Commentary to the FEAST OF THE ANNUNCIATION OF THE LORD – MARCH 25
THE TEXT BELOW IS THE TRANSCRIPTION OF THE VIDEO COMMENTARY BY FR. FERNANDO ARMELLINI
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" And 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 called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.”
The Annunciation is one of the subjects best represented in the history of art. Until the Renaissance, there was no church where it was not represented. We recall all the great work of Simone Martini (c. 1333), the Blessed Angelico who have fascinated entire generations who have been excitedly contemplating the angel's scene announcing to Mary the birth of Jesus.
Then many painters were not satisfied with what the evangelist Luke said and added many details that they took from the apocryphal gospels. In the 18th century, when Enlightenment ideas appeared, society became more secular and this sweet and serene scene of the encounter of the angel with the virgin almost disappears of the pictorial subjects.
This is not bad because it forced us to go beyond the emotions that the page of Luke raises, and that certainly helped us to approach the mystery and not end in emotions, but to study the literary genre that the author has used. If we just let ourselves be carried away by this great story, we finally ask ourselves: Is it a chronicle of an episode that has happened as it is narrated or is it just a fable? If it was a narration of an episode, it was not so well narrated. I should say: where Mary was, what she was doing ... why she was disturbed when the angel says she will have a child, if she was betrothed for that purpose… Then, how did the angel come in? Did he pass through the door? What features does he have? Did he have wings? Why were these details that satisfy our curiosity, not told to us? Then why did not Mary inform Joseph of the encounter she had with the angel? Instead, she complicated this whole matter and has endangered Mary's honor.
If we consider this narrative a faithful account, even with the details, of what has happened, we will encounter difficulties, for the reason of not understanding the language and the literary genre employed by the evangelist. It is a page of theology, written on a desk, after Easter. That is, after the community has recognized who the son of Mary was and has presented it, from his conception, as the Son of the Most High. The one who wrote this page was a very capable biblical scholar, profoundly familiar with the Old Testament and with the prophecies that he quotes indirectly putting them in the mouth of the angel. He uses the Biblical images and the literary forms known in Israel, because they are those of the Old Testament which speak of the 'virgin Zion'. We will never know whether the announcement was a physical, verifiable event, or just an inner revelation of Mary. And we will not know when or how Mary became aware of her mission as the mother of the Messiah.
All this interests us out of curiosity, but it does not interest our faith. What counts is to understand the message that the evangelist wants to give us: Who is the son of Mary, who is this man who then invites you to give up your life and then to live according to his proposal and his light? The evangelist wants to make his readers understand what he has presented for the history of humankind the moment in which the human life of the Son of God flourished in the womb of Mary. After this introduction, let us turn to the gospel text. "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth.”
Let's try to analyze these details. First of all: "The sixth month". It is a chronological indication that we are not very interested in. We would have preferred to be told the exact date ... that we are now rebuilding a little with the biblical studies: in what year may have happened the birth of Jesus. And today it is placed, with enough precision, in year 746 of the foundation of Rome.
An evangelist, a historian, should tell us the year, month, day; he could have referred to the year 20 since Augustus was called emperor ... therefore, in the year 7 B.C. Or he could have said, the 29th year of King Herod's reign and we would have the exact year of the incarnation of the Son of God. Instead he writes: "In the sixth month." Up to now it was the chronology of the history of this world, the history of humankind, but now a new history begins.
The sixth month refers to the time when the angel Gabriel announced to Zechariah that the barren womb of Elizabeth would give birth to the precursor, the Baptist. Therefore, this sixth month says much from the theological point of view and very little from the historical point of view. This sixth month marks the beginning of the fulfillment of God's promises.
Therefore, we had a human history, but here begins the history of God, the history of salvation, the history of the gestures of the manifestation of the ultimate revelation of his love. So, the new time, the time of the fulfillment of the promises, has begun. So much regarding the time....
Now the place: Nazareth is a tiny village, so much so that it is not mentioned in the Old Testament. At my back, you see a picture from 150 years ago. In the center is the Franciscan church of the 1700’s which no longer exists. It has been replaced by the basilica that we know very well by the pictures. You can see at the back those mountains that form the amphitheater around Nazareth, which rose to the center of those mountains.
