Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you."
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel as 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, favored one! The Lord is with you." 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 favor 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 forever, 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.
If you were to ask a married couple how they came to fall in love, they might say something like, "It just happened." In one sense that may be true. In another sense it didn’t just happen. If two people are in a significant relationship with each other, be it marriage or friendship, it is because they have chosen each other. Why does someone choose one person rather than another as a spouse or friend? Why does someone choose to share his or her life with someone else? This is the mystery of human freedom, human preference. The more significant relationships cannot be forced. Love is freely bestowed by one person on another; the other freely receives what is bestowed and freely reciprocates, and a new relationship is born. There is a depth about all that.
If there is mystery in the relationship of one human being with another, even more so in the relationship between God and us. Why did God choose Mary to be the mother of his Son? Why this particular woman in this small village at this particular time of human history? It was the mysterious freedom and preference of God. Yet, there is a difference between God’s choice of Mary and the choice any one of us might make of another. When any one of us chooses another to love or to befriend, there is always, of necessity, an exclusive element to that choice. We choose this person rather than any number of others. Although we choose several people in the course of our lives in each case our choice of one excludes others.
God’s choice of Mary was not exclusive in that sense. In choosing Mary, he was choosing all of us. He chose Mary for all our sakes. God chose her to carry God’s Son on behalf of us all, because her future child was God’s gift to us all. That is why how Mary responded to God’s choice of her was not just a matter that concerned herself. It concerned us all. We all had a vested interest in how she responded. Her response would also be our response. In a sense we looked to her to make an appropriate response on behalf of us all to God’s choice of us.
The good news is that Mary did not let us down. Although initially disturbed and perplexed by the message, she eventually surrendered fully to that mysterious choice of God. Having been graced in this mysterious way, she responded wholeheartedly, "Let it be to me according to your word." God freely chose her, and she in turn chose to place her freedom at God’s service. God’s choice of Mary, and her choice of God in response had the most wonderful consequences for all of us. She went on to sing, "the Almighty has done great things for me." And because of her response to God’s choice, we can all sing, "the Almighty has done great things for us." We have all been graced through Mary’s response to God’s choice of her.
Once rendered mute for doubting God’s word, the father of John the Baptist suddenly regains his voice, to loudly proclaim the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. His is a song of Advent, as we wait for the light that has already come and is still yet to come. Before God’s messenger (Gabriel) appeared to Mary, he came to Zechariah with a startling promise like that first made to Abraham centuries before. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s advanced age is a clear parallel with Sarah and Abraham, when they too conceived their long hoped-for son, Isaac. Zechariah belongs to a priestly rank in Israel and Elizabeth too is a descendent of Aaron’s priestly family. Thus the son they will raise is destined to lead people towards God. Then too, Gabriel promises that John will be filled with the spirit and power of Elijah, a great prophet who turned his people to repentance (Malachi 4:5-6). Zechariah’s doubt at Gabriel’s words parallels Sarah’s unbelieving laugh at the idea that she could bear a child at her age (Genesis 18:12-15).
The background to Zechariah’s song is the biblical belief that God’s promises are fulfilled. When at first Zechariah doesn’t believe, he is rendered mute until the day the promised event occurs. Eight days after John’s birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth take him to be circumcised, following the ritual commanded to Abraham (Genesis 17:12.) When the time comes to name the child, Elizabeth insists that he be given the name John, as God had prescribed. His friends turned to Zechariah, who confirmed the name – and immediately he regained his speech and began praising God, whose promises are always fulfilled.
Zechariah’s song can become our own, this Christmas Eve, as we seek a revived awareness of God in our lives. We see light on the horizon, and await the full, dazzling light of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. We find ourselves in a time marked by the already and the not-yet. A light has dawned but doesn’t seem yet to have reached the deeper darkness in and around us. As disciples of Christ we live always in a kind of Advent-waiting, knowing that the light has come to our world, yet still awaiting for it to shine in fullest measure. We may even, like Zechariah, doubt that such a glorious future is possible. But also with him, we can praise God for the dawn, seeing it as the first shimmering of the final, full radiance of what God has in store.
David and Nathan had plans. But they were not big enough. The wisdom of God was a plan that they could not accomplish: only God could do that. At the annunciation to Joseph in Matthew's account, Joseph had a plan; but it was not big enough. Only God could accomplish the plan.
Mary had her dream – she was betrothed to Joseph. She sounds like an perfectly normal young woman of her time. Although she is portrayed in popular art as extraordinarily devout, Luke says nothing about that. But there was a bigger plan afoot. She knew what Gabriel said was more than she could accomplish. But with the overshadowing of the Spirit, as the spirit overshadowed the waters at creation, it becomes possible. As God spoke a "Fiat" at creation, so now Mary, a most unlikely person, speaks her "Fiat" for the new pro-creation.
Mary is the burning bush, afire with Divine Presence yet unconsumed. She received the Word Incarnate into her womb. Ephraim the Syrian, fourth century deacon and theologian put it strikingly: "It is a source of great amazement, my beloved, that someone should enquire into the wonder of how God came down and made his dwelling a womb, and how that Being put on the body of a man, spending nine months in a womb, not shrinking from such a home; and how a womb of flesh was able to carry flaming fire, and how a flame dwelt in a moist womb which did not get burnt up. Just as the bush on Horeb bore God in the flame, so did Mary bear Christ in her virginity. Perfectly God, he entered the womb through her ear; in all purity the God-Man came forth from the womb into creation."
What are my plans? What are God’s plans for me to be a partaker in the new creation, where my life is my "Fiat": "Be it done." How am I aflame with Divine presence? Like the shoes of Moses, how do I put aside all that can come between me and the Divine presence? (Padraig McCarthy)