Blog di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA – Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa MISSIONARY ONGOING FORMATION – A missionary look on the life of the world and the church
Today we are contemplating the beauty of Mary Immaculate. The Gospel, which recounts the episode of the Annunciation, helps us to understand what we are celebrating, above all through the Angel’s greeting. He addresses Mary with a word that is not easy to translate, which means “filled with grace”, “created by grace”, “full of grace” (Lk 1:28). Before calling her ‘Mary’, he calls her full of grace, and thus reveals the new name that God has given her and which is more becoming to her than the name given to her by her parents. We too call her in this way, with each Hail Mary.
What does full of grace mean? That Mary is filled with the presence of God. And if she is entirely inhabited by God, there is no room within her for sin. It is an extraordinary thing, because everything in the world, regrettably, is contaminated by evil. Each of us, looking within ourselves, sees dark sides. Even the greatest saints were sinners and everything in reality, even the most beautiful things, are corroded by evil: everything, except Mary. She is the one “evergreen oasis” of humanity, the only one uncontaminated, created immaculate so as to fully welcome, with her ‘yes’, God who came into the world and thus to begin a new history.
Each time we acknowledge her as full of grace, we give her the greatest compliment, the same one God had given her. A beautiful compliment to give to a woman and to tell her, politely, that she looks youthful. When we say full of grace to Mary, in a certain sense we are telling her this too, at the highest level. In fact we recognize her as forever youthful, because she never aged through sin. There is only one thing that makes us age, grow old interiorly: not age, but sin. Sin ages, because it hardens the heart. It closes it, renders it inert, withers it. But she, full of grace, is without sin. So she is always youthful; she is “younger than sin” and is “the youngest of humankind” (G. Bernanos, Diario di un curato di campagna, ii, 1988, p. 175).
The Church today compliments herself with Mary by calling her ‘all fair’, tota pulchra. Just as her youth does not lie in age, her beauty does not consist in her outward appearance. Mary, as today’s Gospel reading shows us, does not stand out in appearance: from a simple family, she lived humbly in Nazareth, a village practically unknown. And she wasn’t well-known: even when the Angel visited her, no one knew of it; there were no reporters there that day. Nor did Our Lady have a comfortable life, but worries and fears: she was “greatly troubled” (v. 29), the Gospel says, and when the Angel “departed from her” (v. 38), her troubles mounted.
However, she, full of grace, lived a beautiful life. What was her secret? We can understand it by looking again at the scene of the Annunciation. In many paintings Mary is depicted as seated before the Angel with a small book in her hand. This book is the Scripture. Thus, Mary was accustomed to listening to God and interacting with him. The Word of God was her secret: close to her heart, it then became flesh in her womb. By dwelling with God, in dialogue with him in every circumstance, Mary made her life beautiful. Not appearances, not what is fleeting, but the heart directed toward God makes life beautiful. Today let us look joyfully at her, full of grace. Let us ask her to help us to remain youthful, by saying ‘no’ to sin, and to live a beautiful life, by saying ‘yes’ to God.
Virgin most holy and immaculate,
to you, the honour of our people,
and the loving protector of our city,
do we turn with loving trust.
You are all-beautiful, O Mary!
In you there is no sin.
Awaken in all of us a renewed desire for holiness:
May the splendour of truth shine forth in our words,
the song of charity resound in our works,
purity and chastity abide in our hearts and bodies,
and the full beauty of the Gospel be evident in our lives.
You are all-beautiful, O Mary!
In you the Word of God became flesh.
Help us always to heed the Lord’s voice:
May we never be indifferent to the cry of the poor,
or untouched by the sufferings of the sick and those in need;
may we be sensitive to the loneliness of the elderly and the vulnerability of children,
and always love and cherish the life of every human being.
You are all-beautiful, O Mary!
In you is the fullness of joy born of life with God.
Help us never to forget the meaning of our earthly journey:
May the kindly light of faith illumine our days,
the comforting power of hope direct our steps,
the contagious warmth of love stir our hearts;
and may our gaze be fixed on God, in whom true joy is found.
You are all-beautiful, O Mary!
Hear our prayer, graciously hear our plea:
May the beauty of God’s merciful love in Jesus abide in our hearts,
and may this divine beauty save us, our city and the entire world.
Many painters have depicted this scene for which it is almost inevitable to display it. Someone tries to complete it even resorting—as did many artists—to legendary traits handed down by the apocryphal gospels.
The emotions evoked by this passage from Luke can help to approach the mystery, on condition that one goes just beyond, understands the literary genre used by the evangelist and manages to grasp the message it wants to communicate.
If one interprets it in a superficial way, the spell ends soon because questions arise of which no answer is found or they do not make sense. One wonders why nothing is told where Mary was, what she was doing, what were the reasons for her trouble (if she was married to have children, why did she wonder about the announced maternity?), what was the angel’s appearance, how was he introduced in the Virgin’s house, where was Joseph, why was he not immediately a written page of theology by a very prepared biblical scholarly informed and above all, why did God want so much to complicate the story, to the point of jeopardizing the integrity of Mary.
