26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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 ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 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[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. [Luke 1:26-38, NRSV ]
1. The Basilica of the Annunciation; 2. The Cave of the Annunciation (Photo credit: Dr. LL Chan).
Nazareth holds a special place in the hearts of all Christians. Pilgrims go to Nazareth to see where Mary lived and where the angel Gabriel announced to her the divine message that God willed His Son to be conceived by her. They find it in a basement grotto, the Cave of the Annunciation, below the Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest church in the Middle East.
The reality of Mary’s place of abode, namely in a cave, where the Annunciation took place impacted a member of our group so hard that he could not stop crying. Having treated the historical truth of the Christian faith with such disdain in the past, he now paid for his “sins” with buckets of tears daily during the entire pilgrimage trip.
“Annunciation” is a term in Christianity which means the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary the most shocking, the most outrageous, and the most unimaginable message from God to humanity. That message is that Mary would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit and would be called Jesus, “Son of the Most High” and “holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:26–38), or Emmanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
Is there anything that could possibly be more world-shattering and havoc-wreaking than such an announcement to an ordinary teenage peasant girl? She was after all engaged to be married, and her world of an ordinary, mundane existence was about to collapse over her head were such a divine announcement to be true. Such an announcement was just too much, way too much for her. How was she expected to be able to process all this right now in her head, in her heart, and in her soul?
We found ourselves chewing over three thoughts, amongst a host of others, in relation to this divine message.
1. God Seeks Human Collaboration
God takes the initiative, but in so far as a project concerns human salvation, God cannot work without human collaboration. The precious gift of life which the God of heaven and earth has given us, comes with an element that can change human history; it is the gift of freedom. We are free to say “yes” or “no” to every divine message and bear the consequences. And so, that divine message in the Annunciation would come to nothing without Mary’s willing acceptance.
The inspired authors of the books of the Old Testament had delivered to Israel the unmistakable message that a mere announcement of a divine wish would end up nowhere unless the Israelites took that message to heart, embraced it, and really acted on it. Here too, in the Annunciation, God has made it clear that He needed Mary’s human collaboration to make His divine plan work.
The very first thing we learn from the message of the Annunciation, therefore, is that God seeks human collaboration in His plan of salvation for humanity. It would be plain and simple “lazy and unreal Christianity” if any follower of Christ were to think that Christ in his suffering death has done everything for their salvation and all that they needed to do was to get baptized, say they believe in Christ, and when they die their soul would be assured of eternal bliss in heaven. Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels wants us, who are baptized and call him Lord, to make no mistake about the shocking truth:
- “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21);
- “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,” and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46);
- “When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’…But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ Then you will weep and gnash your teeth…” (Luke 13:25-30).
2. Mary Struggled Over the Divine Message
God’s message brought by angel Gabriel could not be more outrageous to Mary, a young lady engaged to be married. It at once turned her world upside down, and even the Gospel, economical in words at this point, alerts us to the harsh reality that Mary was dietarachthe, a Greek word which different English versions of the Bible translate as she was “much perplexed”, “deeply troubled”, “greatly troubled”, “deeply disturbed”. Who wouldn’t be? She was engaged to be married; she would be found pregnant without her husband. How was she going to lead her life from then on, if she still could keep her life at all after her pregnancy had become public? Who could possibly believe such an outrageous tale?
The divine message was preceded by a greeting. That greeting, which forms a crucial part of the Rosary Prayer, reads: “Hail Mary, the favoured one! The Lord is with you.” As Luke points out that Mary was left wondering what sort of greeting that could possibly be, we are taught to accept the Gospel message that it is quite alright to wonder, to ask questions, and to struggle with any invitation or calling we think God is giving us that we humanly feel is quite “unreal” and “outrageous”. Spiritual discernments necessarily involve questioning and struggles and oftentimes, lots of tears. Jesus’ prayer and agony in the garden of Gethsemane is a ready case in point.
3. Mary’s Consent
In the end, the angel’s announcement was met with Mary’s willing consent (“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”), and thus precipitated the Incarnation of Christ and his redemption of the world.
In the book titled “2000 Years of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” a reflection on “The Lesson of Nazareth” likens Nazareth to a school of initiation. Nazareth, it says, teaches that it is necessary to be spiritually disciplined in order to be able to follow the teachings of the Gospel and to become a follower of Christ. It urges us to become like children and “return to learn our lessons from this humble and yet sublime school of Nazareth.”
- “The silence of Nazareth teaches us recollection and eagerness to heed the good inspirations and words of true teachers; it teaches us the need and value of preparation, of study, of meditation, of a personal and interior life, of prayer that is seen by God alone in secret…”
- “Blessed are we if we do not make egoism the guiding criterion of our life, nor pleasure its purpose, but learn rather to discover in sobriety our strength, in pain a source of redemption, in sacrifice the very summit of greatness.”
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, November 2019. All rights reserved.
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