Today we celebrate an unexpected moment in Mary’s life, when Mary received a visit from an angel. Mary knew that signs from the Lord meant that the Lord had something to say; what would you do if an angel appeared to you? Joshua fell on his face when he realized that the Lord had sent him an army of angels (Joshua 5:14). Samson’s mother went to go get Samson’s father (Manoah) and when he realized he had seen an angel, he was sure he was going to die, until his wife calmed him down (Judges 13). Ahaz in today’s First Reading didn’t want a sign, but that was because he was afraid he’d get one. He knew God had something to say, and that had him shaking in his boots. Ahaz didn’t have faith in the Lord to deliver him and his people from Assyria, and Assyria conquered him in the end.
In today’s Gospel Gabriel acknowledges something Mary in her humility would never do: that she was full of grace. If she was full of grace, and the Lord was with her, why a visit from an angel? Perhaps what was troubling Mary was trying to think of what more she could do for the Lord, but it’s more likely that she was concerned about having displeased him somehow. Why else would he send an angel? We’re not quite in the same category as Mary. We have our limitations and failings and we try to do everything the Lord asks of us. However, we also always have a little fear: it seems we’re giving everything, that we’re pushed to our limits, but then God starts dropping big or small hints that he is expecting something more.
Gabriel assures Mary that she is pleasing to the Lord (“full of grace”), and then gives her the news (or drops the bomb, depending on how you look at it). The Lord wants her to be the Mother of the Messiah. When she asks “how can this be?” it gets even more astounding. The Messiah is the Son of God, she is being invited to be the Mother of the Son of God, therefore she is being invited to be the Mother of God. No one in salvation history could have ever expected such an invitation. Most Israelites in Mary’s day would have reacted like Samson’s father: terror. How can this be that the Lord would call a woman Mom? That was too much. What about when he descended in fire and smoke on Sinai? The Lord was someone powerful, transcendent, and awe-inspiring. The simplest answer, in a language that Mary understood, was that it would be possible by the power of God.
When God drops bombs on us we too can ask “how can this be?”, but we already know the answer: by the power of God. God in his mercy knows too that our faith doesn’t work in a vacuum: he gives us signs to help us keep moving forward. He gives Mary a sign that is funny if you consider the First Reading. Ahaz got the sign of a virgin being with child. Mary got the sign of an old married woman being with child, and the assurance of what we all know in our hearts: nothing is impossible to God. Mary didn’t play wait and see; she didn’t go to visit Elizabeth and see whether the angel had told the truth: Mary believed, because she knew all things were possible for God, and that’s exactly what Elizabeth said to her when she did go to see her: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
We shouldn’t be afraid of the signs when they come, and we shouldn’t go looking for them either. If we have faith, we will see the signs. They are a gift for having faith. Jesus himself said to Thomas, blessed are they who have not seen, but have believed. The power of God working with our faith overshadows all our expectations. When something overshadows you it is so huge that you see how tiny you are in comparison. God’s expectations are huge for all of us, but he promises to help us to meet them.
Let’s follow Mary’s example today. Let’s have that same spirit of faith and humility when God asks us something way beyond our possibilities. Let’s have that faith that the power of the Most High will make it happen. Let’s respond just as Mary did: be it done to me Lord according to your word.
Readings: Isaiah 7:10–14, 8:10; Psalm 40:7–11; Hebrews 10:4–10; Luke 1:26–38. See also Immaculate Conception.