Whoever poses these questions does not understand that we are not facing a faithful account in every detail, but a written page of theology by a very prepared biblical scholar, with deep knowledge of the Old Testament, the oracles of the prophets, the images and the literary forms used in the Bible.
We will never know if the Annunciation was a verifiable material event or an inner revelation that happened to Mary. We will never know how and when Mary became aware of her mission as mother of the Messiah. We are interested in this but not the evangelist whose pursuit instead is to make the readers understand who Mary’s son is and what has the moment when the human life of God’s Son blossomed in Mary’s womb meant for the history of humanity.
Having done this premise we come to the Gospel text. The setting (vv. 26-27), of the mysterious event of the incarnation, is very realistic. The place is mentioned; it is Nazareth, a tiny village of Galilee, so insignificant as not even being named in the Old Testament. It was inhabited by simple people with little education. To Philip who excitedly declared his admiration for Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael answered mockingly: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). The entire Galilee was considered an unfaithful region, semi-pagan, far from the pure religious practice of Judea.
After the reference to the site, a virgin married to Joseph of the dynasty of David is presented on the scene. Finally, the girl’s name is indicated, the one with which she is known to all: at Nazareth, she is called Mary, which means “the exalted one, the one who is high up.” Again the evangelist, in remembering her name, designates her as “virgin.”
Why such insistence? Virginity for us is a sign of dignity and a great honor, but in Israel, it was appreciated before marriage, not after. For a girl, it was a disgrace to remain a virgin for life. It was the sign of her inability to draw to herself the looks of a man. The childless woman was a dry tree that bore no fruit. A derogatory connotation was tied to the term virgin; it meant: no life, no future, and no posterity. In the most dramatic moments of her history, Jerusalem was a defeated and humiliated virgin named Zion (Jer 31:4; 14:13), because in her life had stopped; it was unable to generate.
Mary’s virginity should not be understood only in the biological sense—as the Church teaches—but above all in the biblical sense. Luke wants to present her as the virgin Zion which becomes fruitful because her husband, the Lord, filled her with love. In her song, Mary will be well aware of her “virginity” when she declares: “He has looked upon the lowliness (the ‘tapinità’—says the Greek text) of his servant” (Lk 1:48).
It is not the admiration for her moral integrity that the evangelist wants to inspire in the Christians of his community, but to let them contemplate the “great things” that in her—poor and devoid of any merit—one who is “Powerful” and “holy is his Name” has operated (Lk 1:49).
Anyone who considers the wonders done by the Lord in “his servant” can no longer fall for his own unworthiness, in fact, all are called to become, in the hands of God, masterpieces of his grace.
Luke opened his Gospel with a diptych, with two announcements. In the first panel, he presented the old and sterile Elizabeth (an image of the bride-Israel incapable of generating and of the condition of humanity devoid of life’s perspectives). In the second panel he introduced a young “virgin” barren personification of Zion, but a womb ready to welcome life.
Making fruitful the barren Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary, the Lord has shown that there is no condition of death that cannot be filled with life. Like the desert, he decided to transform even the arid hearts into lush gardens, irrigated by the water of his Spirit; the gardens will become forests (Is 32:15).
fter examining the two introductory verses, we analyze the central part of the passage.
Rejoice, full of grace, the Lord is with you (v. 28).
This is the heavenly messenger’s greeting to Mary. This is not a formal and polite expression that people who meet for the first time usually address each other. It is not the same as “Hello, I salute you Mary” and is not even the usual “Shalom.” It is a solemn expression, composed with care. To any Israelite, it immediately recalls some texts of the Old Testament.
Rejoice is the well-known invitation to joy and jubilation that the prophets have addressed to the virgin Zion or to the Daughter of Zion—the poorest district of Jerusalem, the most dilapidated area where migrants and displaced persons resided.
In this desperate city, Zephaniah and Zechariah announced a message of consolation: “Cry out with joy, O daughter of Zion; rejoice greatly, daughter of Jerusalem…. The Lord is in your midst, you will not see misfortune… Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for I am about to come” (Zep 3:14-18; Zec 9:9-10; 2:14).
Resuming these oracles, the heavenly messenger shows to address his greeting not only to Mary as a person but to all Israel, indeed, the whole of humanity, inviting her to rejoice, not to agonize for her own misery and unworthiness. The Lord is going to come to her.
O beloved by God.
If we run through the Bible, we see that when God speaks to someone, usually he calls the person by name. In our story, Mary’s name is replaced by an epithet: Beloved by God. It is the second name given to the Virgin in our story.
Mary was the name by which she was known in Nazareth. Beloved by God is that with which she is known in heaven; it is her true identity. Her mission in the world is contained in this name: through her, God will manifest all his love for people. Beloved by God is not only Mary’s heavenly name; it is that of all humanity.
The Lord is with you.
When God gives someone an important and difficult mission, the person is seized with fear and tries to escape. Moses must free the people; he feels inadequate and parries; the Lord reassures him: “I will be with you” (Ex 3:12); Joshua is commissioned to introduce Israel into the Promised Land and God encourages him: “I will be with you as I was with Moses” (Jos 1:5); Gideon must save his people from their oppressors and the angel says: “The Lord will be with you” (Jdg 6:12).
