Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
The Honor of God
Have you ever been criticized something you valued?
In our multi-cultural, multi-generational world, values are bound to clash. What one group holds dear, another trashes. What one holds out in pride, another hides in shame. There is not a consistent measure with the content and origin of honor. What is valued? And who values it?
What is your greatest value? Reputation? Wealth? Power? Imagine someone asked you to give up something you deeply valued, for a higher value. In a small Jewish hamlet, a young girl was asked to give up her reputation for a greater honor. The favor of God. And she agreed.
26-27 When Elizabeth was pregnant for six months, God sent the angel Gabriel to a young woman named Mary. Mary was engaged to Joseph. She lived in Nazareth, a town in Galilee. 28 After entering, the angel greeted Mary. "The Lord is blessing you, for he is with you now!" 29 Mary wondered why he greeted her and was upset by what he said. 30 "Don't be afraid," the angel told her, "you are blessed by God. 31 You will have a son named Jesus. 32 He will be great. God will call him 'Son' and will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will rule over Israel forever because his reign will never end."
34 "How can this happen?" Mary asked the angel. "I'm not married!"
35 "God's own power, his Holy Spirit, will come down on you," the angel answered. "So, the boy to be born will be called holy and Son of God. 36 Listen! Your relative Elizabeth who so old no one thought she could have children is now pregnant. This is her sixth month. 37 With God, anything is possible."
38 "I serve the Lord!" Mary said. "Let what you said happen to me."
Then, the angel left her.
26 But, in the sixth month (of Elizabeth's pregnancy), the angel Gabriel was sent by God into the city of Galilee, which (had) the name Nazareth, 27 to a virgin having been betrothed to a man who (had) the name Joseph out of the house of David, and the name of the virgin (was) Mary. 28 And having entered toward her, he said, "Rejoice, (girl) having been favored. The Lord is with you." 29 But she was troubled by his words, and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, "Don't fear, Mary, for you have found favor from God. 31 And, look, you will conceive in (your) womb, and you will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 This (boy) will be great and will be called Son of the Highest. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father, 33 and he will rule (as a king) over the house of Jacob into (every) age, and of his kingdom will not be an end." 34 But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know man." 35 Having answered, the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come on you and the power of the Highest will overshadow you. And, so the one being born will be called holy and the Son of God. 36 And, look, Elizabeth, your relative! She has conceived a son in her old age and this month is the sixth to her, the one being called sterile. 37 For nothing whatever will be impossible with God. 38 But Mary said, "Look, the servant of the Lord! May it happen to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
1:27 The word "betrothed" is preferred over "engaged" since the marriage was arranged. Engagement implies the couple took the initiative in the marriage, not the parents.
1:28 "Rejoice . . . " was the typical Greek greeting for the time; however, it can be interpreted as a command to receive Good News. (girl) was added since the participle "having been favored" was female in gender. Gabriel obvious announced Mary was honored by God.
1:29 " . . . by his words . . . " is literally " . . . in the word . . . "
1:32 " . . . he will be called . . . " This refers to God's calling. God himself will give Mary's son a title of great honor, Son of God. With the title came the throne of David's house.
1:34 "How can this be . . . " is literally "How will this be . . . " The meaning between the phrases is the same.
"I do not know man" means "I have not had sexual experience with any man." First century Palestinians equated knowledge with experience.
1:37 The phrase is literally "Because nothing whatever will not be unable from God." The double negative "not . . . impossible" cancel each other.
The Fourth Sunday in Advent (Cycle B) marks the third proclamation of the Good News in this new liturgical year. Two weeks ago, we read Mark's first proclamation with John the Baptist. Last week, we read John's introduction of the Baptist. This week, we read Luke's proclamation of the Good News to the first Christian.
Luke has a different world view than his contemporaries. While the evangelist was very well educated (reflected in his well-written, upper-class Greek), his concern lay with the rejected. Luke saw society's helpless (the homeless, the outcast, and the reformed sinners) as the truly honorable people in the sight of God. In this sense, Luke painted the helpless as God's children; these icons shattered any standards of "proper" society. The poor, the outcast, and the sinner should be placed on the pedestal, for they were God's own.
Luke contrasted two characters in chapter one to make his point. In Luke 1:5-25, the angel Gabriel proclaimed the Good News to Zechariah, father of the Baptist. Here was a temple priest encountering God in the very place Jews believed God dwelt, the Temple of Yahweh in the City of David. (See Isaiah 6 for the classic encounter in the Temple). As a male who knew the Law throughly, and as a priest in the act of divine worship, Zechariah symbolized Judaism in action. Yet, when the Good News was proclaimed to him, he failed to believe the power of the Almighty. He would be the father of a great prophet, the one who would prepare for the Messiah. For his incredulous attitude, Zechariah was struck dumb. He would not be the instrument of proclamation. God would use another.
