Kieran Fenn fms
In Luke’s theology, the faith that marks a genuine disciple consists of hearing and acting on God’s word, as Mary did.
This recalls the words of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, blessing Mary for her believing, because the things said to her by the Lord would reach fulfilment. The annunciation depicts Mary with a mood of celebration as a hearer and doer of God’s word.
The overarching purpose of this account is to disclose at the outset the truth about Jesus’s messianic identity.
Using titles of Christology and language developed by the Church after the resurrection (‘Son of the Most High’), the scene vividly dramatises the theological point that Jesus did not just become the son of God after his death (Paul), or even at his baptism (Mark) but is son of God from his very conception in this world.
At the same time, by making Mary the central character, Luke invites reflection on Mary’s faith and her action in her own right. The text has been key in the development of the honouring of Mary.
Conceived of the Holy Spirit
‘Overshadowing’ always means the spirit of God drawing near and passing by to save and protect. God’s spirit is a creative power in the begetting of Jesus. We look to the text for religious meaning rather than historical evidence of what actually happened. This we shall never know because the gospel writers drew on the details of the Old Testament annunciation accounts to relate this sacred moment of choice.
Mary is called to trust, for she will be empowered and protected by God. In the opening scenes of Genesis, the spirit of God blows like a mighty wind over the dark waters and the world came into being. At this new moment of the renewal of creation, the spirit is on the move again.
At Easter, Jesus is raised from the dead and made son of God in power, so the same life-giving spirit brings life from both empty tombs and empty wombs.
Divine freedom does not override created human freedom but waits upon our response. Mary responds with courage, joy and prophecy to this unexpected call. In affirming her own identity as handmaid of the Lord – ‘Be it done to me according to your word’ (1:38) – she makes a radical act of trust in God, based on a bedrock conviction that God is faithful.
Here we have the story of a peasant girl who discerns the voice of God in her life commissioning her to a momentous task. Exercising independent thought and action, she questions, takes counsel with her own self and makes a self-determining act of choice. It changes her life and, as a woman of spirit, she embarks on the task of partnering God in the work of redemption. Like any prophet, she asserts herself before God saying, ‘Here I am’.
‘It is her word and faith that makes possible God’s entrance into history,’ (Reuther, 1980).
Joy in the revolution of God
In response to Elizabeth’s blessing (1:39-56), Mary sings out a prophetic song of praise to God, the Magnificat. Mary can barely contain her joy over the liberation coming to fruition in herself and the world through the creative power of the Spirit.
Her ‘no’ to oppression completes her ‘yes’ to solidarity with the project of the reign of God. She sings the great New Testament song of liberation, a revolutionary document of intense conflict and victory, praising God’s actions on behalf of marginal, exploited peoples.
Elizabeth meanwhile, having resigned herself to the disappointment of never having a child, now has to deal with an ‘unexpected blessing’ while Mary ponders a blessing that causes more problems than it solves.
Like many young women in similar straits, Mary has sought the advice of her elderly relative. Elizabeth had been faithfully walking in the ways of God for many years. She stands in the list of barren Hebrew matriarchs – Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother and Hannah, symbol of barren Jerusalem. All signal God’s vindication of the lowly with stories of humiliated women blessed by conceiving and bearing a son.
A long life of attentiveness to the Spirit enables Elizabeth to conceive this child not as a gift for her husband Zechariah or her people alone (as patriarchal law would have it), but signifying God’s regard for her as a loved and valued person.
While Luke is careful not to give her the title of prophet, Elizabeth functions as one because she is filled with the Spirit.
Other famous women who helped deliver Israel from peril speak as she does. Deborah praises Jael, slayer of their enemy, ‘Most blessed be Jael among women’ (Judges 5:24) and Judith is praised: ‘O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth’ (Judith 13:18).
Elizabeth’s praise joins her young cousin in solidarity with a long line of women whose creative action, undertaken in the power of the Spirit, brings liberation in God’s name.
The support the two women share during Mary’s three months with Elizabeth enables them to mother the next generation of prophets: the precursor and the saviour.
Elizabeth stands as a moving embodiment of the wisdom and care that older women can offer their younger sisters, who, brave as they are, are just starting on life’s journey.
Elizabeth’s mature experience sustains the new venture and assures Mary she is not alone through the uncertain future.
References: Kathleen Coyle and Elizabeth Johnson