December 21, 2014
4th Sunday of Advent
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30 Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, 33 and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
34 But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” 35 And the angel said to her in reply, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. 36 And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; 37 for nothing will be impossible for God."
38 Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."
Then the angel departed from her.
Luke’s community would have heard this text with a different mindset than most contemporary readers. People of the day believed that any man and woman left alone would eventually become sexually involved. Therefore there was a constant need to protect a woman by making sure she was always in the company of other women or children. It was the responsibility of the male members of a woman’s family to protect the women from men who might take advantage of a woman’s desire to have sexual relations. Therefore if they were not guarded, they stayed secluded in an area of the house that was not accessible to the outside, such as a courtyard or a room with no outside windows or doors.
Mary is described as “betrothed to Joseph.” Being betrothed was much more than the contemporary notion of being engaged. Typically the women of both families would have met to determine a suitable partner. Both families had to be reassured that this was a good arrangement for all, and that neither was taking advantage of the other family. The honor of both families was at stake. Once the women had agreed on the details of the arrangement, the patriarchs of both families had to agree. The betrothal was a public acceptance of the proposed marriage agreement. While the couple did not live together, they and their families had entered a covenant to be husband and wife. The groom prepared a suitable place for his bride to live within his house. The bride for her part prepared to leave the house of her father and join the household of her groom. But before the bride actually moved from the house of her father to the house of the groom, she was expected to produce evidence of her virginity. If she could not, public shame was brought to both families.
When Luke’s community heard this text, they would have been immediately aware that Gabriel, a male spirit, was present to Mary without supervision. This was a potentially dangerous situation. However, the honorable Gabriel first recognized Mary as a person of honor before God, and then moved to ease her fear. He addressed her, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you" (verse 29). The term “hail” carries the connotation that one should rejoice. Although Gabriel tried to reassure Mary that his presence was a sign of “favor with God,” being “favored by God” suggested that she was being asked to surrender her life to God’s service. Noah, Moses, Gideon and Samuel all had “found favor” with God. (Genesis 6:8, Exodus 33:12, Judges 6:17 and 1 Samuel 2:26.) Gabriel continued to try to reassure Mary that what was requested was God’s will for her. She was to understand that God is capable of doing what was being suggested. Mary was still greatly concerned. “How can this be…?”
The text suggests that Mary’s concerns might have been larger than this single issue. Gabriel suggested that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and overshadow her. Luke’s community would recall the cloud that overshadowed the tent when God spoke to Moses. They further understood this to mean that God would play the role of a traditional husband for Mary. He would “empower” her and “protect” her, two duties of a Middle Eastern husband. Mary’s words of acceptance, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” (Luke 1:38b) were a typical response when one conceded an argument. They may be translated “as you wish.” God had chosen to interact with Mary directly, bypassing the traditional roles of parents in the arbitration and protection of their daughter’s life and future. Gabriel departed, but Luke does not give any indication that Mary was at peace. In the next verses Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39-56)
1. Do you know people who you believe are among God’s “highly favored ones?” Why do see them in that light? Do you think they see themselves in that light?
2. Mary is described as a virgin living in the town of Nazareth in the region of Galilee, betrothed to a man named Joseph who is of the house of David. Is this where you would expect to find one God has picked out from the beginning of all time to be the human mother of Jesus?
3. Where do you look to find the presence of God in your world today? Does this reading suggest to you other places that God might have chosen as a dwelling place?
4. How did Mary’s life change after Gabriel left?
5. What do you think would have happened if Mary had said NO, that she just wanted to become an ordinary wife to Joseph?
6. Do think that it is possible that God approached other women before Mary and they actually did say NO?
7. Given the life of Mary and others that the Church looks upon as “highly favored,” do you desire to be among God’s “highly favored?”
8. Advent is a season of preparing for the coming of Christ. Why does the church give us this reading to reflect on for this fourth week of advent? How many times have you read or heard this reading? What is important to you as you hear it this year?
On Wednesday of each week, the Gospel and reflection questions for the upcoming Sunday are posted at the following link. http://il-ritiro.org/gospel-reflections.aspx You also are invited to share your reflection and comments with others at this website.
Reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.
They are translated into Spanish by Fernando Alessandrini.
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