Next, the angel approached a maiden to proclaim the Good News. For Luke, the gospel did not start in the place (the Temple in Jerusalem) and to the people (the hierarchy of Judaism represented by the priest) everyone expected. No, the gospel began in a place (a backwater town despised by the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Jerusalem) and to a person (a young teenage girl) no one expected.
Let's consider the place of girls like Mary in social pecking order of first century Palestine. In a gender segregated, male dominated society, young girls like Mary were sheltered from the outside world, in order to protect their virginity and insure the honor of the family. (The murder of promiscuous or raped young girls by family members was not uncommon; the reason for such homicides was family honor.) It was inconceivable that young girls could lead the people in such a public function as temple worship.
In addition to family honor, young girls were not educated. Literacy lay with the male, since females were considered too inferior and emotional for education. (How could Mary know the Scriptures like Zechariah? Remember that women had no rights in ancient society; they were treated like property.) Girls symbolized by Mary stood at the bottom of proper society.
When the angel greeted Mary, she reacted in an appropriate social manner. Confronted in private, Mary wondered why she was greeted (young girls were considered to be too insignificant to greet). She also feared from the implications of the greeting. (Were her honor and the honor of her family compromised?) [1:29] The news would not get better for her. The angel proposed a conception and birth that could endanger her arranged marriage with Joseph and put her life at risk. (According to Deuteronomy 22:20-21, a girl who was not a virgin before marriage could be stoned to death. No wonder she defended her honor!) [1:34]
To overcome Mary's concern, the angel proclaimed her honor before God. She was highly favored by the Almighty. [1:28, 30]. And her son would by highly favored by God, for God would give him a title, and intimate relationship, and royal power over his people that would never end. [1:32-33]. Notice God gave her honor with his presence [1:28b] and with a mission [1:31]. The Lord would also honor her when he was present to her child and gave him a mission. (In ancient society, women could not have honor on their own; they could only stand in the honor of their husbands and sons. Hence, there was the important connection between Mary's honor and that of her Son.)
Gabriel announced the conception and birth of royalty. Mary's child would be "great" (as unique and history changing, like Alexander the "Great"). He would be Son of the "Most High" (a title for the greatest God, the highest concept of divinity one could have. As we discussed last week, the title "Son of" indicated a unique, intimate relationship with this highest God and a sharing in this God's power). He would have the Davidic throne of Israel forever. [1:32]
Faced with the objection of virgin, the angel reasserted her honor and that of her child. She would encounter (the Holy Spirit) and receive the protection of her true husband, God himself. (The wife lived under the "shadow" of her spouse. Mary would live under the shadow of the Most High). Her Son would have the titles of "holy" (in this case, equivalent to the word "great") and "Son of God." [1:35] Notice, God took the initiative in this announcement. He would impregnate the virgin. He would call her Son his own (see the passive voice ("he will be called") of Gabriel's announcements in 1:32a and 1:35b).
To reassure Mary, the angel announced the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth. An elderly woman believed to be barren, Elizabeth could be paralleled with Hannah, the elderly mother of Samuel, last and greatest of the Judges (see 1 Samuel 1). If God could make the sterile fruitful, certainly he could father a king through a lowly country girl. [1:36]
Mary had no way out. The angel had upheld her honor in the face of future gossip; her honor would come from God, not from petty humans. Her son would be the Messiah; she would share in his honor. And, the impossible would take place within her elderly relative and her own womb. But she did not merely give in. Mary proclaimed her status as a daughter of Israel (Look, the servant of the Lord!) as much as Gabriel proclaimed her conception and pregnancy of Elizabeth. [1:31, 36, 38]
Catechism Theme: Mary, Mother of God (CCC 494-495)
The Church has always honored Mary, for she was the first to receive the Good News. Through Mary's "yes," God lived among his people. Mary gave herself completely to the work of the Spirit within her. And, implicitly, she gave herself to the person of her Son and his mission. Her obedience enabled her Son to save all humanity.
Mary is the "mother of Jesus" through her humanity. But, she is truly "Mother of God" because of God's paternity. Mary is the God-bearer ("Theotokos" in Greek), the one who bore the Second Person of the Trinity into the world. In her and through her, the world realized the mystery of the Incarnation, God made flesh.
Catholics have honored Mary since the beginning of the Church. Do you have a Marian devotion? Have you ever meditated on the meaning of the Hail Mary? How has Mary's "yes" inspired you?
Human honor is, indeed, fleeting. But God's honor stands forever, even in the face of criticism. Mary accepted, even proclaimed, God's will in her life. She placed her future in the hands of the Father. Her example should inspire us to stand firm as Christians in today's ever-changing fads and fancies. Remember, the words of others may sting, but the Spirit of God burns within. The divine fire can withstand the darts others fling toward us.
Reflect on the sacrifice of others so you could receive the faith. Think of your parents and family and friends. How have they withstood criticism and prejudice for your sake? How can you honor them for their "yes?" How can you help pass on the faith, despite the cost?