And in those mountains were the fields of cultivation of the farmers, of the peasants of Nazareth. This insignificant village had already been inhabited since 2000 B.C. There are archaeological remains—the pottery of that time. Then from 600 onwards it had been abandoned for four centuries. No one dwelled there. Weeds and thorns grew there. Only around 200 B.C. it began again to be inhabited. We understand, therefore, how nobody took it into consideration. Inhabited by simple people, little instructed ... about 150 people.
It was off the major trade routes, especially those coming out of Damascus to the shores of the Mediterranean: Caesarea, Jaffa. Recall also what Nathanael replied to Philip who was very enthusiastic: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Jn 1:16).
Then: Galilee. Galilee is not Judea. Judea was the region where the pure people lived. The Galilee was inhabited by unfaithful people, half pagan, despised by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. God does not look at the important places, the city of Jerusalem, but he looks at an insignificant village. Time is not of the history of the great of this world but the history of God. And we are invited today to make our choices: In what story do you want to become great? The one of Caesar Augustus, of the foundation of Rome, of Herod the Great or do you want to be important in the new history?
The way to become important is different and we must respond to this drive that God has placed within ourselves to be 'important'. One can be important according to the history of the great of this world, who are criminals and violent or be great according to the light that comes from the Son of God, the son of the virgin Mary. God's choices are the small things of this world: the barren sin of Elizabeth, which began the realization of the promises of God; then we see a virgin.
An angel appeared "to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the family of David; the virgin's name was Mary." Twice it is insisted on this condition of Mary. Biological virginity is out of the question. The virgin birth of the Son of God is out of the question. The Church has always believed in this sign, in this creative gesture of God who wanted to give the signal that the only begotten Son of the Most High, of the Father of heaven has entered into the world. The term 'virgin' used by the evangelist Luke does not have only the biological meaning.
More than that, the evangelist is interested in the biblical meaning of 'virgin' because in the context of the Old Middle East virginity was not appreciated, it was motherhood to give importance to the woman. In fact, we must keep in mind something else to understand the message of the evangelist. Israel was called a 'virgin'. When is it that Israel (which is feminine) was called 'virgin'? Not when she was glorious, applauded by all, when she was strong, when the neighboring towns were interested in her, respecting her… NO. But when she was humiliated, when she was not counting at all, she was called a virgin, because the virgin does not give life if she does not join the husband.
Here I quote some texts from the prophets which the evangelist clearly alludes to. For example, Jeremiah says: "Even if our faults accuse us, you Lord, work for the glory of your Name. In truth, many have been our rebellions and great is our sin against you. Hope of Israel, Lord… do not forsake us!” (Jer 14:7-8). "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). To this sad situation, the virgin Israel is reduced. A woman who remained a virgin for life was despised because it meant that she was incapable of giving life. No one took her into consideration. When one says 'virgin Israel' it means that she is reduced to destruction, she has been humiliated. Again, Jeremiah: "Truly horrible things virgin Israel has done! (Jer 18,13).
Then the lamentations of Jeremiah: "To what can I compare you. O daughter Jerusalem? What example can I give in order to comfort you, virgin daughter Zion? For your breach is as wide as the sea; who could heal you?" (Lam 2:13). Then the promise made by Jeremiah: "Again I will build you, and you shall stay built, virgin Israel; carrying your festive tambourines, you shall go forth dancing with merrymakers” (Jer 31,4).
When the evangelist insists on this aspect of Mary's virginity, it is not primarily concerned with biological virginity. She did not go to live with Joseph; she was a virgin and conceived as a virgin, but here is another virginity; as the sterility of Elizabeth's womb indicates the condition of humanity, here indicates the situation of an entire people that if she does not find her husband, the only one, who is the Lord, she remains barren, does not give life. In fact, Mary, when she proclaims her 'Magnificat', will say: "She has watched the humility of her servant” … Israel… And he has done great things in it, which the one who is great and mighty.” It is not beauty that has attracted him, but her fragility, her humiliation, her weakness, her nullity ... and it is He who does great things. This is an important message because God's gaze turns to poor humanity, that He enriches with His love, fills her with life because He loves her.
