I’m not a Biblical scholar, but I’ve read that Gabriel’s greeting in today’s gospel is unique in the Scripture. Not only does he address Mary by name, he gives her a title that acknowledges her place in the drama of our salvation. Mary is not chosen because she is full of grace; she is full of grace because God has chosen her. It should come as no surprise that Mary is troubled and puzzled by what she has heard. Especially when Gabriel cuts to the chase and says that her son will rule forever and his kingdom will have no end. Everything that went before – about the throne of David – is mere symbolism. But to talk of kingdoms is to describe a reality.
This is First-Century Palestine, and even a young girl could not be unaware of the political import of these words. Mary’s question, “how can this be?” is similar to the questions the heroes of the Old Testament asked – most often when they wanted to get out of their divine commission. Mary might have been looking for an escape as well. After all, this new vocation would create some real difficulties with the one she had already embraced, when she agreed to marry Joseph. But Gabriel will not be put off. Mary’s future may be confusing and complicated, but God will see to the details. The encounter ends with Mary’s saying, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” We’ve heard these words so often we may take them for granted, but there are no throw-away details in the gospel.
In the Scripture, this is the only encounter between an angel and a human being in which the human has the last word. And those final words are remarkable. “Let it be done according to your word,” that is, let it be done exactly as you have presented it. It’s no wonder Mary is the model for the Church, and our model. One writer has said Mary is “the first Christian disciple.” She hears God’s word, believes it, and does it. And she calls us to do the same. If we’re looking for an example of what this means, we don’t need to look much further than St. Juan Diego, to whom Mary appeared five times at Guadalupe. When the angel appeared to Mary, St. Luke tells us he called her by name. Tradition tells us that when Mary spoke to Juan Diego, she went one step further and used the familiar, diminutive, form of his name, “Juanito,” “Juan Diegueto.”
This delightful touch, I think, shows the length God is willing to go to call us, and to make disciples of us. To send Jesus’ mother, to call us by our nicknames. So that we won’t be afraid to embrace our vocation as disciples. Things didn’t go well – at least at first – when Juan Diego tried to explain his vocation to the Church authorities. Mary sent him back by saying, “Am I not here; I who am your mother?” And then, of course, we have the miracle of the roses. Those flowers are certainly important, as is the image of Mary on Juan Diego’s cloak that has come down to us and been venerated for five hundred years. But what’s far more important is the image of us the gospel calls us to find in Mary. At the end of these days of Advent we will rejoice in the birth of Jesus. Throughout these days we have the image of Mary to remind us that her challenge is ours – to accept God’s word, and to give it flesh and blood so that we may present the human face of Christ to the world, and touch creation with his hands.