by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
[NOTE: During these weeks of Advent our reflections will strike a continuous note: Searching for Hope.]
“And the angel left her.”
As we reflect on the fascinating story of God’s coming among us, and the central role played in it by Mary of Nazareth, a reflection by Pax Christi Bishop-President, John Stowe opens new vistas.
He cites the stark phrase in Luke’s Gospel, “then the angel left her.” It comes immediately after Mary’s acceptance of God’s will that she will be the Mother of the long-awaited Messiah: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
Bishop Stowe suggests an entirely plausible reaction to the angel’s message on the part of this young, unmarried woman. She could well have said at that moment, “Now what do I do?”
What she did was completely appropriate and teaches a great lesson about the incredible mystery of God’s incarnation as a human being. She ran up into the hill country to the home of her elderly relative Elizabeth, whom, as the angel had advised Mary, was six months into her own surprising pregnancy. The young woman’s action underscores the normalcy of circumstances surrounding God’s action in history. Mary simply goes to help Elizabeth in what may turn out to be a difficult delivery. [We might speculate also in the light of this normal reaction on Mary’s part if it could be that she went to check on the veracity of the angel’s word about Elizabeth.]
The normalcy of it all continues when Mary returns to Nazareth after three months and encounters everything that typically would happen in that tight little town of Galilee, a Roman outpost situated at the very limits of the Empire: the stares, the gossip, her parents’ confusion and particularly the reaction of her intended, Joseph, the village carpenter. We get a glimpse of this in Joseph’s decision to “put Mary away quietly” and the reassurance he received from another messenger from God: “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”
And then there is Bethlehem. Preeminent theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, writes about another of those stark phrases of Luke: “and she gave birth.” Her reflection has nothing of the idealizing and spiritualizing this moment which so many popular Christmas prayers and songs tend to do. She insists in graphic detail that Jesus’ birth had all the uncertainty, parental fear, pain, agonizing physical efforts to bring new life into the world undergone by every woman who has ever gone through the same experience.
It is all so human and it continues for years and years. Even after other “peak moments” (the elder Simeon predicting that Mary’s heart would be pierced; the 12-year-old son discovered after three days conversing with temple authorities), still the Gospels say, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” Again the Incarnation of God’s Son unfolds within the parameters of natural human development. The infant is nurtured, the baby cared for, the little boy and growing youth is educated in his parents’ faith tradition, the carpenter passes on his skills to the young man – all over a period of 18 years.
Finally, as if to put an exclamation point on Mary’s role in all of this, Jesus is persuaded to begin his public ministry ahead of time. She persuades him to come to the rescue of a young, recently married couple who face humiliation at not providing for the guests at their wedding reception.
There is hardly any need in elaborating more on this key event in salvation history. It is God at work in and through normal life and a great lesson for us all.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.