When we consider our gospel passages—especially those that are incredibly familiar, like today’s gospel—we must always be very careful not to over-historicize the events they describe. When we do, we reduce the inspired message to a scene from a child’s pageant and we gloss over the spiritual experience hidden within the text. What we have here in today’s gospel is nothing less than a personal encounter with God’s Holy Spirit, conveyed to us through a symbolic event. Let’s see how that encounter unfolds.
Angels should never be confused with the winged men and women in long, flowing robes we see hovering over our nativity scenes or gracing our Christmas treetops. Nor should we think of them as the souls of deceased innocents. Angels are characteristics of God himself personified. They’re identified with the various ways that God interacts with humankind and their interactions with us are expressed in their names. Gabriel means the strength or power of God. Michael means who is like God, or the likeness of God beyond all else. Raphael means the healing power of God. Penuel means the face of God, and Uriel means the light of God. We know that the word angel comes from the Greek ανγγελς (angelos) and means ‘messenger.’ Each of the divine characteristics is communicated to humankind through a messenger who is a personification of an aspect of God’s grace. What we see in today’s gospel is the Power of God coming upon Mary as personified by the angel Gabriel.
There are two things we should be particularly aware of when we read this passage: first, Mary is a young woman living in the town of Nazareth in the province of Galilee. She’s a nobody in a backwater town that’s never even mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. What’s more, natives of Galilee spoke with a discernable accent. They were hicks. What that tells us is that God isn’t impressed by sophistication or social standing. Secondly, the gospel never suggests that Mary had a vision of an angel. She only heard the angelic message spoken to her in her mind the same way God so often communicates with us using our own thoughts if we would only listen. The lesson here is that, regardless of who we are, God communicates with us heart-to-heart, gifting us with the power of his grace. In other words, as with Mary, the angel Gabriel comes to us whoever we are and wherever we are.
That tells us something about how the angel’s message comes, now let’s look at the content of the message. The message is wholly summed up in that little phrase, “full of grace,” so we need to dissect it. “Full of grace” is the translation of a single Greek term, κεχαριτωμενη (kecharitōmenē). The root of the word is χαρις (charis) meaning “good gift.” It’s used as a past perfect participle meaning “wholly gifted.” The sense of the term is that the young girl has been receiving the fullness of spiritual gifts from God from all eternity until then. The focus is not so much on the gift—the grace—but on the giftedness. Mary gradually came to realize how completely the power of God had overtaken her. That realization of how powerful and transforming the love of God was for her troubled her and caused her to ponder the insight she’d been given, not as a quick thought, but as intense, prolonged reflection for the rest of her life. She only came to appreciate the full meaning of that message over the course of her life, lived in the shadow of her son.
What can we say about Mary’s virginity? What does the gospel tell us? Mary was young—perhaps a teenager—who had entered into an arranged marriage contract with a blue-collar construction worker named Joseph. Her husband had not yet taken her into his home, and they had not had marital relations, since the required year of espousal was not yet complete. Mary, therefore, insisted that she had not, and would not, break her commitment to chastity during that period. What might be the gospel message here? Does it insist upon the sanctity of virginity? I don’t think so. The focus of the passage is not so much on Mary’s virginity as it is on God’s ability to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Whether Mary was committed to a life of perpetual virginity or not was not a concern of this passage. It only became a concern to the early Christian Church after Pentecost when the first Christians were coming to terms with the divinity of Christ and the nature of the Godhead—the Trinity. In this passage, however, the message is about how the grace of God can overcome all obstacles and achieve what is impossible of humankind alone.
There is one further aspect of Mary’s virginity that this passage presents for us. The message of the angel states, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” In a sense, the Pentecost event begins here. It’s the Pentecost event that accomplishes both the Incarnation of the divine Word in human flesh and the adoption of humanity as children of God. If the Holy Spirit and the Power of the Most High brings to life the Christ in the womb of Mary, so also does it bring him to life in the womb of the Church. It’s the same ongoing event. The overshadowing that is spoken of refers to the divine Presence coming among us. In this sense, Mary herself takes the place of the Temple. In Exodus [40:34-35], we read, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Again, in the First Book of Kings [8:10-11], we read, “When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the Lord so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord.” In other words, Mary’s virginity is a reflection of the holiness of the Temple prepared to receive the glory of God’s presence in the midst of his people: Immanuel, God-with-us.
As always, in telling the story of Jesus, the gospel tells our own story. It reassures us that our God speaks to us continually regardless of how insignificant we may feel. In that communication—that Word of God—we receive the gift of his love. We, too, are κεχαριτωμενη (kecharitōmenē)—fully gifted with the life and presence of God himself. We are called to give birth to the Christ in the way we live and love in God’s world. When this doesn’t happen, it can only be because we haven’t taken Mary’s words entirely to heart: “I am the servant of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” Mary brought the Power of God to birth in herself and in her world by her acceptance and surrender. Now, people full of grace, it’s our turn.