And I will say that the daughter of Zion comes to be in Mary a symbol because she assumes the face of a woman, a virgin: Mary. And in Mary all the prophecies that were made to the virgin Israel are realized.
Then we are told the name of the young woman as she was known by all in Nazareth. It is one of the many 'Miriam'. We know this because they are quoted several times in the Gospel. It was a very common name. We know that names have their fashion and at that time all the families had a girl who was called Miriam: Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany, Mary of James ... all mentioned in the Gospel.
And there is another reason: 'Miriam' was the favorite woman of the famous man of that time, Herod: 'Mariame'. The meaning of the name 'Mary' comes from the root 'rumram' meaning 'lofty', 'princess'. A name suitable for the mother of Jesus. The words of the angel: "Rejoice, beloved of the Lord." This name along with all other expressions used by the evangelist: "The Lord is with you," “Do not fear” are all expressions that the angel has not learned from heaven before talking to Mary.
The evangelist has put into the mouth of the angel words taken from the Old Testament prophets. It is very important, especially, the word 'rejoice' because Χα?ρε 'Jaire' in Greek, ????' Roni' in Hebrew, it is always used only for the virgin Israel. It is to her that this invitation to burst with joy is addressed. Especially there are two great prophets, Zephaniah and Zechariah.
Zephaniah said: “Shout for joy, daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem. The Lord, your God is in your midst, 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” (Sof 3:14,17). And then Zacharias: "Rejoice, exult daughter of Zion" (Zech 2,11), "Rejoice in the city of Zion, shout for joy in Jerusalem" (Zech 9:9). Let us say clearly who this "daughter Zion" was: it was that neighborhood which was in the northern part of Jerusalem. It appeared in the seventh century, with the refugees who had escaped from Samaria, during the Assyrian invasion, and were received in Jerusalem by Hezekiah king of Israel. He had enlarged the city, but this was the poorest part and this neighborhood was called the 'daughter of Jerusalem'. And it is to this poor quarter that the prophets had addressed the invitation: "Rejoice, look to your coming king: just, victorious, humble, riding a donkey ... he will destroy the chariots of Ephraim" (Zech 9:9-10). These are all the promises indicating where the Lord will go: to the womb of this despised virgin that is Zion. Returning to this oracle, placed in the mouth of Gabriel, the heavenly messenger directs this greeting not only to Mary, but to all Israel and through Israel this salutation is for all humanity. Let us reflect on the history of humanity: history of violence, aggression, of crimes.
A humanity that should be hated by God, instead, after all that has happened, God returns to humanity only this greeting: Rejoice ... not because you are beautiful, but because you are loved by God and we know that love brings life when the husband (who is God) finds a womb that receives Him, which is humanity, which is Mary representing the condition of all humanity. Humanity is loved by God. "When Maria heard it, she was puzzled and wondered what kind of greeting that was." She was puzzled not by the vision, but by the word.
Zachariah had been troubled by the vision, but not Mary. The word that refers to her role and she does not understand what mission God is calling her. "Do not worry." In the Old Testament, this expression is addressed to people who are called to a very important and difficult task. The Lord says: "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God." "Behold, thou shall conceive and bear a son, whom you shall call Jesus." It is interesting the word which begets the Son of God in Mary. "You will call him Jesus." We know that in Israel the name of God was unpronounceable. Now the Son of God, the God-with-us, has a name. And we all know what it means: 'the one who saves' - 'JESUS '.
In the Old Testament the subject of this verb 'to save' is always God or his mediator. The name that identifies the son of Mary is 'the one who saves'. This is his identity. He does not come to judge or condemn, only to save. And then the angel presents the child: "He will be great, bear the title of Son of the Most High." This name: 'Most High' 'Elion', appears 32 times
to refer to God: God who is great, who is high. Moses proclaimed: "Our God is greater than all the gods" (Ex 18:11). Moses said to the Israelites, "The Lord, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, a great God, strong, terrible, God, most exalted, exceeding great, admirable, has an invincible power" (Deut 10:17). What does this name mean when we see it in Jesus...? Not what people imagined, but as we see him incarnate in the perfect image of the Most High.
