Then Mary would have remembered all the words of the dialogue and would have told them to Luke who wrote it in her gospel. Today nobody assumes these things. Mary does not ask how this can happen but asks ‘how should I insert myself into the Lord's design.’ Here Mary becomes for us a model of the response to give to the Lord when with his word he enters our life.
The person cannot give up his or her intelligence and freedom. Adherence to God in faith never demands renunciation to reasonableness. The ‘yes’ said to God, to be truly human, must be reflected, responsible and in this, Mary is truly the model of the authentic human response.
What clarification does the angel give to Mary? He does it with biblical images that Mary understands very well, like all Israelites understand these references. The first is that of the Spirit of God, "Holy Spirit will come upon you." There is no article, it is Holy Spirit, the divine force. It does not assume the masculine role in the generation of Jesus, after all, ‘pneuma’ in Greek is neuter and in Hebrew ‘ruaj’ is feminine. The Spirit here remembers that Spirit that hung over the waters before creation. It is the creative force of God. The clarification that the angel gives to Mary is ‘a divine creative force will enter you.’
The second image to clarify to Mary what her task will be says: "The power of the Most High will overshadow you." The image of the shadow is a biblical image that indicates the presence of God. Let us remember that in the book of Exodus the column of cloud that accompanied the people indicated the presence of God who led the exodus. Then the cloud that descended on Mount Sinai when Moses heard the words of the Lord. It is always the sign of the presence of God. Then again, the tent of meeting where Moses entered to meet the Lord, to dialogue with God; above this tent was the cloud that covered it. When it is said that the cloud will overshadow Mary, it indicates that she has become the Ark of the Covenant. To put it clearly: it is a profession of faith by Luke in the divinity of the son of Mary. It is presented with the image of the cloud, a sign of the presence of God in the womb of Mary.
Then, the sign given to Mary: ‘And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age”- a child who is the sign of life that comes from heaven. ' Mary's response: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord." - "Here I am." It is an expression that is repeated 178 many in the Old Testament, in Hebrew ‘hineni.’ We find it in the mouth of Abraham: "Abraham ... Abraham ... Here I am," he answers. Samuel: “Samuel… Samuel… Here I am – ‘econí’”. The patriarchs, Moses, the prophet Isaiah. When the Lord calls them to fulfill a mission, they respond: "Ecomí" - Here I am.
Mary becomes part of these great characters and then surpasses them all in carrying out a mission infinitely superior to what these characters have done before her. She responds: ‘Ecomí’ - it is the availability that she gives to God for the realization of His project. I would like to conclude on this ‘ecomí’ that we find not only on the lips of people, but we also find it in the mouth of God when he says: 'Hímeni'. The prophet Isaiah says about God: ‘When you call him, the Lord answers you and says: ‘Ecomí’… In prayer, when we turn to him, keep it in mind, He too, as we do, manifests His willingness to come to meet us. In Isaiah chapter 52, God reveals to Israel his identity and says: "I am the one who says: ‘écomi ’-‘ hinemi.’
Soon we will behold the son of Mary; the son of Mary who reveals to us the face of the Most High. We will see a child; a child who speaks to us of the Most High, tells us who is the God in whom we believe. It's a baby. That child does not tell us everything, but what that child tells us will never be denied when he grows up, when he is older. The child needs kisses and caresses otherwise he cries… this is our God; the God who came among us is a God whom we imagined great and powerful, vigilante… NO. He is a God who asks to be loved because only if we enter into this dynamic of love with Him we can be truly happy.
I wish you all a good Sunday and a good preparation to contemplate the face of the Most High in Jesus of Nazareth, in the son of Mary.