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Through the Gospel of Luke we learn about Mary's life before the angel Gabriel visited her. Read about Mary's home and her marriage, her reaction to Gabriel and acceptance of God's plan. Also, learn how the blessed mother was and still is a model Christian disciple.

Catholic Update

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The Annunciation
The Angel’s Message to Mary

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. —Luke 1:26-27

What was Mary’s life like originally—before she learned that she was to become the mother of Israel’s Messiah? While Luke’s Gospel does not offer a lot of information about the mother of Jesus, it does tell us three important details that allow us to catch a glimpse of Mary’s life before the angel Gabriel visited.

First, we learn that she lives in Nazareth. This was a small village in the region of Galilee. Jesus’ coming from such an obscure village will cause him trouble later in his public ministry. Some will question how he really could be sent from God, since no prophet ever came out of this region (see John 7:52), while others will wonder whether anything good at all could come out of this little town (see John 1:46).

Second, Luke describes Mary as betrothed to Joseph. In first-century Judaism, betrothal was the first step of a two-stage marriage process. At her betrothal Mary would have consented before public witnesses to marry Joseph, and this would have established the couple as husband and wife. As a betrothed wife, however, Mary would have continued to live with her own family, apart from her husband, for up to a year. Only after this period of betrothal would the second stage of marriage take place—the consummation of the marriage and the wife’s moving into the husband’s home.

Consequently, as a betrothed woman, Mary still would have been living with her family in Nazareth. As such, it makes sense that Luke would describe her at this stage as “a virgin.” Perhaps even more noteworthy, however, is the fact that women in first-century Palestine generally were betrothed in their early teen years. This tells us that Mary probably was a very young woman when God called her to serve as the mother of the Messiah.

Finally, the most striking point we know about Mary’s life prior to the Annunciation is that she married a man from “the house of David” (1:27). This small detail indicates that Mary became part of the most famous family in all of Israel: King David’s family.

In the time of Mary and Joseph, the Jews are suffering under Roman occupation. In such oppressive conditions, being a member of David’s family no longer holds the privileges, authority and honor that it held in the glory days of the kings who reigned in Jerusalem. Instead, this Joseph “of the house of David” is a humble carpenter, leading a quiet, ordinary life in the small town of Nazareth.


Full of grace, the Lord is with you

Mary’s world radically changes when the angel Gabriel appears to her saying, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” Understandably, Mary “was greatly troubled.” Imagine being home alone, walking into a room and finding an angel suddenly standing before you! However, Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary is not startled simply by the angel itself but by the angel’s greeting: “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.”

Why might Mary be so anxious about the angel’s words? First the angel says, “Hail, full of grace.” No one else in the Bible has ever been honored by an angel with such an exalted title. The Greek word kecharitomene, which here is translated “full of grace,” indicates that Mary already possesses God’s saving grace. The Lord has prepared her as a pure and holy temple in which the divine Christ child will dwell for nine months. Now the Son of God will reside in the womb of a woman who is full of grace.

The Catholic Church has often turned to this passage when commenting on Mary’s Immaculate Conception—the belief that Mary was conceived full of grace as God prepared her to be the mother of the Messiah.

Second, the angel says, “The Lord is with you!” Although many Catholics today are accustomed to hearing “The Lord be with you” repeated throughout the Mass, we might not be as familiar with the powerful significance these words originally had in ancient Judaism.

Many times in the Old Testament the words “the Lord is with you” signaled that someone was being called to a daunting task. In fact, these words often accompanied an invitation from God to play a crucial role in his plan of salvation. Such a divine calling generally entailed great sacrifices and challenged people to step out of their comfort zones and put their trust in God like never before.

At the same time, these words offered assurance that they would not face these challenges alone. They would not have to rely solely on their own abilities and talents because God’s presence and protection would be with them throughout their mission. Some of Israel’s greatest leaders—men like Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, Gideon and David—were told that God would be with them when they were commissioned to serve his people.

One of the most famous stories that illustrates the meaning of “the Lord is with you” can be found in Exodus, when God called Moses at the burning bush to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Feeling fearfully inadequate for the job, Moses responded the same way many people respond when they feel they are in over their heads: with a “Why me?”—and a disbelief that God would call him to this important task.