We read it at the Midnight Mass on Christmas in the letter of Titus: God's greatness appeared in a child who needs the caresses of a 14-year old mother... This is our God. When we imagine this God, very high, far away, who is angry with humanity we do not see him reproduced in the son of Mary. That is an image that we have invented. When we think of the Most High, it is not that He humiliates us because we are miserable, but he is high above to see well and better and needs his children. This is the Most High. In my land we have a very special expression; when people were in very dramatic situations they invoked God in this way: "Lord, look down, and look very down, you who are the Most High, who is above." It is a very touching expression used by the poor of the earth. "The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father."
He will fulfill the prophecy of Nathan, who said to David, 'Your kingdom shall be eternal.' What Nathan understood and what David understood is not of interest to us, but, instead, what was in the mind of God regarding the new kingdom. Not the kingdom of the great of this world which are imposed by violence and dominate over the weakest, but will be the kingdom which will reverse everything. And when the new kingdom is born, when the kingdoms of this world are reversed, those who were formerly great, are now small, and the small are the great ones. The one who was right is now wrong and the one who was wrong is now right. The one who was small is now big, and the one in prison goes to the throne. All reversed.
With the son of Mary begins a completely different kingdom: the kingdom of love, the kingdom of service, the kingdom of the one who gives life, not the one who destroys the lives of others. "And his kingdom shall have no end." "Mary replied to the angel: How will that happen? Not like Zacharias who thinks it's impossible that the womb of Elizabeth be fruitful. Mary only asks 'how', what should I do, How should I behave. If she had been told that she would have a son with Joseph... St. Augustine says that the story of Mary's virginity has been invented ... which is something absurd.... It would be strange that in order to maintain virginity Mary would marry Joseph. She should have gone to a community like that of the Essenes ... NO.
She had married to have a family. Mary's 'vow of virginity' is something invented which does not make any sense. Mary wants to know how to behave, what is expected of her, "God, what is my mission?" The angel will tell you: your son will not be the product of the Davidic dynasty. A creative act of God will be introduced into the world to show that your child is a total gift from heaven. Mary is the model of obedience to God. A truly human obedience. Not a blind obedience that answers without having understood; NO, first she wants to understand.
Let us remember the case of the two sons: one who immediately says YES because he has not understood; instead, the other says: NO, because he wants to understand. Mary does not say NO. She simply says, 'Make me understand how I should behave.' The angel explains: It will be the work of Holy Spirit. When we say: 'of Holy Spirit' it means the creative force and life-giving of God. The same creative force that appears at the beginning of the world. The Spirit that fluttered on the waters. "The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Then the angel alludes to Elizabeth. It gives her a signal: "And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible." This is also an allusion to the book of Genesis when the three angels tell Sarah and Abraham: "Nothing is impossible for God."
We see, therefore, that this page of Luke is composed of all these allusions to the Old Testament. A composite page after Easter, because it is after Easter that the Christian community has understood the identity of Mary's son. Mary's response: "Here I am." This expression, 'inení' in Hebrew, appears in the Bible 178 times. We find it in the mouth of all the servants of God, those who before the call of God respond: I am ready ... 'ecomí'. Abraham – when God calls him: Abraham, Abraham. He responds 'ininí - econí'. What you want from me I am willing to do.
I want to conclude by saying that this 'inení - econí' we find it also in the mouth of God. The prophet Isaiah says: "When you call upon the Lord, the Lord answers you' Because He is the one who says 'inií' I am here to serve you. The Son of God came into the world to tell uswho God really is. It is he who does not make people serve Him, but came to show that he is the servant of all. He loves us so much that he is willing to do everything to make us happy. I wish you all a good Sunday and a good preparation to receive the light that comes from heaven at Christmas.