In today's Gospel, the angel says, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." The favor in question is not the kind we normally imagine. For us to receive a favor from God means to recover from an illness or some economic difficulty or family problem. But after receiving the grace we want to return to our former life, to get back to "normal." But for Mary the favor she received meant a complete change.
The Angel elaborated, "you will conceive in your womb and bear a son..." To understand this favor we need to grasp some of the background. Today's Gospel says Mary was betrothed to Joseph. This was more than what we mean by being engaged. It involved a public pledge and implied the possibility of intimate relations. But Joseph and Mary had evidently made a promise of abstinence or virginity to each other.
This can seem strange to us, but some of the things we have learned about the Essenes from the Dead Scrolls help to put such a promise in a context. The Essenes had a monastery in Qumran where some of the members lived lifelong celibacy. But there were also married couples associated with them who abstained from sexual relations for short or long periods of time in order to devote themselves more fully to prayer. Paul makes a reference to that practice (which had Old Testament roots) in his first letter to the Corinthians (7:5). Joseph and Mary who were pious Jews may have been influenced by the Essene milieu. For that reason when the angel told Mary she would conceive and give birth to a son, she did not say, "Oh, Joseph and I are going to have a child." No, what she said was, "How is this possible since I have no relations with a man?" Or as another translation say, "since I am remaining a virgin."
The angel Gabriel replied, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you."
With that we come to the crucial point in today's Gospel - and in the life of Mary. In perfect freedom she could have said, "yes," or "no." What she said was, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."
Her response was so different from our first mother, Eve. She tried to make herself great - but apart from God. In doing so she and her husband brought down the human family. In contrast Mary humbled herself, submitted to God and so raised up the family of man. The Church Fathers say that Mary is the "glory of our race." She is the "proudest boast" of the human race.
Her submission to God did not result in a life free of problems. Just the opposite. Did you see the television movie, "Mary of Nazareth"? It depicts her returning to her home town after visiting Elizabeth. By this time Mary's own pregnancy cannot be hidden. She has to face her mother Ann, her neighbors and above all, her betrothed, Joseph. He naturally feels betrayed, but when an angel appears to him in a dream, he too accepts God's plan.
From a human point of view, Jesus could be called an "unplanned pregnancy." But for God there is no such thing. Mary is the model of a valiant woman in difficult circumstances.
Her suffering did not end with the birth of Jesus. Soon after they had to flee to Egypt where they had to deal with a foreign culture. I think of the Holy Family in Egypt (they are depicted thus in one of our stain glass windows) when I see the beautiful couples here from Vietnam or Mexico. Or for that matter the families who are trying to raise their children with Catholic values, surrounded by a culture that is so hostile to our faith.
The greatest suffering of Mary was at the foot of the cross, seeing her son endure gruesome torture and the shame of capital punishment.
Through all this did Mary ever question God? The answer, judging just from today's Gospel, is "yes." To question is normal and good. But did Mary ever doubt God? Never! To make a comparison: it is natural for spouses to ask questions, to try to clarify things. But that is so different from doubt which destroys a relationship. Of course this comparison is weak, because ones spouse is a human being with weaknesses that may require true forgiveness. I know people today sometimes talk about "forgiving God," but I think they mean coming to understand his will. If the unfortunate expression is intended literally, they have not really thought about who God is.
Mary knew that God is a being to whom we can pose questions, but we may not rightly doubt. For that reason she said, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me as you say."
I want to conclude by inviting you to receive God's favor in a concrete way. Before the end of this year, I invite you to do three things. I will work backwards from New Year's Eve.
I invite you to a New Year's celebration, but different from most of the others. At this one we will consider what happened 2000 years ago, namely the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus. Here at Holy Family we will have a Mass at 11 p.m. on December 31. It will be preceded and followed by exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. What better way to enter into the new millennium?
A second invitation: the sacrament of reconciliation. Many of you have not been to confession in a long time. Fr. Ocaņa and I will be available in this Thursday from 1 in the afternoon till 8 in the evening or until all are heard. Last Thursday confessions lasted till 10:30. It was wonderful that so many came. If necessary we will stay again till 10:30 or even 3 in the morning. Our Holy Father has made this plea, "Let no one enter the millennium without experiencing the embrace of God the Father." One of the most beautiful ways of doing that is through a complete and integral confession.
Third, and this is quite simple: That each one of you will pass thru the Jubilee Door. Before our 5 p.m. Christmas eve Mass we will gather at the Roxbury entrance. The northwest door will be unsealed and blessed making it our Holy Door for the year 2000. The first to enter will be the two children representing Joseph and Mary carrying the image of the child Jesus. After them all of us. Awaiting us on the other side will be something very beautiful: the refurbished statue of the Jesus with his open heart and outstretched arms.
God wishes to give each one of us his favor as we enter the new millennium together. We take as our model the Blessed Virgin Mary and ask for her kind of faith, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word."
Christmas & Jubilee 2000
Mary Ever Virgin (Teaching of the Bible and Early Christians)
The Holy Door and the Jubilee Indulgence (How to receive it at Holy Family)
National Conference of Catholic Bishops on Holy Door
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C