The task of Mary—and the virgin-Israel that she depicts—is more extraordinary than all those that have been entrusted to the servants of God that preceded her. Gabriel encourages her with words well known to her: “The Lord is with you” (v.28).
Mary’s trouble allows the angel to clarify the mystery that is about to be realized in her: in her womb, the Almighty is about to take on human form; the eternal is about to enter into our time; the Creator of the universe is going to be a creature.
The child that will be born to her—says the angel—”will be great and shall rightly be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the kingdom of David, his ancestor; he will rule over the people of Jacob forever, and his reign will have no end” (vv. 32-33).
Each of these words—which are not a verbatim report, but a post-paschal theological composition, put by Luke on the angel’s mouth—alludes to Old Testament texts. They are a reminder of the prophecy of Isaiah: “For a child is born to us…. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. To the increase of his powerful rule in peace, there will be no end… he will reign on David’s throne and over all his kingdom” (Is 9:5-6) and especially the oracle of Nathan: “He shall build a house… I will firmly establish his kingship forever…. He shall be my son…. Your house and your reign shall last forever” (2 Sam 7:12-17).
With these references, the evangelist wanted to present to his readers the true identity of the son of Mary. It’s an identity that is difficult to grasp: in fact, it has remained always hidden from the eyes of the powerful, the rich, and the wise and intelligent (Mt 11:25) who are used to judge the value of people with the criteria of this world, not with those of God.
Making use of references to the Scriptures, Luke has shown to his readers the discovery that Mary and the disciples had in the light of Easter: although conceived in total anonymity from a village in Galilee of the Gentiles (Mt 4:15), Jesus was not just any child. He was the expected Messiah destined to rule forever. In him, all the prophecies were fulfilled.
The story continues with the question of Mary: “How can this be?” (v.34). She does not ask how it is possible for this to happen nor intend to put obstacles. She just wants to know what will be her task, how will she behave so that the designs of God are realized in her.
Man cannot give up his own intelligence. The adherence to God in faith never demands the renunciation of reasonableness. The “yes” said to God, to be truly human, must be weighted and responsible.
Luke presents Mary as a model of authentic human response—which must be free and informed—to the call of the Lord. The clarification requested is given with a language that Mary and the Israelites understood well, that of the biblical images.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (v. 35). It is first of all drawn to the presence of God’s Spirit, the spirit that at the beginning of the world hovered over the waters is remembered (Gen 1:2). Now the Spirit is again recalled because God is going to do a new creative act in Mary’s womb.
Then the shadow and the cloud: they are signs of the divine presence in the Old Testament. During the Exodus the Lord went before his people “in a pillar of cloud” (Ex 13:21), a “cloud covered the tent” where Moses went to meet God (Ex 40:34-35) and, when the Lord came down on Sinai to speak to Moses, the mountain was covered by “a thick cloud” (Ex 19:16).
Stating that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, Luke declares that the same Lord is made present in her. We are faced with this evangelist’s profession of faith in the divinity of Mary’s son.
The angel concludes his discourse by recalling the effectiveness guaranteed by every word from the mouth of the Lord. He does it with the same words that one of the three angels addressed to Sarah and Abraham, disbelieving the announcement of Isaac’s birth: Nothing is impossible with God (Gen 18:14).
I am the handmaid of the Lord (v. 38a).
In the short Gospel account we are examining there appear three names of the Virgin: in Nazareth, they called her Mary; in Heaven, she was known as the Beloved of God. Here is the third name, that with which the Christian community identified her: the Servant of the Lord.
In our text, it is Mary who attributed this name to herself, but it is unlikely. This title does not mean—as someone translates—”humble servant,” but it is a title of supreme honor that the Old Testament reserves to the great men faithful to God (never to a woman). Samuel, David, the prophets, the priests in the temple who night and day bless God (Ps 134:1-2) are called “servants of the Lord”. When it mentions the name of Moses, the sacred author often feels the need to add “servant of the Lord.”
It is unlikely that Mary was less modest to attribute to herself such a high title, though no one more than her deserved it certainly. It is more likely that the primitive community—among whom she lived in prayer (Acts 1:14)—having contemplated in her the model of the faithful disciple, chose this biblical title to qualify her and has put it on her lips.
Let it be done to me as you have said (v. 38b)
In many paintings, the surprise and, at times, almost her dismay appears in the Virgin’s face to which the acceptance of God’s will always follows. However, let it be done does not at all mean resigned consent. The Greek verb ‘genoito’ is an optative and expresses a joyful desire. On the lips of Mary, it reveals her anxiety to see the desire of the Lord realized in her.
Where God enters, there joy always comes. The story, beginning with the rejoice, ends with the joyful exclamation of the Virgin let it be done. No one had understood God’s plan; David, Nathan, Solomon, the kings of Israel had not understood it. All had posed their dreams against it and they expected from him to fulfill them. Mary did not behave like them; she has not put any of her project against God. She only asked him to clearly show the role he intends to entrust her. After having understood, she joyfully welcomed his will.
by Fr. Fernando Armellini