The Lord’s response to Moses’ fears is striking. God did not say to Moses, “I will send you to a Toastmasters’ workshop on public speaking,” or, “I’ll fly you out to a Franklin Covey seminar on effective leadership.” Rather, God told Moses the one thing he needed to hear most: “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12).

Similarly, when Mary hears the angel say to her, “The Lord is with you,” she is not simply receiving a formal, pious salutation. With these words Mary probably realizes that a lot is being asked of her. Yet she will not have to face these difficulties alone. God will give her the one thing she needs most: the assurance that he will be with her.

Third, we learn more of Mary’s mission in Luke 1:30, as the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Like the phrase “The Lord is with you,” the notion of finding “favor with God” also would bring to mind Old Testament covenant mediators in God’s salvation plan.

Noah was the first person in the Bible described as finding favor with God (see Genesis 6:8). God saved him and his family from the flood and gave him a covenant to be the head of a renewed human family. The next person to find favor with God was Abraham (see Genesis 18:2-3). God made a covenant with him, calling on his family to be the instrument through which he would bring blessing to all the nations of the world. Similarly, Moses, the covenant mediator who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, found favor with God (see Exodus 33:12-17), as did David, for whom God established a kingdom (see 2 Samuel 15:25).

Like these great covenant mediators of the Old Testament, Mary has found favor with God. Walking in the footsteps of Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, Mary now is called to serve as an important cooperator in the divine plan to bring salvation to all the nations.

What child is this?

“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”—Luke 1:31-33

Now the angel Gabriel gets to the heart of his message and the nature of Mary’s mission: Mary will bear a son who will bring Israel’s history to its climax. She will be the mother of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah-King.

Each of these lines is highly charged with Davidic kingdom themes—we can see numerous parallels between the words God spoke to David (see 2 Samuel 7:9, 12-14, 16) and the words Gabriel speaks to Mary. For example, Mary’s child is called “son of the Most High,” recalling how David’s sons were described as having a unique filial-like relationship with God (see 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; 89:26-27). Similarly, God’s giving Mary’s child “the throne of his father David” brings to mind how David’s heir was to receive “the throne of his kingdom for ever” (2 Samuel 7:13).

Furthermore, the description of Jesus’ never-ending kingdom—“He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end”—reminds us of the everlasting dynasty God originally promised to David’s family (see 2 Samuel 7:13, 16; Psalm 89:36-37).

These themes—the throne of David, greatness, sonship, an everlasting kingdom—make the angel’s message to Mary quite clear: Mary will have the long-awaited royal Son who will fulfill the dynastic promises God made to David.

For hundreds of years the Jews have been longing for God to rebuild the kingdom that Babylon destroyed. Their prophets have foretold that one day God would send a new Davidic heir who would comfort the people in their oppression and free them from their enemies. This new Davidic king not only would restore the great dynasty to its former glory but also would bring Israel’s history and the history of the world to its ultimate destination: the reunion of the human family into covenant with God. The Jews called this long-awaited son of David “the anointed one”—or in Hebrew, Messiah.

Mary’s mission is to be the mother of this particular King, the Messiah. In her womb she is to carry the summation of all of Israel’s expectations and the culmination of God’s plan of salvation. Indeed, “the hopes and fears of all the years” find their answer in Mary’s child.

It is important to note that up to this point of the angel’s announcement, there has been no explicit mention of the child’s divine origins. All the language so far about the everlasting kingdom and Jesus’ being the Son of God is taken from terms that the Old Testament commonly used to describe the Davidic king.

Also, there has been no explicit mention yet of a miraculous virgin birth. Presumably, if Mary were like most first-century betrothed women, she would anticipate conceiving of this child through the natural means of marital relations after her betrothal period ended and after she moved in with her husband.

However, Mary surprisingly asks, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” Only now does Gabriel underscore the extraordinary type of motherhood to which Mary is being called: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

How will Mary, who is betrothed and still a virgin, bear a child? By the spirit and power of God, Gabriel says. Here we have the first clear indication of the virginal conception of the Messiah.

