As we anticipate the Fourth Sunday of Advent this coming Sunday, we share a reflection by Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Pam Biehl. She is parish leader at St. Mary, Winneconne, Wisconsin and St. Mary, Omro, Wisconsin. It is followed by another perspective on this coming Sunday’s Gospel by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM. This content is edited by Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Anne Marie Lom and Joe Thiel. The excerpts from the Sunday readings are prepared by Joe Thiel. To read or download the complete pdf with excerpts for your prayer, please click here Franciscan Gospel Reflection December 20 2020 . Excerpts are from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner. Photos: Holy Family Convent, Manitowoc, Wisconsin; Quad Parishes, Green Bay, Wisconsin
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 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, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” 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. 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; for nothing will be impossible for God.”
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 from a different perspective than that of most contemporary readers. People of that day believed that any man and woman left alone would eventually become sexually involved. Therefore, they believed that there was a constant need to protect a woman from being alone with men. Living spaces and the rituals of daily living were designed to protect and provide constant chaperones. It was especially the responsibility of the male family members to protect the women of their household.
Mary is also “betrothed to Joseph.” Being betrothed was a much more serious commitment than than the contemporary notion of being engaged. Typically, the women of both families would have met to negotiate and determine whether the two were suitable partners. Both families had to be reassured that this was a good arrangement for all, and that neither was taking advantage of the other family. Once the women had agreed, the patriarchs confirmed the decision. The betrothal was a public acceptance of the proposed marriage agreement. While the couple did not yet live together, they and their families had entered a public covenant to be husband and wife. Before the bride 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 immediately been 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,” it also meant 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 traditions where the parents had roles 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 of Luke’s gospel, Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39-56)
- Gabriel is described as being sent by God in the first words of the text. What is that saying about Gabriel’s mission?
- Mary is described as being greatly troubled by Gabriel’s presence and message. Have there been occasions when you might have been described as greatly troubled? What was happening in your life? How did that impact your own relationship with God?
- Who are some of the people in the bible or in the church who might be called “highly favored?” What are some of the things that strike you about this group?
- What was it that Mary gave to God by consenting to God’s desire for her?
- What values and attitudes did Mary have to embrace in order to say yes to God?
- The last line of the text says simply that the angel Gabriel departed. What was Mary left to deal with in his absence?
- Can you take some time to talk with God about whatever it is that has left you feeling “greatly troubled,” or perhaps the feelings you have about being left to deal with some difficult situations in your own life? Or could you talk with God asking for the virtues Mary had in order to say yes to God?