Fourth Sunday of Advent|Year B
The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?’ ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’ the angel answered ‘and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.’ ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’ And the angel left her.
The angel explains to Mary who the child she is being asked to bear will be – he will be great, Son of the Most High, he will rule over the House of Jacob. This is an astounding description but Mary does not refer to it. Her question “‘But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?” seems to indicate that she barely heard the description of the child she would bear, because she was still absorbing the impact of the angel’s first words “You are to conceive and bear a son... .”
In response to Mary’s question the angel offers news which seems just as difficult to grasp, that her cousin Elizabeth is already six months pregnant. Mary would have been quite justified in asking further questions about how this miraculous event had come about, but the angel offers her the simplest and most convincing of explanations: “Nothing is impossible to God”. For the woman of faith that Mary was, the angel’s explanation was sufficient and she gave her assent to what God was asking.
Mary focused first on the practicality – the conception of a child – which is a very natural and human first response. Later she would have meditated on what the angel had said about the child, and the bigger picture of salvation history as it was known to the Jews.
This movement from immediate practicalities to the context or bigger picture in which they are situated is at the heart of living our lives with Christ. Our lives are made up of practicalities – things to be done, acquired, given away, written, spoken, accomplished. If we understand them in the context of “walking his way, telling his truth, and living his life” (Ecclesia in Oceania), then the practicalities of our lives have a significance beyond their practical value.
When we think of the practical aspects of our lives in this bigger context we make different decisions about what to do or say. Over time we become oriented to Christ and formed in his way, so that we are truly “living his life”.
As we deal with the busy-ness of Christmas we might like to ask ourselves “What is the bigger picture here?” It is a 21st century version of what Mary must have asked when she recovered from the first shock of what the angel said. God waits for us to ask questions like this, and he has an infinitely surprising range of ways in which he answers our questions.
Mary had questions, when the angel was present and certainly later on. When we direct questions to God we indicate our willingness to engage with him, and our openness to his response. It is the invitation he waits for.
As we approach the end of the year perhaps the question we need to ask is: “Lord, what has been the bigger picture this year?” The answer may be surprising.