Gabriel’s Annunciation and Mary’s Renunciation
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us!” (Isaiah 7:14)
There’s something that doesn’t seem to make sense at first in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 1:26-38). Here’s the scene. God sends the Angel Gabriel
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
The angel brings incredible news. He greets the young woman as “full of grace,” and tells her that she has “found favor with God.” He then goes on to say:
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.
Now, it’s no surprise that her first reaction isn’t “Great! Thanks for telling me!” But what she does say is, in its way, even more surprising:
“How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
Do you see the disconnect? She doesn’t object that she’s an insignificant maiden and that her child couldn’t possibly “be called the son of the Most High.” Nor does she express any surprise at her offspring ruling over the House of Jacob as the heir of King David. Her first response is “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man.”
A Different Life
It’s not what we would expect. The Evangelist has just told us that she’s “betrothed to a man named Joseph.” A young woman who’s about to be married would expect to conceive a child, especially back in the day when there were no contraceptives, and no Planned Parenthood to “take care of” an inconvenient baby. And yet, it’s not the exalted future predicted for her child, but the very fact of conceiving a baby that concerns Mary.
Scholars have traditionally seen this apparent incongruity as consistent with the perpetual virginity of Mary. Her response makes sense if she has taken a vow of virginity, and her betrothed has already agreed to live “as brother and sister” with his wife. Such a commitment would indeed seem to stand in the way of conceiving and bearing a son.
Gabriel’s Annunciation, then, means that Mary has a very different life ahead than what she planned for herself. God’s messenger is offering all the tribulations of motherhood without the compensations of a full marital relationship with her child’s father. But that’s not what troubles Mary. Compare her response to what Ahaz says in the first reading from Isaiah. God instructs Ahaz to ask for sign. Ahaz answers, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” Mary, in contrast, doesn’t refuse: she just doesn’t understand.
Gabriel is happy to explain further:
“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.”
After that, satisfied that bearing this son is God’s will for her, Mary completely turns over her own will. In response to Gabriel’s Annunciation she replies:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
The Vulgate Latin Bible renders Mary’s answer: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. We call this response”Mary’s Fiat,” from its first word, fiat, “let it be done.” Mary willingly gives up anything and everything she has planned for herself, in order to follow God’s plan. Because of the completeness of her surrender to God, we consider her the model Christian believer. As Pope St. Paul VI put it, she “displayed the perfect form of a disciple of Christ” (perfectam Christi discipuli formam expressit).
Today’s feast is called The Solemnity of the Annunciation. But in addition to Gabriel’s Annunciation, it also entails a Renunciation on the part of Mary. That is to say, when Gabriel announced God’s plan for her, Mary freely renounced all her plans for herself. All generations call her blessed (see Luke 1:48) precisely because her renunciation opened the door for the Divine Savior.
Making Mary Our Model
Mary’s renunciation also gives us a helpful way of looking at the disciplines of Lent. We give up things we want, things that may even be good in themselves, to train ourselves in renunciation. At some point God will make his plan for our lives known to us. When he does, how much better if we can follow the example of Christ’s Blessed Mother and say: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.