FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT (B)
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Have you ever received really good news, even incredible news, from someone that you didn't really know and trust? Did part of you doubt that it was true? Mary received some rather incredible news from God's messenger, Gabriel, in today's reading. But she wasn't the only one Gabriel brought astonishing news to. Just a few verses before today's reading, the angel Gabriel also appeared to Zechariah, a priest who was known to be "righteous before God" (Lk 1:6). This righteous priest, along with his wife Elizabeth, "walk[ed] in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly" (Lk 1:6). In other words, Zechariah and Elizabeth were good, God-fearing, morally upright people. They were people of faith, who lived lives of prayer. One of the sorrows in their life, however, was that they had no children. Elizabeth was barren, and the gospel tells us both of them were getting advanced in age (Lk 1:7). They must have resigned themselves to the fact that they would be childless forever. But God had another plan.
While Zechariah was praying and offering incense in the Temple, Gabriel appeared to him and announced that Elizabeth was going to bear him a son (John the Baptist). Instead of rejoicing, Zechariah did what you or I probably would have done. He doubted. After all, it sounds too good to be true. At their advanced age, they had given up hope. In Zechariah's mind, a child would be impossible. In fact, he tells Gabriel plainly (as if he did not already know), "I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years" (Lk 1:18). In response to Zechariah's doubt, Gabriel strikes him mute until his son John is born.
After this encounter is described, the very next thing Luke does is tell of Gabriel's visit to Mary, which would have happened about six month's later. "In the sixth month [of Elizabeth's pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary." Note that twice Luke refers to Mary as a "virgin." There is an ancient tradition that Mary was a consecrated virgin, a precursor to the nuns of today. This tradition is supported by many Church Fathers, including St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine. If this is true, why would Mary take a husband? According to the mid-second century text, The Protoevangelium of James, Joseph was an older widower who took Mary as his bride to provide her security and protection as she lived her life of consecrated virginity (a practice not unheard of at the time).
So for Mary, who had taken an oath before God to remain a virgin her whole life, the announcement from Gabriel that she would bear a son would have seemed just as impossible as the announcement to the elderly Zechariah. Indeed, Mary asks the angel, "How will this be, since I do not know man?" (Lk 1:34). But there is no doubt in her question. She knows two things with certainty: 1) she will remain true to her vow before God, and 2) God will achieve His will. She is simply asking Gabriel how it is that God will bring this seemingly impossible thing to pass. When Gabriel explains that the conception of Jesus will be an act of the Holy Spirit, Mary gives her fiat. "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to your word." She loves God, and trusts in His love for her.
Both Mary and Zechariah were people of faith. Both strove to do God's will. Both kept the commands and walked in His ways. They were both blessed to be visited by an angel bringing very good (but seemingly impossible) news from God. But when that news was received, Zechariah's response was doubt -- it is too good to be true. Mary's response was faith -- let it be done. You and I have received very good news which sounds even more impossible. God so desires that we be reconciled to Him that He comes to dwell in this world with us and draw us to Himself. He comes not with condemnation, but with mercy. He comes not with contempt, but with love. He comes with peace and joy. And most incredulous of all, He comes as "a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:12). It sounds too good to be true. Yet He comes to us all the same.
Are we hesitant to receive this good news, like Zechariah, because we cannot comprehend how it could be true? Or do we trust God enough, like Mary, to accept this good news with simple faith? Are we willing to ask forgiveness from a newborn baby? Are we prepared to look on the face of a child and proclaim, "My Lord and my God?" That babe is our King, and He offers His love and mercy. You can doubt the offer and reject the gift. Or you can say, like Mary, "Let it be done to me."