joyful mysteries #1: the annunciation

Since I’m one day behind in posting this mystery, you’ll actually get to see my reflection on the Annunciation on the very day of the Feast of the Annunciation!  How cool is that?  🙂

So for Wednesday, March 24, our first Joyful Mystery of the rosary is the Annunciation.  The biblical account can be found in four English versions here, and the NRSV is below…

The Annunciation (Westminster mosaic), by Lawrence OP
The Annunciation (Westminster mosaic), by Lawrence OP

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ [Some original texts add “Blessed are you among women” here.]

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’

The angel said to her, ‘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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’

Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

This is a familiar story to many of us.  We hear it each year during Advent, and we see it acted out in children’s Christmas Pageants, with white cardboard wings and white robes and lots of glitter.

Annunciation Icon, by jclor
Annunciation Icon, by jclor

It’s kind of funny.  I’ve long admired Mary for her ability to take these amazing events in her life and quietly ponder them in her heart.  I find that I tend to try to talk these things out; I can ponder things for a while, but then I need to check in with someone else to make sure I’m neither spinning my wheels nor crazy.  And here, when the angel Gabriel greets her, Mary doesn’t respond immediately, but ponders what sort of greeting this might be.

The word ponder brings to my mind something more than just have a little think.  From dictionary.com, I see two definitions: to consider something deeply and thoroughly; meditate (often fol. by over or upon) and to weigh carefully in the mind; consider thoughtfully.  These definitions jibe with my own thinking: pondering is something that takes time.  So how long does Mary sit there pondering Gabriel’s greeting?  And what is he doing during that time — standing there, shifting his weight from leg to leg, adjusting his wings?

One possible explanation is that the writers of the gospels saw only Mary’s quiet public face.  They did not know what she discussed with Joseph, or at home with her family.  They didn’t bother to listen to the women around the cookpots, to hear what the women discussed over their work.  So maybe these evangelists just didn’t know that these momentous events were not merely treasured and pondered in Mary’s hearts.

Another explanation that jumped off the screen at me this morning could be that Mary is a little, well, slow.  Let’s face it, she’s a girl of about 13 or 14, and she lives in a small town (probably less than 1,000 people in her time).  Girls and women of her time would not be taught to read or write, and would not be allowed to study Tanakh.  Critical thinking, logic, rhetoric — these were prized by the Greeks and Romans, but probably not taught to a poor young Jewish girl in a small town in Galilee.  We can see that Jesus was very quick-witted, in the ways he response to the traps set for him by the religious authorities, but it could be that Mary just… wasn’t.  I know that to imagine Mary being other than completely pure and wholesome and perfect may seem like blasphemy, and I am truly sorry if I have offended you.  I just find myself wondering about this sometimes.

Back to the story, the angel’s greeting to Mary is now part of the traditional ‘Hail Mary‘ or ‘Ave Maria‘ prayer.

Ave Maria, by seriykotik1970
Ave Maria, by seriykotik1970

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, mother of God,
pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death.

Amen.

Much of this prayer comes straight from scripture, and it concludes by asking Mary to pray for us all.  Many people don’t understand what it means to talk to or pray to the saints.  We do not worship the saints; only God is worshiped, because only God is, well, God!  Rather, we ask the saints to intercede for us with God; we talk to them, maybe ask them for guidance — since they’ve been-there-done-that already — and ask them to pray for us.

This prayer is the one prayed on the beads that make up the five decades in a traditional Dominican rosary.  Some Protestants reject the rosary as idolatrous, because they feel that this kind of prayer elevates Mary as high as Jesus, maybe more so.  The beautiful words of the Ave come not from idolatry, though, but from scripture and from an earnest request for intercession.  Pray for us, Mary.  We know that you are favored among women, and that you are the chosen mother of our Lord.  Please put in a good word for us. That said, if this prayer makes you uncomfortable, then you need not pray these words; we are blessed with an abundance of lovely prayers in our tradition, and there’s nothing wrong with praying in your own words, from your own heart.

The Annunciation falls each year during Lent, our time of purification, penitence, and fasting in preparation for the Feast of Easter.  This connects Mary’s obedient response, let it be with me according to your word, with the obedience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want. Mary risked her own life in saying yes to God, knowing that Joseph could have her stoned for being pregnant with someone else’s child.  And so the life of Jesus both begins and ends with this amazing obedience to God, dangerous obedience, scary obedience, life-threatening obedience.  It is so hard for me to even imagine responding in this way.

I’ll close with a wonderful poem, by Br. Tobias Stanislas of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory:

Olives in Gethsemane-2, by Ian W Scott
Olives in Gethsemane-2, by Ian W Scott

She knelt beside the neatly planted rows
of cummin, dill, and mint. The clear March sky
was bright; a flock of birds flew high.
She pinched a leaf;
then, suddenly, she froze —
a voice had spoken. There was no one there.
It spoke a second time; she looked around.
“How can this be?” she asked the vacant air.
Once more it spoke, yet there was not a sound.
She paused again; her answer in her mind.

In thirty years and three, her words would find
an echo: “Not my will, but thine be done,”
said in another garden by her son,
while three friends slept.
So here none heard her words —
except an angel, a high flight of birds,
and three neat rows of cummin, mint, and dill:
“Be it to me according to thy will.”

April 7, 1989
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

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