May Meditations: The Annunciation

(Second and final chunk of a religious work I once attempted.)

In one sense, this story begins before time began, when God saw in His Mind all the things He planned to create, including the things that would be tainted by evil, and loved them in spite of the evil that was to come. He knew how to counter the evil that men and women would do without taking away their free will. He saw one particular woman whom He knew would cooperate with His plan, and He loved her above the rest of His creation. He chose her to become His mother, and He created her to be as perfect as a being who was only human could be. 

She was perhaps not a dazzling beauty, not by the standards of ordinary sinful men, anyway. We would most likely have heard about it if she was. There are a few very old paintings, said to be copies of copies of pictures painted by Luke the physician, a follower of her Son’s disciples, and the human author of the Gospel that tells us the most about her. These paintings are not meant to be realistic, but taken together, they give the impression of a dignified, graceful woman with strong cheekbones and chin and rounded cheeks. The eyes in the best of these ancient paintings are her most compelling feature, penetrating and yet gentle, and it is easy to be believe that here at least the paintings are true to life. 

She was not necessarily popular in Nazareth, where she lived at the time this story begins. The Gospels paint a picture of a woman who was industrious, considerate of others, a willing and competent traveler, but perhaps more reserved than average. Women less kind, less hard-working than herself probably resented her virtues, and the gossips would have clucked their tongues when she refused to share in their cruel tale-telling. Many of the men would have liked her no better, for Mary had dedicated herself to God, and she would not have paid to men the kind of attention that most of them prefer.  

It is believed that her mother was named Anne and her father was named Joachim or Eliakim (possibly shortened to Eli or Heli), and that her father may have been descended from Prince Nathan, one of King David’s less prominent sons. Mary had a cousin named Elizabeth, married to a priest named Zachariah, which suggests perhaps that Anne came from a Levite family. Mary had taken a private vow of perpetual virginity, but in the world she lived in, a young woman was subject to constant harassment if she did not have a male protector and so she had been betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter of the house of David, possibly descended from Solomon himself. Joseph was an older man, but strong and healthy, to judge by his trade and several long journeys his life with Mary would lead him on. Many say he was a widower, possibly with grown children. In any case, he agreed to respect her vow, and may have taken a vow of celibacy as well, after his first wife had died. 

One day in the spring, close to the time of Passover, she was alone, most likely at the home of her family. Many artists have painted the scene over the years. Some imagine her outdoors in a garden or courtyard, others see her working or praying in the house itself. The Gospels do not say. 

The angel Gabriel appeared to her, as he had six months before to her cousin’s husband Zacharias.  

“Hail, full of grace,” the angel told her. “The Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” 

Mary was troubled by this greeting, and she did not answer him. The devil can appear as an angel of light, and perhaps she thought this was a temptation to pride. To herself, she wondered what kind of greeting this might be? 

“Fear not, Mary,” Gabriel said. “For thou hast found favor with God.   Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bear a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be called great, and the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God shall give Him the throne of David his father, and He will rule over the house of Jacob forever. And of His kingdom there shall be no end.”  

In the Gospel account, the words describing the coming Messiah seem to pour out of the angel in a fountain of joy. But the question is not yet settled, not inside time. Mary has not yet given her answer. 

“How shall this be done, because I know not man?” She asks. “And do not plan to know man in the future” is implied. She is not rude or disbelieving. She wants to understand. 

“The power of the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And the Holy that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” 

Gabriel states here the core of God’s plan: the Second Person of the Trinity will take on a human nature, and be born of woman. This woman, if she is willing. 

Gabriel goes on to tell May that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, in spite of her advanced years. “And this is the sixth month with her that is called barren,” he says, with perhaps a touch of dry humor, “Because no word shall be impossible with God.”  

 The theologians all say that if Mary had said no, God would have respected her decision, and the Incarnation would have come about in some other way, or with some other woman as the Mother of God. God created us with free will, and He respects it so highly that He will not thwart it directly, even when it leads to an evil outcome, or a flawed one. Instead, He works through those who unite their wills with His. And so it happened here. 

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word,” Mary tells the angel, consenting to God’s plan, and in that instant God enters into her womb. And so it begins. Mary has chosen a path of great joy, and great glory, and also great sorrow, but the sorrow is yet to come. 

The heavenly messenger disappears, and Mary, concerned for her cousin who is dealing with pregnancy at such an advanced age, sets out for the hillside city where Elizabeth was staying. She enters the house of Zachary, and greets her cousin. 

In that moment, the child “leapt” in Elizabeth’s womb, the child who was to be known as John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets. Elizabeth is filled with the grace of the Holy Ghost, the Third Person of the Trinity and cries out to Mary: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!” And so it is that the angel Gabriel and the woman Elizabeth gave us the first half of the prayer known as the Hail Mary. 

Elizabeth goes on to ask: “And whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.” 

Mary’s heart overflows. She had believed the angel’s words, when he spoke of the power of the Most High, and offered her cousin’s miraculous pregnancy as a sign of his truthfulness. But there is a relief in knowing she is not alone, that another woman knows what has happened, and what will happens. 

Mary speaks, but what she says, in Luke’s retelling, sounds almost like a song. It is the prayers known today as the Magnificat, from the Latin translation of its opening words. “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God My Saviour. For He hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath done great things to me and holy is His name. And His mercy is from generation unto generation, for those that fear Him.” 

She does not glory in herself, nor in the destiny she has taken up, but only in the God who created her to love Him, both as her Creator and as her Son, and to love His creatures for His sake and their own. 

She goes on, in the style of the Song of Hannah from the Book of Samuel: “He hath shown strength in His arm; He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and He hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away. He hath received Israel His servant, being mindful of His mercy: as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever.” 

She stays with Elizabeth until Elizabeth’s child is born: he will be known to history as John the Baptist. 

When Mary returns to Nazareth, she is at the end of the first trimester of her pregnancy. Soon people begin to notice her condition, but their culture permits a betrothed couple to become pregnant before the formal marriage ceremony so little is said. But Joseph is troubled, because he knows that he is not the father of her unborn child, and Mary’s behavior is inexplicable. She shows no sign of shame or trauma, and no sign that she is interested in another man. She seems as deeply, serenely absorbed by the love of God as ever, maybe more so. She does not share the great secret with him, because it is not hers to share. 

His culture permits him to drag her before the priests and charged with adultery, stoned to death. He refuses to do this. Because he is a just man, and perhaps because he cannot reconcile the way Mary acts with what appears to have happened, he decides to end their betrothal as quietly and as painlessly as possible. But an angel comes to him in a dream, and tells him: “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary [as] thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost.”