by Dcn. Paul Rosenblum, President (NAMMA) / Stella Maris (Charleston)
In the Catholic tradition, it is customary that during the fourth week of Advent the Mass readings come from Saint Luke’s “Infancy Narrative,” where he describes for us all of the events that led up to the Nativity. They are all beautiful and meaningful, but my favorite is “The Announcement of the Birth of Jesus,” more commonly called “The Annunciation.” I am sure you are familiar with it. In that passage, Saint Luke tells us that when the angel Gabriel greeted Mary, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you,” “she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Fra Bartolomeo captures Mary’s hesitancy quite well in his 1497 painting of “The Annunciation,” where Mary stands with her hand raised as if she is trying to distance herself from Gabriel, to keep him away. That reaction doesn’t surprise me. Being addressed by an angel is not an everyday experience, and Mary would certainly have been at least a little disconcerted, perhaps a bit frightened by what was happening. And maybe she was thinking to herself, “Why me? I am just a poor, young woman. I am not rich or powerful, I am not a member of an influential family. It is the successful people that the Lord has filled with his grace. Not people like me. Besides, I haven’t done anything to deserve it. How can I be full of grace? I am nobody special. Why would the Lord want to be with me?” All good questions for a poor young Jewish woman from the small town of Nazareth in Galilee to ask under these unusual circumstances.
But in order to understand just what is taking place, why the angel has addressed her this way, we must look through God’s eyes, not Mary’s. In God’s eyes Mary is special, a young woman meant to play a crucial role in his plan for our salvation. And so, God filled her with his grace, not because of anything she had or had not done, but because of his love for her and all humanity. Through God’s gracious gift Mary is so full of grace that, despite her initial misgivings, she has the courage to say “Yes” to God and bear his Son, Jesus, and set in motion the great and glorious chain of events that lead to our reconciliation with the Father through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of his Son.
I have been thinking more about the Annunciation lately as we approach the celebration of Christmas, the next great step in God’s plan of salvation, when our Lord is born as the babe in the manger, and the many blessings that flow to us from that singular event. And one blessing, in particular, keeps coming back to me: We may not realize it, but God greets each of us every day in the same way that the angel Gabriel greeted Mary. Every day God looks down on us and says, “Hail full of grace, I am with you.” We, all believers, are indeed blessed to be filled with God’s grace, a grace that pours down on us through his Holy Spirit every moment of every day, a priceless gift is freely given to us, not because we have done anything to earn it, but out of God’s great love for us, his children. In that we are truly blessed.
When you receive a gift, the proper etiquette is to say “Thank you” to the gift giver. How do we say “Thank you” to God for the gift of his grace? Mary shows us how. Like her, we must have the courage to say, “May it be done to me according to your word,” knowing that whatever the Lord asks of us, he is with us, and he will strengthen us in whatever work he calls us to do. What a blessing that is, too.
As we approach the great celebration of Christmas, may our hearts and minds be ever more open to the gift of God’s grace. May we use that gift to spread God’s love to all we meet in our ministries, in our families, in all we do, always and everywhere.
May the peace of our Lord be with you all, now and forever. Amen.
A Blessed and Merry Christmas and a Peaceful and Happy New Year to you all.