The angel Gabriel was sent from God…And coming to [Mary], he said, … now at this point you’re expecting me to say “Hail, full of grace!” For good reasons, we Catholics hang on to that translation which is rooted in the Latin Vulgate “Ave gratia plena” – literally “hail, full of grace” – but that is not what the original Greek (Chaire kecharitōmenē) says. A literal rendering from the Greek would be “Rejoice, highly favored one.” So let’s start over: The angel Gabriel was sent from God…And coming to [Mary], he said “Rejoice, highly favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
It is a bit of an odd greeting. Granted I am no angel, but what if, robed in my Franciscan habit, I came up to you and said, “Rejoice, highly favored one!” The religious garb would set the greeting in the context of faith and God. While I might think well of you, I think the message would be understood that I am saying it is God who favors you – in fact highly favors you. Wouldn’t you think it odd? You might even be troubled, too. Now why is that? Allow me a moment of speculation as I replay the scene from today’s gospel.
Angel: “Rejoice, highly favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Mary: (quickly thinking to herself) “Me? Are you kidding? What have I done to deserve God’s favor? (and likely thinking to herself exactly what our response would be)
Angel: (to himself as he heard Mary’s thoughts) “Hey, I am just the messenger.”
Since Gabriel has nothing to offer, perhaps we should consider her question. What exactly has Mary done to deserve, to earn, to merit God’s favor. While we might want to fill in the answer with all kinds of piety, in fact, Scripture is silent. St. Luke offers no “résumé” of accomplishments, no acts of obedience or faith, no great learning – nothing at all.
Mary is a peasant girl, probably 13-15 years old, lives about as far from the center of things as you can get, has no status in worldly affairs, and yet she is favored, highly so, by God. And please don’t jump the gun here. Mary is still wondering what kind of greeting this is and she is troubled. The Angel Gabriel has not outlined the plan, Mary has yet to ask “How can this be…”, and knows nothing of her cousin Elizabeth’s great news – Mary is nowhere near saying “Yes.” She has done nothing, agreed to nothing, has not a clue of what is coming her way, and still she is highly favored by God. And I would suggest that is exactly the point. Before Mary says “yes,” she is already blessed, highly favored by God. Why does this matter? Because I think it captures an important role Mary plays in the Gospel story and also reveals a central posture of Christian life: we are already blessed.
Before we get to our own “Yes,” we are called to believe that God similarly notices, favors, and blesses us. And once we believe that, we can do incredible things. God’s blessing is never deserved, but is always a gift. We live in a world the operates on rewards and punishments, making your own way in the world, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and earning your keep. But God’s blessings intrudes into, interrupts, and ultimately disrupts our tit-for-tat world to announce that someone sees us as worthy and special apart from anything we’ve done.
It’s hard to believe; hard for us, and I would suggest hard for Mary. She is troubled by the angel’s announcement that she is favored by God. “What have I done,” Mary may wonder, “to merit God’s notice and favor.” But that’s of course just what blessing is – unmerited and undeserved favor. As exceptional as she is, Mary is not the exception. But …. and here’s an important point…Mary lets the realization of God’s favor sink into the marrow of her being. Mary is able to open herself to the work of the Holy Spirit to bless the whole world through her willingness to give birth to Jesus. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” And the world is forever changed. Such is the power of God blessing.
It matters that before Mary says “yes,” she is blessed. She is not the exception, she is an example of what can happen when you finally and truly believe that God already notices, favors, and blesses you: you may just change the world! It all begins with your own annunciation.
Angel: “Rejoice, highly favored ones! The Lord is with you all.”
People: “How can this be? I have done nothing to deserve this.”
Angel: True, but that was never the point. God loves you, has sent His only Son, and even now gives you the Holy Spirit to guide you in all you do and say so that God’s blessings may pour through you into the world
…and this is where you need to pause, reflect, and let God’s blessing fill you and root in the marrow of your being so that you can say…
People: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
Inspiration from David Lose at “Dear Preacher” http://www.davidlose.net/2014/12/advent-4-b-blessed-like-mary/
Photo credit: “The Annunciation” by Daniel Bonnell