Sunday, 24 March 2013

First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation

Attributed to Hans Memling (?-1494)
"When the sixth month came, God sent the angel Gabriel to a city of Galilee called Nazareth, where a virgin dwelt, betrothed to a man of David’s lineage; his name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary. Into her presence the angel came, and said, Hail, thou who art full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women. She was much perplexed at hearing him speak so, and cast about in her mind, what she was to make of such a greeting. Then the angel said to her, Mary, do not be afraid; thou hast found favour in the sight of God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call him Jesus. He shall be great, and men will know him for the Son of the most High; the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob eternally; his kingdom shall never have an end. But Mary said to the angel, How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man? And the angel answered her, The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the most High will overshadow thee. Thus this holy offspring of thine shall be known for the Son of God. See, moreover, how it fares with thy cousin Elizabeth; she is old, yet she too has conceived a son; she who was reproached with barrenness is now in her sixth month, to prove that nothing can be impossible with God. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word. And with that the angel left her."

Here we are presented with a tableau of a young girl, fourteen or fifteen years old maybe, being thrown into utter confusion, a situation of complete desperation. Unmarried, pregnant, with (it would have been expected) the abandonment of her fiancé and protector impending and the acrimony of being cast out by her parents. In this situation and in first century judea, Mary's prospects at the moment of the annunciation probably include prostitution and an early, disease ridden death. For her, the hungry being filled with good things is looking like something she herself will need to hope for and the help that he promised to her forefather Abraham and his seed is one she will likely rely on. This poor little innocent: what's she done to deserve this horrible situation? She who is without the stain of sin?

And how does Mary respond? We see it a few months later at the Visitation when she says to Elizabeth "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour". To say that this is bizarre is an understatement. It would not have been a sin for Mary to say "on your bike mate" to Gabriel; there is no moral imperative to become the mother of God and therefore invite a sword of sorrow to piece one's heart. By the standards of her world, Mary had it sorted until Gabriel came along and he messes it all up, but in Mary we see this strong woman who takes up her cross with unparalleled bravery because her strength is not her own, but borrowed from God. She doesn't need the recognition of her society, she has God's love. It is He that is mighty that magnifies her: she puts her trust in Him from the moment of being told of her pregnancy just as she does thirty or so years later when at the wedding at Canaan she says to the servants "do whatever he tells you". Her's is a radical love. An uncompromising love. A love of the type that led the other innocent of our human race to a shameful death hanging on a tree with blood flowing into his eyes from his pierced head, the nails shocked through his hands and feet and pouring the last of his lifeblood out through his side onto the ignominious soil outside the city walls of the Place of the Skull, Golgotha. From the very moment of conception this radical love unites mother and Son. A willingness to give everything for the sake of the of the human race: Mary's love bringing about our sanctification by the incarnation and Jesus' bringing about our salvation by the self sacrifice of the spotless victim, the high priest and the all powerful God, all bound in one individual. Mary says "be it done unto me according to your word", her Son says "not my will, but yours". In both, there is a giving in to the will of God, even though it means suffering.

And yet. And yet.

Jesus's own response to the horror of the cross is to magnify the Lord. He descended into Hell to conquer eternal death and is first born from the dead to eternal life. The result of his radical, uncompromising love is the glorification of God. He is given the throne of his father David, he reigns over the house of Jacob. In old covenant God's favour towards Israel is shown by land: the promised land and Jerusalem and by descendants, more numerous that the grains of sand in the desert. The old covenant is sealed by blood of temple sacrifice, the new covenant is sealed with the blood of Our Lord and its fruits are the New Jerusalem, Heaven's gates flung wide, and populated with saints innumerable, first amongst them, Mary, who St John the Evangelist saw crowned with twelve starts, shining like the sun and with the moon at her feet, the Queen of Heaven, the kingdom which shall never have an end. St John represents the Church. It was he, with Mary, who stood watching at the cross, just as we do every time we celebrate the Eucharist and it was he who was entrusted to the maternal care of Mary and to whom the veneration of Mary as our mother was entrusted. The cult of Our Lady was one ordained by Christ since through her we can come to know Him better and by trusting in Him we have eternal life. True, it is possible to have too much marian devotion, she can become an idol, but that is no reason not to have a profound love for her. Her place in our salvation is as mediatrix, a point between humanity and God, a human made without sin.

It is our vocation, each one of us, to respond to that radical love of Christ, exemplified in His blessed mother, and so to become saints. The response to his love necessitates making it our own, being utterly uncompromising in our protection of the vulnerable: the needy, the poor, the unborn, those who are a burden on society, our fellow sinners, those who despise us. I believe strongly in a preferential option for these people because God gave Mary a preferential option in appearing to St Joseph to convince him not to send her away in secret. He intervened to promote justice for her and we must imitate him by intervening to promote justice at every possible opportunity, otherwise we let not only God the Father down, but His Son who was vulnerable and His mother who needed protection. In every case, we must love each person because at the Annunciation the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, sanctifying each human life in all of history and the future because he partook of that very life.

And yes. This radical love, made ours, will bring us our own crosses to drag up our own calvary, our own swords of grief to pierce our own hearts. But the Annunciation is a joyful mystery of the rosary because the radical love forges a bond with Jesus. If we strive after an uncompromising love, it reaches out to Him and His uncompromising love reaches out to us. What is Christian faith except an interpersonal relationship with the risen Lord? What is Christian faith, except radical love for God and our neighbour? What is Christian faith except the Annunciation?