Today, nine months before the historical birth of Jesus, our readings celebrate the beginning of Mary’s pregnancy, the Annunciation.
We begin with the reading from the 8th C. BC prophesy of Isaiah foretelling the birth of a son to a virgin. Historical Critical scholars will point out the original Hebrew used here is the word meaning “young woman”, arguably the same thing as a virgin in that time and culture. However, the 3rd C BC translation of the Hebrew into the more widely accessible Greek called the Septuagint, primarily by Hebrew scholars, clearly uses the word for virgin.
Our well-known passage from Luke, from whom we get almost all our information about Jesus’ early life, is filled with important details, and from which several important dogmas will develop.
While the previous episode with Elizabeth and Zechariah takes place in Jerusalem in the environs of the Temple, the most important event in history begins in the most backwater place in Scripture, unmentioned in the Old Testament, Nazareth.
In most Scriptural encounters between humans and angels, the humans are initially terrified. God’s angels are awesome creatures. That Mary is not terrified by Gabriel’s appearance gives us a clue to Mary’s unusual state, revealed in the title Gabriel addresses her with. That title, translated by St Jerome and ever since as “full of grace”, and is the only time God or His messenger will address a human being by a title, rather than name. In the original Greek it means completely suffused with and existing from a time before the present. It is from this that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception will develop.
Mary’s response to the angel indicates that not only has she not yet “had relations with a man”, but that apparently, there were no plans for her and Joseph to do so after the marriage. This is born out in contemporary non-canonical writings, notably “The Protoevangelium of James” and the earliest traditions of the Fathers of the Church.
The angel explains how it can happen. The Most High will “overshadow” her, using the same term used in Exodus to describe God entering the Ark of the Covenant. In describing this, the angel also outlines the mystery of theTrinity: “…the Holy Spirit, …the Most High, …the Son of God”.
Finally, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux said: “…the angels held their breath”, because God’s plan for the salvation of mankind required a human act of free will acceptance and, unlike Adam and Eve who used their free will to disobey God and try to “be like God”, Mary used hers to obey and submit to God’s will, opening the door to salvation for her descendants and all mankind.