Furthermore, we see that Jesus’ filial relationship with God far surpasses that of any king in David’s dynasty. Jesus will be called Son of God not simply because of his role as Davidic heir and Messiah but because of his unique divine origin. Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive through God’s extraordinary intervention of sending the Holy Spirit upon her, and this is the reason for calling him God’s Son.

Early Christians saw Mary’s conceiving Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit as an important sign of Christ’s humanity and divinity. On one hand, it points to his divine nature by highlighting his unique divine origin. By the power of God’s Spirit, Mary really becomes the mother of her God.

On the other hand, the Church fathers also saw the virginal conception as a sign that the divine Son of God really became human, taking the flesh of his mother Mary. Within the first century of Christianity, St. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, emphasized that the Son of God really entered into the human family and really took on human flesh that he received in the virgin’s womb. God did not just appear as a man, but he truly became one of us in Jesus, experiencing birth, life, suffering and even death.

Mary’s fiat

Let us now step back and consider all that has happened to Mary in this brief encounter with Gabriel. First, an angel visits the young woman from the small town of Nazareth. This alone would have been quite startling. Second, in hearing the angel’s words “The Lord is with you” and “You have found favor with God,” Mary probably realizes that God is calling her to some daunting task. She is to play a pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation, as did Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and many other key figures in Israel’s history who have gone before her.

Third, she finds out that she will be expecting a baby. Fourth, she is informed that this child just happens to be the long-awaited Messiah who will restore Israel’s kingdom and bring the history of the world to its climactic moment. Fifth, she will conceive of this child not through natural means but through a miraculous conception brought about by God’s Holy Spirit. Finally—as if all this were not already astonishing enough—the angel tells her that this child is the divine Son of God. That’s a lot to swallow in one short conversation with an angel! All of this was given to Mary in a conversation that could have taken place in about a minute or two.

It is difficult to imagine what Mary was going through in those brief moments. Some people would have requested a little time to think about and process all that was just said. Others might have responded, “Why me?” Still others might have just fainted! While we don’t know much about Mary’s emotions and thoughts at the angel’s annunciation, the one response Luke does record for us is one of complete trust: “And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’” (Luke 1:38).

What is interesting about Mary’s response is that the Greek word in this verse for “let it be to me” expresses not a passive acceptance but a joyful wishing or desiring on Mary’s part. Mary does not passively agree to go along with this challenging vocation, but upon hearing of her extraordinary maternal mission, she positively desires it and fully embraces God’s call for her to serve as the mother of the Messiah.

A model disciple

This is why many scholars—Catholic and Protestant alike—recognize Mary as the first Christian disciple and a model follower of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says that those who hear the word of God and keep it are blessed and are included in his family of disciples (see Luke 8:21).

Mary fits this description better than anyone else in Luke’s Gospel. From the very beginning she accepts God’s word from the angel Gabriel and calls herself the servant of the Lord. In subsequent scenes we will see that Mary responds promptly to her relative Elizabeth’s needs as soon as she learns from Gabriel that Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age.

Furthermore, she is counted among the “blessed” disciples in Luke’s Gospel. Not only will Elizabeth call Mary blessed for believing God’s word (1:45), but Mary herself will say that all generations will call her blessed (1:48). Similarly, like a good disciple who hears God’s word and keeps it, Mary will “keep in her heart” the angel’s joyous message at Jesus’ birth (2:19) and Christ’s words to her when she finds him in the temple (2:51).

Finally, Luke shows us Mary persevering in faithfulness throughout her life, devoting herself to prayer and to the life of the early Christian community in the days following her Son’s resurrection and ascension into heaven (see Acts 1:14).

Throughout her life, therefore, Mary’s acceptance of God’s word is exemplary. As the first person to accept God’s word in the new covenant, her obedience anticipates the response many will make to Christ’s call to follow him in his public ministry and throughout the Christian era.

Edward Sri, S.T.D., is an assistant professor of theology at Benedictine College, Atchison, Kansas. He is the author of The New Rosary in Scripture (Servant Books). This Catholic Update was excerpted, with permission, from his recent book, Dawn of the Messiah: The Coming of Christ in Scripture (Servant Books). Scripture quotes in this Update are from Revised Standard Version—Catholic Edition.

Next: Eastern Catholic Churches (by Phyllis Zagano)


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